The first meeting of the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) in Ireland took place in December 1844 when 19 men, the founders of the Society in Ireland, met in a room near the Four Courts in Dublin and began to make plans to relieve the severe poverty, hunger and destitution they witnessed in the city 175 years ago.
SVP in Ireland today is involved in a wide range of activities with the aim of alleviating the effects of poverty and helping people who are struggling to get back on their feet. While Irish society has changed beyond recognition since the first meeting of the SVP in 1844, many of the same issues persist for individuals and families who are struggling. In 2017 SVP received almost 140,000 calls for help and spent over €500,000 every week helping individuals and families in need with the costs of food, fuel, housing and education.
In addition to providing this practical support and friendship, a key part of the mission of the SVP is to work for social justice. Frederic Ozanam, the founder of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, instructed the first members of the Society: “You must not be content with tiding the poor over the poverty crisis. You must study their condition and the injustices which brought about such poverty, with the aim of a long-term improvement”. Approximately 325,000 people are living in consistent poverty in Ireland, including 132,000 children. Consistent poverty means living on a low income and going without essentials like adequate heating, clothing, furniture and not being able to afford to take part in social activities like meeting friends.
SVP’s 11,000 members across Ireland visit households living in poverty, often in poor quality, cold, over-crowded, expensive and insecure housing. Our members meet children and young people who are unable to benefit fully from access to education; we see parents struggling with unemployment and lack of access to decent jobs; we visit people seeking asylum living in direct provision centres for years on end and our members call into hotels, B&B and other emergency accommodation due to the scandal of homelessness. An emerging issue with the economy now almost at “full employment”, is in-work poverty – with more than 100,000 people living below the poverty line in spite of having a job.
Many of the people SVP assists cannot afford a Minimum Essential Standard of Living, which is a standard which meets physical, psychological and social needs at a minimum, but socially acceptable, level. This means that they are dealing with a shortfall every week, a gap between the income they have and the income they need. Recent research carried out by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice on behalf of SVP, found that families with an inadequate income work very hard to make ends meet and use a myriad of coping strategies, going without adequate healthy food at times, juggling bills, borrowing money and cutting back on expenditure on clothing, personal care, health, education, transport, household energy and social inclusion.
Over time, resilience is eroded, debts begin to mount, health problems and other challenges are exacerbated. Living on a low income is very stressful. Parents try to protect their children from the effects of poverty but are not always able to: as one parent explained:
In 2012 the Irish Government agreed a target to reduce consistent poverty to 2% or less by 2020 and to lift 70,000 children out of consistent poverty by that date. However, in spite of this ambition, poverty rates are not falling to the extent needed to meet the targets. Too many people are being left behind. The Global Goals for Sustainable Development aim to eradicate poverty in all its forms by 2030. If we are to meet our ambition of ending poverty, significant investment is needed in good quality, affordable and accessible public services, as well as improved income, supports for people both in and out of work. St Augustine said that
Working for social justice is at the heart of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, and we will continue to challenge poverty and inequality and advocate for investment in policies which will make a difference in the lives of people who are struggling and will result in a fairer society for all of us.