By David Hennessy
The manager of a west London soup kitchen says that despite the government promising to house all homeless for the enforced lockdown, many have been left on the street or have already kicked out of their accommodation.
He says the desperate times have become frightening even to those hardened to life on the streets. Although some never asked for any help before, they are now reaching out because they don’t want to die on the streets.
Andrew McLeay, Manager of Ealing Soup Kitchen, told The Irish World: “Some of these guys have been homeless for years and years but they are now scared. They don’t want to get it. They don’t want to die on the streets so they’re like, ‘Can I please get into a hotel?’ So I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do what I can’.
“It’s horrendous hearing them on the phone just the desperation that they have. I work in the soup kitchen and I see desperation all the time but it’s not like this. This is different.
“When someone gets made homeless for the first time, there’s like a quiet sobbing where they feel like the reality of what’s just come upon them is just too big but we’re generally really good at making them feel calm and like they have options. Now there’s no option.
“Now when they call me, a lot of them are just weeping down the phone and there’s nothing I can do for them. That’s just the worst feeling in the world knowing that there are these people out there who have been completely abandoned and we’re powerless to do it because we have to rely on the council.
“We’re now dependent on a system which is entirely broken.”
Andrew says that many hotels do not want to take homeless and the council does not have the money to convince them.
“What the council is telling me is, ‘They’ve told us to do it but they haven’t given us any money to do it’. If the government demands that these councils do these things, how come they’re not actually equipping them with the right tools to do it? It’s like they’re just saying it for lip service rather than actually because they want to help.
“The council haven’t been given any extra money to house these people and they have to negotiate with hotels who are currently open. They have to go to a hotel and say, ‘How much would it cost to put these people up?’ Quite a lot of hotels don’t want homeless people in their hotels so they will quote them some unreasonable amount of money so the council can’t afford it.
“If we’re giving those packages to people who are out of work and to people who are self-employed and to big bosses and we’re stopping rent and we’re stopping mortgages, why can’t the government give money to the council to pay for hotels?
“They’re not even supplying NHS staff with PPE. They can’t even do that so what chance do homeless people have?
“Celebrities are rallying around the NHS and trying to raise awareness for that. Everybody thinks the homeless are housed so it’s alright but it’s not , there’s still loads of them out there. They’re probably spreading the disease. I feels a bit like a broken wheel. I don’t think anyone knows how to fix it.”
Andrew says that while he has been referring homeless people to the council, whether they get housed or not is a case of pot luck and one out of every three he tries to help actually gets put up somewhere. Of the 60 people who contacted him as the lockdown had just been introduced, roughly 40 were still on the streets more than three weeks into the lockdown.
“The only thing we can really do was put them up in hostels and quite a lot of them aren’t accepting people because they’re being circumvented for other reasons whether they’re becoming NHS treatment rooms or they are just shutting down to the general public.
“I was working with the council to try and house some of them. The council’s process was that I needed to make a referral to StreetLink.
“That’s why there was such a huge amount of people that weren’t housed but I imagine this is a similar situation all around London. I don’t think it’s just an Ealing thing. I wish it was but I really don’t think it is.
“I make this referral to StreetLink and the council when they find them, then they can put them onto The Chain which is a national homeless database. Then they’re officially registered and they can do something about it, they can put them into these hotels.
“If you just see someone and they’re homeless, why can’t you just put them up? I don’t understand why they have to go through such a rigmarole of having to be seen first.
“The problem was because they were going to have to go and see them, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to find them and even if they do, they might see one person, not another.
“I had an example of three guys who were out on Ealing Common and they were in a tent in the middle of the park and the StreetLink guys came. They took one and the other two just got left there. I referred all of them but they took one and not the others. One got housed, the other two got screwed. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Andrew adds that the initiative only works for homeless people who have phones. Knowing many don’t, Andrew and his team have tried to get phones to their clients but know there are still lots of homeless out there who could be missing out on hotel accommodation they’re entitled to for the sake of not having a mobile.
“This only works with the ones who have phones. Others don’t have phones. There are still plenty out there who don’t have phones.
“This was all in papers and all over the news but what if they don’t get papers? What if they don’t read the news? What if they don’t understand English? How are they going to know that they are even entitled to a place?”
Andrew has housed people with the council’s help only to see them get thrown out of the accommodation and questions the logic of this.
“There’s also the other issue. I housed a guy called Tony recently and within about two days of him being there, he had been kicked out for drinking or something. This is the problem. If they have issues around drugs or drinking or whatever and if they’re going to kick them out, what was the point of putting them up in the first place?
“I relayed all the information. Some of them got in, some of them are still waiting.”
Despite the government introducing measures to stop landlords evicting anyone during these uncertain times, Andrew has had people come to him who have been illegally evicted.
“In one instance there was this guy asking me for help. He was in private accommodation and he hadn’t paid his rent but the landlord got angry and actually threatened him with a baseball bat unless he left. so he was like, ‘I don’t want the trouble. I’m just going to leave’.
“Then he had nowhere to go. I got him into a hostel for about a week or so until I could try and get him into the council. He’s still on the streets.
“There was another guy who wouldn’t leave so the landlord got his entire family and moved them in and actually moved them into his room. Then they put all of his stuff in a garbage bag and stuck it out by the door so he didn’t feel like he had a choice, he had to go.
“All this really dodgy stuff is happening. People are supposed to be coming together here. They’re not supposed to be against one another but this is what’s happening.”
Homeless people have also become a target for people who blame them for the spread of the disease, abusing them and asking them why they are not in the accommodation that they believe has been provided.
“People were coming up to them getting really aggressive because they were out but they didn’t have a choice, they didn’t have anywhere to go and shouting at them and they were like, ‘What do you want me to do? I dont’ have a place to stay’.
“They were all like, ‘That’s bullsh*t, the council put everybody up. You don’t have any excuse’. They would just look at them and they thought, ‘Do I bother arguing with this person or do I just walk away?’
“But they have also had people cough at them and cough on them: Just horrendous stuff, there’s no need for it. I guess they just see homeless people and think, ‘No, you shouldn’t be out, you’re infecting other people’.”
Ealing Soup Kitchen is open Saturday, Sunday and Monday for takeaway service. They are also doing a home delivery service to help those people on their books who are infirm.