Across college campuses, students’ unions are used to dealing with emergency appeals for help – but this year, they say, there are more requests than ever before.
The ripple effects of rising rents or long-distance commuting costs mean more students have less to spare for food and other essentials.
The fact that a food bank run by University College Cork students’ union ran out of supplies in less than 50 minutes was a surprise to many – but not to student leaders such as Edward Grant, welfare officer with Letterkenny Institute of Technology’s (LYIT) students’ union.
While the accommodation crisis is most acute in cities, it is also badly affecting students in regional towns.
“The numbers looking for support this year is ridiculous – it’s harrowing to see so many people who are so vulnerable,” says Grant.
“Rising costs mean some students are worrying about having to drop out of their course or not finding anywhere to live or having enough to put food on the table.”
Two local hotels, he says, have been full due to demand from students for accommodation, which starts at €45 a night.
“It means students can’t afford much outside of that. It’s also harder to find part-time jobs,” says Grant.
The union refers students in need of emergency support to the local chaplain or the State-funded Student Assistance Fund.
Fr Liam Boyle, LYIT’s chaplain, confirms that demand is up this year compared to previous years.
“The accommodation issue is putting stress on students. They are travelling longer as a result, which is putting huge demands on them; not just financially, but it’s physically and mentally draining facing into a long commute in the dark evenings.”
At University College Dublin, demand for emergency assistance has traditionally been strongest among refugee or asylum-seeking students.
This year, says the union’s president Ruairí Power, Irish students are more likely to be looking for emergency support.
It has been quietly running a food voucher scheme for dozens of students who are most in need. Due to rising demand, it is in talks to set up a food bank such as UCC’s.
“The students facing food insecurity tend to be those who’ve moved up to Dublin and can’t afford rent or have had to move out of accommodation suddenly, for a variety of reasons,” says Power.
Over at Dublin City University, Dean O’Reilly, the union’s welfare officer, says a perfect storm is resulting in record numbers seeking financial assistance.
“The delay in the release of CAO offers means first-year students had just a couple of weeks to find accommodation and, in many cases, are paying extortionate rents,” he says.
“We’re also hearing of Susi grants which were delayed until recently and then the general rising cost of living … it’s no surprise to us that some students are homeless or can’t afford rent or are struggling with food.”
One of the college’s societies – the Raising and Giving Society – has started its own foodbank in response to students’ needs.
While there has been some critical social media commentary questioning the genuine level of need among students given the numbers socialising, O’Reilly rejects this.
“The students who are looking for food need it. It’s the case that there is nothing left in the press. I’ve never known students who can afford food to go looking for it,” he says.
The Government, meanwhile, says it is responding to the growing level of need through its Student Assistance Fund, which supports about 14,000 students with costs such as rent, childcare costs, transport costs and books.
It says it is working closely with the Higher Education Authority on the best way to disburse the €9 million fund to individual colleges.
While the fund is a vital source of support, says Grant of LYIT, red tape means it can be several weeks before a students can get access to financial support.
“The fund is important, but by the time an application is processed, it will be the Halloween break. So, students end up scraping by through anyway they can in the meantime.”