As homelessness continues to rise in the capital, a growing network of grassroots groups are taking matters into their own hands.
Steve Jurado, who works as a creative director and lives in Clapham, decided to take action on homelessness after hearing an announcement on the London Underground telling members of the public not to give money to people begging.
While homelessness has risen over 150% since 2010, homelessness in the capital has reached record highs this year, and deaths are up 20% in England and Wales from last year – the Transport for London announcement said that begging was ‘illegal’ and asked people ‘not to encourage this behaviour.
‘I felt like it was such a cold thing to say, a cold thing to teach us as a society,’ Steve tells Metro.co.uk, ‘so I actively went against that sentiment, and started to engage with homeless people as a result.’
Channeling his feeling that this ‘othering’ of people experiencing homelessness was inhumane, Steve and his wife Gem Porter, an events producer, started serving free meals in Clapham Common.
Their kitchen has been reliably feeding anyone who needs it every Tuesday since early last year.
Guests to the kitchen have been steadily rising – when they started, some weeks they served fewer than ten meals; now, most weeks it’s around 25. Over 300 local community volunteers have joined the Facebook group, looking to get involved.
Steve says that since hearing the TFL announcement and starting to meet more people experiencing homelessness, he’s realised that ‘it’s very easy to think that because there are so many of us bearing witness to homelessness, that someone else is doing something to help’.
Instead, he says, ‘we all need to be showing solidarity and connection on a human level – it’s not a case of charity’.
Steve and Gem started the community meal with the support of a group called Streets Kitchen, one of a number of rapidly-growing groups working on homelessness.
Born out of a squat five years ago, Streets Kitchen is a group set up to support the homeless community with food, essential supplies such as clothes and menstrual products, and information. It’s run by volunteers – many of whom have experienced homelessness themselves – and the founding principle is ‘solidarity not charity’. People all over London have been using their guide to start street kitchens in their own community.
Streets Kitchen isn’t only about providing sustenance for the homeless, says founder Jon Glackin, and it’s definitely not about ‘charity’.
Jon tells us: ‘As a charity you’re handing down support, like you’re ‘better’ than the other person. We act in solidarity, we work with mutual aid, we work together – we recognise that we’re a community who can work together to resolve issues.’
Streets Kitchen works in partnership with The Outside Project – an LGBT+ group that launched at London Pride in 2017 and created the UK’s first LGBT+ homeless shelter and community centre. As well as providing practical support that centres the needs of LGBT+ people experiencing homelessness, they organise weekly socials with films, popcorn, fizzy pop and hot chocolate.
Another organisation aiming to meet the varied needs of different groups of people experiencing homelessness is Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK).
Like Streets Kitchen, RCK aims to build solidarity with homeless communities by building networks of people committed to providing reliable sources of support. Founded in 2015, the organisation has groups in London and northern France – in Calais and Dunkirk, RCK serves 2000 meals a day to refugees fleeing war, persecution, and poverty, from places like Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Eritrea.
In East London, Bob Trafford helps to run a twice-weekly RCK street kitchen. The group of around ten local volunteers serve up to 100 meals each week in Hackney and Bethnal Green, and in the process have nurtured a sense of community.
Bob, who co-founded the East London RCK, says: ‘Solidarity essentially means: there is a problem – widespread poverty forcing people onto the streets, and we want to stand with the people that are in the jaws of that problem, stand right next to them, and fight that problem together in some small way, instead of standing somewhere else, handing down charity to them from some other place’.
As well as the food and other essentials, Bob says the RCK group is about ‘greeting people with a smile, listening, sharing food, and music, and breaking down some of the barriers that get erected between people when it comes to the issue of homelessness’.
Migrants and refugees in London experiencing homelessness face compounded challenges. The services that might be on offer may be inaccessible for people who don’t speak or read English, or those who have English as an additional language. And many migrants have ‘no recourse to public funds’ status – meaning that can’t access basic support such as housing or benefits.
Shaunna Rushton, a volunteer with Streets Kitchen, is part of a growing campaign to fight in solidarity with the homeless around issues such as ‘no recourse to public funds’. This year she started organising with the recently-launched Labour Homelessness Campaign – a group of Labour Party members and homelessness campaigners pushing for the Labour Party to take a strong stand on homelessness.
Shaunna says: ‘I got involved with Streets Kitchen and the Labour Homelessness Campaign because – as a human and a Londoner – I felt an urgent need to show solidarity with those experiencing poverty and exclusion in our painfully unequal society’.
The Labour Homelessness Campaign had a motion passed at the Labour Party conference this year. Among their demands are an end to the criminalisation of homelessness – people sleeping rough often receive fines and other sanctions for simply existing on the streets – and an end to ‘no recourse to public funds’ status for migrant rough sleepers.
‘As someone who campaigns around homelessness, what really makes me hopeful is that I see more and more people, groups of people, rallying together alongside homeless people, being led by them,’ says Shaunna.
Part of this increasing solidarity has included more direct action linked to the homelessness crisis. Last year, Streets Kitchen activists and allies occupied an empty corporate-owned building to open a community shelter, and just yesterday,activists occupied a tunnel beneath Parliament that was barricaded shut to stop homeless people sleeping there.
Bob says that he hopes more people will resist society’s dehumanisation of people experiencing homelessness, and show active solidarity.
‘The alternative is what we see every day,’ he says, ‘and it’s shocking that we’re learning how not to look at homeless people, or interact with people who are in need.
‘You come out of the station and hear a voice and by the time someone has asked you for some change, you’ve already said “Sorry, I’ve no change”, and you haven’t even looked around.’
Bob says communities need to wake up to the fact this ‘automated’ interaction is in fact ‘really shocking, actually kind of terrifying’.
Jon from Streets Kitchen is hopeful that things are changing.
Through the strengthening network of grassroots groups organising around homelessness, Jon and activists like him hope more Londoners will rally around the crisis on our streets.
This Sunday, a coalition of groups – including Streets Kitchen and The Outside Project – are hosting an event to help do just that. Shock to the System: a community response to homelessness, held at Union Chapel in Islington, is an open event for everyone concerned about the rising homelessness crisis, and will include panel discussions, performances, and a documentary screening – all with the aim of fostering solidarity with those on our streets.
‘I believe that people are beginning to understand homelessness once more,’ says Jon, ‘people are realising that it’s close to them, that many of us are just a paycheck away from it – Londoners have always been showing solidarity, but sometimes people just don’t know how to help.’
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