CHURCHES and Christian charities such as Christians Against Poverty and the Trussell Trust are at the forefront of tackling homelessness and hunger.
One such project is the Ealing Soup Kitchen at St John’s, Ealing, in West London, which runs four sessions a week.
On a break from a busy Friday soup kitchen last month, its manager, Andrew McLeay, says that they do “practical Jesus stuff”: providing approximately 400 people a week with food, clothing, showers, and more.
Mr McLeay says that this is “unsustainable”, however.
The soup kitchen, he says, began because “churches saw a need here that wasn’t being fulfilled” anywhere else, including by the Government.
“They saw people that were hungry and they weren’t being fed,” he says. “And then we started thinking, you know what, these people need a bit more than food. Can we do clothes? We started going on, and asking on the pulpit: ‘Is there anyone who has any clothes?’ So we started getting that sort of stuff.
“And then we’ve evolved into the madness that we run today.”
The office in which Mr McLeay sits talking is the only space that the charity has constant access to. It is, therefore, full of equipment and donations, and, as he talks, he is interrupted frequently by people dropping off and picking up supplies, or asking him questions.
Andrew McCleay (left), with a homeless man, and a volunteer
The soup kitchen runs on Friday afternoons, during the day on Saturday and Sunday, and on Monday evenings. It is “all run by goodwill”, he says.
But much more than soup is offered: people can have a hair-cut, use computers to attempt to sort out their benefits or job applications, socialise, and collect equipment such as phones and sleeping bags.
Mr McLeay says: “I think I’m used to working in environments where you have to speak about your faith. This is really about showing your faith, which is in some ways a lot harder.
“Because you have to kind of continuously be faithful for them, when they’re not faithful, and there’s a lot of depression and low moods and a lot of bad feelings and a lot of really sad people here. And it’s hard to not get bogged down in that, and that’s where faith comes in. So, often, I find myself praying about it late at night.”
He continues: “I think it is getting much worse and that’s partly due to the fact that there’s a lot more people coming over and a lot more services that are stretched.”
His right-hand man, Alan Simpson, agrees that homelessness is increasing. He says: “There’s more and more actually rough-sleeping out on the streets than ever before. . . I mean, even today there’s probably about a dozen new faces.
“It used to be middle-aged, mainly Irish, at one time, but now it’s all sorts. And there’s more women: that’s 20 per cent of the people on the street now.”
Ealing Soup Kitchen has a strong presence on social media. This has increased understanding in the community about homelessness, Mr Simpson says. “People thought it was, like, you’re homeless because you want to be.”
Clive Gibson has been a regular at the soup kitchen since he first became homeless four years ago. He says that Mr McLeay helped him into a night shelter, and then to find accommodation, and he is now helping him to deal with an eviction.
After his latest eviction notice, he says, “with everything going on — and I started drinking and you know, started letting go of stuff, rather than keep on top of what I was supposed to be doing — it was good to come see Macca [Mr McLeay] and get on track.”
Since new squatting laws were introduced in 2012, the plight of homeless people has become harder, Mr Gibson says. Fifteen years ago, you could “always find . . . a derelict building”, and in the “very, very worst” situations, “you could find a stairwell you know, somewhere warm and dry.” But now, everywhere is locked.
Mr Simpson, who used to be homeless himself, says that people go out of their way to ignore the homelessness crisis: “People go past, and they go into almost contortions to avoid looking at that person. Because then you can treat them as less. Once you make eye contact, it’s a human being, and it’s a whole different thing.”
The problems that homeless people are dealing with are becoming more and more complex, Mr McLeay says: he helps people with asylum claims, with the fallout of run-ins with the police, and with medical issues. “We’re finding a lot more people who have serious mental-health problems, who are coming here who haven’t been managed by the police or by nurses or whatever, because they’re are none.”
Mr McLeay says that some homeless people have even got themselves arrested, just so that they will have a bed for the night. “You’re actually forcing them to get criminal records just so that they can get, you know, help.”
St John’s now runs a café-church service on a Sunday, which is attended by many of the regulars at the soup kitchen. “So without sort of preaching at them, they’ve been brought in,” Mr Simpson says.
Volunteers from several churches near by help to keep the soup kitchen going.
Mr Simpson hopes to attract young volunteers who have new ideas. “I said to Andy the other day, ‘Sometimes I sit and I think I’ve got no more ideas.’ You know? And you can get so set in your ways, and any group in any church starts getting older and older and older. And you get more averse to change. So I’d like to see a lot more younger people get involved. . .
“I would love to get a premises where we could really open up 24/7. Yeah, you know — always about money.”