Rates of homelessness and hunger in London are reaching crisis point.
London supermarkets are throwing away an estimated 115,000 tonnes of food every year. Yet more than 875,000 people living in our city regularly worry about where they will find their next meal. More than 150,000 people are without permanent accommodation, and charities suspect that anything between 8,000 and 10,000 Londoners are sleeping rough.
Hackney is one of the worst offenders: 6,167 Hackney citizens do not have a home to call their own.
Almost ten years ago, one Hackney man set out to help those struggling on his doorstep.
Errol Francis established the Storehouse in 2010 after having spent several years giving his Saturdays to serving hot meals to the homeless on Mare Street. He intended to run the charity and community kitchen alongside the Regent’s Chapel, where he is Pastor.
“We aren’t just a soup kitchen, we aren’t just a food bank service, we aren’t just a church. We’re all of that, and so much more,” he proudly says of the project.
Errol has helped hundreds of Hackney’s homeless and impoverished over the last eight years, offering hot meals and food packages. Every week, four local Tesco branches, alongside the Marks and Spencer store in Westfield, provide Errol and his volunteers with “tonnes” of sandwiches, tinned food, and other cupboard staples.
It’s not just food, sleeping bags, work and medical advice that people can turn to Storehouse for. Often as important is the comfort that Errol’s users find in the anonymity and friendship at the kitchen.
“When people come to us, we never quiz them on their background, why they’ve come to us, or where they’re from. This is just somewhere they can feel that they can come in and get a hot meal without anybody criticising them or scrutinising them.”
Errol is obviously infinitely passionate about the men and women that he works with, seeing them as friends, not just professional colleagues. As we chat, we begin discussing the fatal stabbing in Homerton the previous evening.
“When I heard about [the stabbing] I was terrified that it was one of our guys,” he says.
“We’ve lost two this year, not through crime, just because of the conditions that they are living in. It really upsets the other guys that come here. They lose a friend. They were down and sad for weeks after that.”
It’s unsurprising that there is a sense of community among the Storehouse members and volunteers; their numbers are growing by the week.
“When we started, we were helping anything between seven and 15 people each week,” Errol tells me. “Now, eight years later, we can get up to 70 people visit us on any given Sunday. We’re seeing new people every week.”
Storehouse’s visitors have also changed through the years. “What’s been surprising to us is that we’re seeing more and more females attending,” says Errol.
In response to this, the team are trying to organise the collection of female sanitary products to grow the services they are providing to tailor-make a service around them.
Helping people’s wellbeing is another huge part of what the Storehouse team do. Access to the NHS can be difficult when you’re homeless, and sometimes, Errol, his wife Patsy, and the rest of the volunteers provide some of the very few human interactions the service users will have in any given week.
“One person is living in a hostel, he has mental health issues and other issues, but some time early last year he turned to us as pastors.
“He had a massive growth that was coming out of his neck. He was putting it off and putting it off until one Sunday he showed my wife. She suggested to him to go straight away to the Homerton Hospital. They said if he had left it another week or two it could have spread and it could have taken his life.”
Given how crucial this service seems to be, it’s no surprise when Errol tells me that the number of people using Storehouse has grown in recent years. With visitors regularly coming from as far as Tottenham, Errol is confident that it’s the confidentiality and friendship of the service that are driving up the numbers.
“We don’t pry, but they are welcome to come. When they come, they see the type of organisation we are, the tonnes of food they get to eat and take away with them. They are appreciative, and they are respectful as well.
“I’ve heard this more than once, somebody said that when they come to this soup kitchen, they don’t play up, like when they go to other soup kitchens they might play up. You can read into that what you want. We are approachable, we always try our best to learn their names, so that when they come through the door, it’s ‘hello Jack, hello Peter, hello Paul’, so we try our best to get to know their names, and then we get to know them individually.”
It is that companionship and compassion of the volunteers that keep Storehouse running.
“The great thing is, people are actually giving up three to four hours when they come to us of their own time on a Sunday. They’re not asking for anything else in return, but they’re quite happy just giving up their time for those less fortunate. That has been one of our biggest success stories.”