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Food Is More Than Just Fuel for London’s Homeless

As London’s homeless population grows, the question of how—and what—to feed rough sleepers becomes increasingly important.

by Suze Olbrich
Mar 26 2015, 11:50am

Photo via Flickr user Victoria Johnson

More and more people are eating on our streets, and it has nothing to do with the food truck trend.

Tracy sits on Hackney's busy Mare Street almost every day. She developed a drug addiction with her ex-partner, and began using with friends. After losing their savings and home, the friends vanished.

"No one said, Come on Tracy and Mick, sleep on our sofa tonight, or there's a slice of bread, or 50p," says Tracy.

She had an eating disorder, a breakdown, and ended up in hospital before she was accepted into a hostel. She started using again and is now back on the street. Despite being clean and suffering with mental health problems, Tracy says the council will not help as she "wasn't an emergency without kids."

"It's a crying shame," she says. "I've been in Hackney all my life, and that don't count for nothing." Thankfully, Tracy has been accepted into a women's refuge after contacting her previous drug workers, and is currently waiting for a bed to become available.

But what is the right thing to give to rough sleepers like Tracy as you pass on your way to the shop? The quick answer is to just bloody ask, but it's a question that is complicated by society's overflowing vat of food options and restrictions.

For most rough sleepers, food is slightly less complicated. It's fuel. It can create a space to socialise. It provides an opportunity to be recognised as an individual, and the chance to be treated as such.

Tracy requests strawberry-flavoured, vitamin-fortified yoghurt drinks from people who stop to ask, and as we talk, a girl hands her one.

READ MORE: Homeless People Are Eating Tiger Shark in Texas

The number of homeless people living in London last year was reported to be at 6,508, a 77 percent rise since 2010. But that doesn't include the number of "hidden homeless" squatting or making do with unstable living arrangements, or those forced to claim emergency housing from local authorities: 110,000 households applied for it last year, with just under half approved.

As London's homeless population continues to grow, so does the disparity between the citizens who can and cannot afford to eat.

Jolene and Lisa Marie sit on opposite sides of Broadway Market, one of London's prime "foodie streets" jammed with cafes and market stalls hawking organic vegetables, fresh bread and Costa Rican coffee beans.

Homeless since the age of nine after growing up with an alcoholic mother, Jolene is trying to get the money together to stay in a B&B. When I ask, she requests a chocolate croissant and a Coke.

"People say they know how you feel, but when you've lost a baby, they don't. I started drinking so I lost my flat. And as I made myself 'intentionally homeless,' the council won't touch me," she explains. "I'm off the drink, but it's hard. There's not enough help out there for people like me."

What is the right thing to give to rough sleepers like Tracy as you pass on your way to the shop? The quick answer is to just bloody ask, but the question is complicated by society's overflowing vat of food options and restrictions.

Lisa Marie's story is similarly harrowing. Originally from Ireland, she moved to London 13 years ago after being diagnosed with HIV. She is soon to go into a refuge and start a detox programme.

"My family disowned me after my diagnosis, so that's how I became homeless," she says. "Then I started taking heroin."

After talking with Lisa Marie, she asks me for a beer. I have a momentary qualm about this, but who the hell am I to decide who should drink what?

I add a juice and some snacks to the bag to alleviate some of the guilt.

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Charities and community organisations step in to help those like Lisa Marie and Jolene. The Pavement is a magazine that covers news from the streets and issues affecting homeless people. It also helps to publicise available food services.

"We have seen a real increase in the number of people who are living in extreme poverty, though not always homeless, who are relying on free food services," editor, Karin Goodwin tells me. "With the massive increase in people being sanctioned, you have people living in complete destitution for weeks at a time."

Trainees on the Providence Row catering training programme. Photo courtesy Providence Row.

But the difficulty isn't just connecting homeless people with food services, its what to give them when they arrive.

"Organisations have a responsibility with how they use food. If you provide a service that sustains life on the streets then you're potentially not doing the clients any favours," says Dominic Gates, training scheme manager at East London homeless charity, Providence Row. "If you're a soup kitchen then that's important work as people need nutrition and food, but that on its own isn't helping to tackle the underlying issues of why that person is homeless."

As well as helping to arrange accommodation and providing drug and alcohol services, Providence Row runs a catering training programme. The ten-week scheme is available to anyone who has experienced homelessness, and gives trainees the opportunity to create dietician-approved menus under the guidance of professional chefs. The charity also runs its own bakery, supplying local cafes with cakes baked by the homeless trainees.

"With people that are misusing drugs or alcohol, we find that once they start doing something meaningful and seeing what they can achieve, they start getting excited about life again," says Gates. "For example, if you're a drinker and want to be up in the morning to go to training, you're going to drink less at night."

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The SWAT. van loaded with supplies. Photo courtesy SWAT.

On the other side of London, SWAT, the Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team, are also using food to connect with the city's homeless. Having vastly reduced homelessness in the area of Southall, the organisation is now using its resources to assist in central London.

The SWAT van pulls up twice a week at The Strand to dish out hot vegetarian meals of pasta, pizza, samosas and berry crumble. The majority of users are rough sleepers, but the organisation has also seen greater numbers of people struggling with food poverty.

"I used to see people that didn't look homeless, and tell them to get to back of queue," SWAT founder, Randeep Lall tells me. "Then I realised that a lot of people come with mental health issues, and a lot of people are just so lonely."

Known as langar, the provision of food is a key tenet of the Sikh faith. It is the service of providing vegetarian food for anyone who needs it.

"It's the community bread basket," says Lall. "Everybody puts in and whoever's less fortunate takes out. It is a support mechanism for everybody."

The Strand on Friday night is crammed with hungry people—and not just those waiting for the SWAT van. The thoroughfare is a central hub for restaurants like McDonalds and the more upmarket Terroirs, as well as tourist-luring bars.

"I used to see people that didn't look homeless, and tell them to get to back of queue," SWAT founder, Randeep Lall tells me. "Then I realised that a lot of people come with mental health issues, and a lot of people are just so lonely."

Kiran and Sean are two of a large, disparate group of men waiting not for a table reservation, but for the SWAT van. Slightly pissed—and sweetly apologetic about it—they're here more for the convivial atmosphere than nutrition.

"I'm a proper, old school geezer," Sean tells me. "Anyone messes with him [Kiran], they've got me to deal with."

I also speak to Marin, a chef originally from Romania. He explains that it's not a lack of work that has caused his reliance on food services such as those provided by SWAT.

"There are plenty of jobs here. I could work in a restaurant or bakery through an agency tomorrow, but there is nowhere to stay," he explains. "I can't sleep in the street and go to a restaurant to work."

I help Fernanda, a member of Christian charity Fast58, dish out the evening's food. She has taken great pride in shopping for ingredients, ensuring each night has a hot helping of fresh chicken and rice, as well as a vegetarian option.

I hand out the delicious-looking bags of fruit to the long queue assembled. Those that pass along are mostly of late youth to middle age, matching the statistics on rough sleepers, but they appear of varying levels of means, as well as nationalities.

Eventually, I head off find to my own dinner, feeling extra grateful that I can afford to buy it—although my wine and cheese are nowhere near as wholesome as the fare over the road.

But I can choose to neglect to eat lavishly or restrictively; healthily or gluttonously; alone or with friends, flatmates or family. For a growing number of people, the only option is to eat whatever is being handed out.

Tagged:
Munchies
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Sikh
homeless
Bakery
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hidden homeless
SWAT
Mare Street
Catering
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Langar
Providence Row
The Pavement