Homeless charity volunteers brave the elements in Newry sleep out

November 28, 2016

Newry Helping The Homeless volunteers gave up their cosy beds on Saturday night to brave the cold temperatures during a sleepout to raise funds for the charity and to increase awareness of the plight of the homeless.

Scores of volunteers slept under the stars on Hill Street, fortified only by hot teas, coffees and sandwiches generously provided by Synge and Byrne and Art Barfunkel’s.

The challenge, which brought all the volunteers a small step closer to understanding the reality experienced by homeless and vulnerable people, was made all the more poignant in the wake of the death of a homeless man in Dundalk overnight on Thursday.  The man, Paul “Bilko” Gorman, had been a grateful recipient of the Newry charity’s services and, according to Tomas Mac Seoin, one of the founding members of Newry Helping the Homeless, his death had hit the group of volunteers hard and provided a stark reminder of the harsh reality of life on the streets.

The fledgling voluntary group was set up by Tomas and his friend Trish Crimmins just seven months ago in response to the deaths of two homeless people in Belfast last winter.  In that short space of time their volunteer team has grown to around 130 people.

Speaking to The Examiner ahead of Saturday’s sleepout event, Tomas explained how the pair were already involved in the annual “Bite and Banter” Christmas Dinner in Newry’s Gateway Club, before deciding to set up a group dedicated to helping those sleeping on the streets in the local area and beyond.

The response to the group has been overwhelming and teams of eager volunteers have managed to bring generous donations of warm clothes, blankets and hot food received from Newry people to the homeless on the streets of Dundalk, Dublin and Belfast on a weekly basis over the last number of months.  Whilst sleeping rough is not as prevalent in Newry as in other cities, Tomas is keen to stress that Newry Helping The Homeless has assisted and supported anyone they have discovered to be sleeping on the streets locally and highlighted the prevalence of “sofa-surfing” in the city as a major concern to be addressed.

Locally, the group have built up a relationship with the Simon Community in Newry and often work in collaboration with the homeless service at times when the Simon Community cannot accommodate a homeless person.

“The Simon Community have called on us for help where they have been unable to provide a bed for someone in need and we are only too happy to help out and offer such support whenever we can,” said Tomas.

“We are proud of what we have achieved since starting up seven months ago and we have a great presence on social media now where people often contact us to alert us to someone they have seen who might need our help.”

With the problem of rough sleeping at crisis point in Belfast and Dublin, the Newry charity devotes a lot of its time to sending squads of volunteers to the cities where they give out drinks, hot food, sleeping bags and clothes to the homeless and vulnerable.  Qualified hairdressers who volunteer with the group also provide free haircuts for those on the streets in a unique initiative which Tomas believes can make a huge difference to the life of someone living on the streets.

Of course none of the vital work carried out by Newry Helping The Homeless would be possible without donations and Tomas commends the people of Newry and beyond for their amazing generosity.   He told us Saturday’s sleepout event was important for raising awareness of homeless issues to the wider community and in helping the group gather much needed funds via sponsorship and donations so the charity can continue to help those sleeping on the streets.

“We have been overwhelmed by the response from local people since we set the group up”, says Tomas.

“Any requests we put out on Facebook are answered and we now have a dedicated team of people who cook to order the hot food required on our night runs to Dundalk, Dublin and Belfast.

“We have a consistent flow of donations of clothes, sleeping bags, toiletries and blankets but we can never have too much so we would ask people to check our Facebook page regularly for items that are needed most at different times.   Sleeping bags are always needed and we appeal to anyone considering donating to us to purchase a cheap sleeping bag which we can give to a homeless person, especially during the winter months when they are needed most.”

Currently the group are running a Christmas Shoebox Appeal asking people to fill shoeboxes with toiletries, socks, hats and scarves and, once again, the reach of the charity’s social media profile has resulted in a fantastic response from individuals, schools and local businesses.

“People have been amazingly generous and we hope that continues,” Tomas added.

“We are so thankful to all our volunteers who give up so much of their own time and effort to support the vital work we do – it is a real commitment, especially as most of us are holding down jobs and families while doing this.  We always need volunteers so I would ask anyone who feels they can dedicate time to the homeless cause to contact us via our Facebook page.”

No-one can be in any doubt as to the commitment of these tireless volunteers, especially following Saturday’s sleep out in such adverse conditions, and with the winter months upon us, their help is needed more than ever.   The charity leader says Newry Helping The Homeless aims to continue to try to make a difference in the lives of the homeless in Ireland and he hopes the people of Newry will remain steadfast in their support and renowned generosity to enable the group to help those without a roof over their heads.