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Helping the homeless on our doorstep

Helping the homeless on our doorstep

January 18, 2017

There is a very good reason why Ealing Soup Kitchen is holding a celebrity postcard auction in March: The drive of a man who is hoping to help the homeless and raise your awareness of their problems at the same time.

“When I came to Ealing from Australia nine years ago I was homeless for just one night but it was the worst experience of my life and motivated me to never be homeless again. I was lucky but others aren’t.”

So said Andrew Mcleay, worker with homeless people at the Ealing Soup Kitchen, which is based primarily at St John’s Church in Mattock Lane, Ealing. He has been there since 2014 after a spell working in mental health and also volunteering for the charity in his spare time. “I am passionate about trying to do something about the awareness of homelessness,” he said. “London can be a weird place. We are all so busy and people often don’t talk to each other.

“I hope by raising awareness of homelessness that a few less people will treat someone who is homeless with disdain. I think it is sometimes because a homeless person can seem rude but this is usually because they have developed a shell as a defence against an expectation of being treated badly by others – they are used to rejection; while others have developed mental health problems through the constant battle with isolation, depression and a life of constant anxiety. Some are urinated on while they sleep – and the sleeping bag of one man was set on fire not too long ago. You cannot expect many people to then act ‘normally’ in that situation. There’s a smorgasbord of stuff that makes them who they are and how they behave now. Maybe as a community we can all do something to help, however small.”

Andrew Mcleay, Julian Bell, Jen Wadcote and Alan Simpson at the soup kitchen
Andrew Mcleay, Julian Bell, and volunteers and trustees Jen Wadcote and Alan Simpson at the soup kitchen

The auction on Saturday, 18 March gives you the chance to claim signed postcard art – with a twist. You can read more about it later in the story…

A year of evening drop-ins

In April, Ealing Soup Kitchen will celebrate a year of its Ealing Evening Hub being open on Mondays – at the Salvation Army hall in Leeland Road, West Ealing. At this, homeless people can come in between 7-9pm for snacks and drinks, to play games like table tennis or pool, or just to relax or talk. But the charity also offers practical help such as access to clothing and sleeping bags, advice on benefits and other financial support – and even haircuts. Some of the clients are referred by Ealing Council when it is unable to help, and from another homelessness charity St Mungo’s, but most come via word of mouth: “There is a social network among homeless people,” said Andrew.  “They can come for a hearty meal, music and chat.”

The Monday night hub was possible through a Postcode Lottery grant, and it is the only place open in the borough on a Monday evening. This is particularly important because rough sleepers cannot bed down for the night until everyone has gone home from the pubs – otherwise they tend to face abuse and harassment.

Food bank vouchers can be available at the Monday hub; and a limited number of Oyster card top-ups are also provided to help people reach other shelters and food because different shelters open on different days and at different times. As Andrew put it: “If you have only had three of four hours’ sleep, you get really tired walking all day.”

The charity already ran a ‘hub’ service on Friday afternoon (1-3.30pm) each week and had done so for more than a decade, and it opens on Saturdays and Sundays too as a soup kitchen (3.30-5pm) – which it has done since 1973. It is funded by a group of 10 local churches, including St John’s, called Ealing Churches. The churches come together to run a winter night shelter, as well, between November and April.

Getting off the street: Success stories

You can watch a video on one of the ‘success stories’ on this page. Alan Simpson, who is now a trustee of the charity and a volunteer worker, used to be homeless and a client there. “He is a great example of what a homeless person can achieve with a bit of support,” said Andrew. “And Alan is able to give brilliant advice because he’s been there himself. Alan says the worst thing is the isolation, which is what causes a lot of the mental health issues among homeless people.

“I think if I’d been homeless myself for a second night, it could have broken me because you feel so depressed and alone. It is easy to come by alcohol and drugs to numb the pain and boredom, which only makes things more difficult for those who become addicted.

Table football is one of the activities and games available
Table football is one of the activities and games available

“One former client slept on a bench in Walpole Park for 20 years and had become institutionalised to life on the streets – it becomes all you know. But it is amazing to see the transformation in him now. He has somewhere to live, he goes shopping and he’s even got a mobile phone.

“It takes a big mental effort to get yourself off the streets. You have to work hard for it and not everyone is mentally well enough to do it. We tend to think that if someone stops coming it means they may not need our help any more, which is great. I always hope and pray that is the case. Some come back to tell us how their life has changed but others do not.”

Andrew is hoping the Monday and Friday hubs will eventually be able to offer legal advice and perhaps a nurse for minor medical treatment – and the building will have a shower available to use later this year, too. But this all requires funding, which is where an auction on 16 March can help.

The celebrity postcard auction

Andrew sent blank postcards to an array of celebrities and asked them to draw a picture on it and sign the reverse side. He did the same among the homeless clients at St John’s.

Among the many celebrities to help out (some of whom may come down to the auction night) were: Judi Dench, Jessie J, Alan Shearer, Freddie Flintoff, Alan Titchmarsh, EL James, Amanda Redman, Jim Carter and his wife Imelda Staunton, Jeremy Corbyn and Jerome Flynn.

The idea is that everyone who attends the auction will pay the same price – and will each receive a postcard picked out randomly. “They could get a homeless person’s card or they could get Judi Dench’s,” said Andrew. “It is all about dispelling the myth of there being an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ – no one is worth more than anyone else and we’re all human. It should also be a fun evening.”

‘The work they do benefits the whole community’

Council leader Julian Bell paid the soup kitchen a visit recently and was impressed by the service. He said: “Being homeless is a stressful and unpleasant thing to experience and the council’s priority is to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. The council has trained staff, and access to outside experts, who will help find a way to help. And, indeed, more people than ever before have been turning to the council for help with housing. But sometimes people choose not to go through the system for whatever reason, or the council might not be able to help them, and in those circumstances charities like Ealing Soup Kitchen, Acton Homeless Concern and St Mungo’s are invaluable. The work they do benefits the community as a whole – not just those it feeds, listens to and provides shelter for.”

How can I help?
Acton Homeless Concern

Mayor of Ealing, Councillor Dr Patricia Walker, chose Acton Homeless Concern as her official charity during her year in office. She has been fundraising and also ran an appeal for donations of clothing before Christmas.

She told Around Ealing magazine in September: “As a mother and grandmother I know that, for most people, a stable home is tantamount to a palace. The work undertaken by Acton Homeless Concern is so important to many people struggling to access the support and services many of us take for granted.”