'The number of free meals we dish out has doubled in 10 years' - Capuchin Centre
Charity groups and soup kitchen operators say they have been stretched to the limit in the run-up to Christmas due to a sharp surge in the numbers of families with small children seeking out their services.
Br Kevin Crowley, of the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin, said Ireland's alarming homelessness statistics are reflected in the growing need he sees on a daily basis, particularly from young families.
As he and his team prepare to hand out around 3,500 Christmas hampers to the poor and homeless today, he pointed out that the number of free meals distributed by his team of volunteers every day has doubled in the space of just a decade.
"The situation out there is desperate right now," he said.
"Just this morning, for example, we've had about 300 young mothers in looking for nappies and baby food.
"What's really noticeable is how much worse it's got for young children.
"It's absolutely appalling in this day and age that we've got young children coming who need feeding and other essentials, and until the Government starts building houses and getting these poor families out of the hotels, this is only going to get worse.
"We barely have any space left now in our family room and we are having to build an extension."
So great is the demand for provisions at the Capuchin Day Centre that volunteers are handing out up to 1,700 food parcels every week, on top of the 500-plus lunches and 300-plus breakfasts.
"There's also a lot of people out there on the streets who are just too afraid to seek shelter in hostels because of drug addicts," Br Kevin added.
It's a similarly desperate situation at St Clare's Hospitality Food Kitchen in Carlow, which has seen demand for free meals surge by 50pc since the service first opened four years ago.
Manager Michelle Maddock said: "We've grown every single year since we first started. In our first year we served 12,500 meals and by the end of this year that number will have increased to about 18,000.
"We see all walks of life in here, including rough sleepers, people who've fallen behind on their bills and need helping out, and families with young children. In most cases, high rents are affecting people.
"We keep hearing about how well the economy is doing, but there's little sign of it over here. There's so many people suffering and there doesn't seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel."
A similar picture is painted by the Knights of Columbanus, which expects to provide up to 3,000 takeaway festive meals, and a further 500 sit-down dinners, at Dublin's RDS on Christmas Day.
Committee member Adrian King said: "There's definitely been an increase in the numbers of families attending.
"We'd rather not have to provide this service, but there is a great need out there."