The 'coping classes' could keep their heads down when the recession hit, now even they need the SVP, writes John Meagher
Michael Murphy has volunteered with St Vincent de Paul for 30 years but the Limerick man has never known demand to be so high. And Ireland's most popular charity is struggling to ensure that all those who need help this Christmas get it.
"The recession of the 1980s was bad but it wasn't as severe as this one because now people are lumbered with crippling debt, whereas then they weren't," he says.
"In Limerick, we've had a record number of calls this year and 15pc of those are from people contacting us for the first time. We go to see them and when they open the door the first thing they say is: 'I used to donate to St Vincent de Paul ? I never thought I would come looking for help.' But when you think about how this region has been decimated by unemployment, is it any wonder?"
Michael lists off major companies that had a significant presence in Limerick.
"They're all long gone," he says. "And there have been no replacements. There's a huge shortage of jobs out there, especially for unskilled labour, and Limerick's unemployment rate is far in excess of that of the rest of the country. In the three most disadvantaged estates, St Mary's Park, South Hill and Moyross, the jobless figure is over 60pc."
It's all a far cry from this week's feelgood story that the latest unemployment rate of 12.5pc is the country's lowest figure in three-and-a-half years.
"We're seeing none of that uplift in Limerick," he says. "There's real despair here, and not just in the city: there's a high rate of suicide in the county. That's not all down to poverty and debt, but some of it certainly is."
Earlier this year, West Limerick coroner Brendan Nix described the 85 suicides in five years in the county to be tantamount to an "epidemic".
Rory McCauley, an SVP area manager based in Wexford, paints a similarly bleak picture of Ireland's south-east. "Some pockets of the country, especially parts of Dublin, may be recovering, but we're not seeing that here," he says.
"Enniscorthy has 26pc unemployment at present and the figure for the county is around 20pc. The people who've been hit hardest are the under-25s who've seen their jobseekers' allowance slashed. The theory is that less money will encourage them to go out to get jobs, but what if there are no jobs to be had?"
Rory says there is even greater demand this year than in 2012. "Last December, the Waterford centre took 550 calls across the whole of that month ? this year the same centre took 110 calls on just one day, December 1. For the first few years of this recession a lot of people in the so-called coping classes kept their heads down and did as best they can, but now many are finding that, with the best will in the world, they just can't make ends meet and need help from somewhere.
"We just hope that the people who do need us reach out to us, because it has never been St Vincent de Paul's policy to knock on doors uninvited."