Not just a crisis at Christmas: Video report from Ealing Soup Kitchen

Mary Whelan O’Neill dishes out the soup.

A soup kitchen in Ealing is seeing a large amount of Irish people taking them up on their service as the numbers of those sleeping rough reaches a record high.

Andrew McLeay, Ealing Soup Kitchen Manager, told The Irish World: “We’re finding that nowadays lots of Irish people use this service, there’s a lot of older Irish guys and girls, and there’s a few in their 30s and 40s.

“Some of them tell you a lot about their lives, They’re generally pretty open people, I find.  Some of them are homeless , some of them aren’t, I think we’ve got a young guy at the moment who’s homeless but most of them are in hostels or in council flats and they’re regaling you with stories of when they used to go to Donegal or somewhere like that, to the fair.”

Pride can prevent them from returning home or even informing their family at home about the hard times that have befallen them.

“There’s some younger guys that have come through and I guess they probably moved to London thinking it’s that sort of city that you can make it and then it just doesn’t happen. And I think it’s a lot of pride. A lot of the guys that I’ve spoken to, their parents and their family don’t know that they’re homeless. It’s this thing of going, ‘Yeah, mum and dad, I’m going to go and make it in London’ and when they don’t, ‘I don’t want to appear weak’, so they just think, ‘It will get better, it will be fine, I’ll get support and I’ll get out’. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way.

“It’s all too common. It’s a really, really sad thing. It’s a hard adjustment and it’s a hard life. I know that a lot of them have had hard lives in Ireland but some of them still prefer the life here to life in Ireland and I find that strange, a strange thing to comprehend.

“Quite a lot of them come over here because they’ve got nowhere else to go. Maybe they don’t get on with their family or their family have died so they feel that there’s nowhere to go home to. A lot of the Irish I speak to have this sense of community and I feel as though a lot of them probably feel, ‘Well once my connection to that is gone, I can’t connect to that anymore so I’ve got to make a life here. ‘, which is sad.”

Andrew adds that in addition to the Irish using the service, there is a large number of Irish people who help out: “It’s nice because we do have a couple of Irish volunteers as well, we’ve got a girl who volunteers with us who is a singer-songwriter from Dublin called Orla Gartland. She volunteers with us and it’s great because she can have a chat with a lot of the Irish guys and they love it because of the accent. An accent from home really does make a difference for them.”

Recent figures revealed someone goes homeless in London almost every two hours. 3,985 people slept rough across the capital from July to September 2019, a 28% increase on the same period last year. 2,069 of these people were new to the streets which means new rough sleepers were up 50% in 12 months, meaning 22 people go homeless every day.

This comes along with a greater reliance on food banks even by those in employment.

Mary Donegan, a Mayo volunteer with the soup kitchen, told The Irish World she sees how easy it is for anyone to find themselves out on the street: “There’s a few things that could make anyone end up on the street: If they lose their job, they can’t pay their mortgage. If they become ill, if a relationship breaks down. Those things can cause people just to become homeless, it’s so simple and we’re just fragile creatures. These things can happen to anybody, you don’t have to be a particular type of person. It can just be life.

“When I look at the faces, they tell a story. They tell a lot of suffering and they tell a lot of hardship so I feel very drawn to these people and I do feel great empathy and compassion for them, quite frankly.

“It is something that makes me sad. I do see the same people coming here a great deal.”

The Irish people reduced to going to the soup kitchen can vary in age and sometimes have issues with mental health or addiction: “One thing I know about is with mental illness, people never fully seem to be over it. I often think when I see them, ‘This is why they keep coming back’.

“I think the system has failed a lot of people. It’s an awful struggle for people to access the system. For a lot of people who can’t even come out of their homes or wherever they happen they’re staying, I can see how easily they can fall apart because I know people who have mental illness particularly and not to mention those with drug and alcohol problems. It’s the same cycle, same scenario.”

Another volunteer Mary Whelan O’Neill says that the homeless problem tends to get ignored due to other topics dominating the news: “I think this Brexit thing has taken over so people aren’t talking about the homeless and this housing crisis. It hits anyone, people are only two weeks away from being on the streets so we need to help people.

Mary with two of her fellow volunteers.

“It can happen to anybody. Two weeks of not paying your rent, you can be on the streets. We need to reach out. There’s a big crisis out there, there’s an epidemic out there and we need to get the word out. We need people to help and sponsor Ealing Soup Kitchen and please we need it sooner rather than later. It will get worse over Christmas but it’s not just a crisis at Christmas, it’s a crisis all the year round and we need your help. Please look up the website and help us.”

Mary, whose parents come from Donegal and Kerry, adds that support is needed for the soup kitchen to keep doing what they are doing: “The Irish love feeding people. We need help. Homelessness has tripled in the last two years so people are crying out for help.

“We do get a lot of Irish people here and especially on a Monday. We would like a lot more Irish people in because actually there’s a very big Irish community in West London and in Ealing, huge Irish community, so we’d actually like to spread the word a bit more. The door is always open. The Irish door is always open, come down.

“It can happen to anyone, within two weeks you can be homeless and we should have a lot more empathy. There’s a housing crisis in London, and homeless crisis and we need to have our arms open and help these people. We should be empathetic to these people who have fallen on hard times. There’s a lot of mental health issues, addiction issues, we need to help these people.

“We need more help and more sponsors and more irish people to come to our soup kitchen.”

Geraldine Brady from Churchfield in Cork, who volunteers and uses the service, told The Irish World: “”It could be any of us in the morning, couldn’t it?

“I was looking to help the homeless last year and I found this place but then I got ill and my husband got ill. My husband passed away so I came up again a few weeks ago, I’m back now. I love helping them, mixing with the people and it’s good for me.

“Sometimes I get a bit homesick and I think I’d love to see my brothers, my sister but my mother and father are gone. They all have their own lives. It’s nice to to go back but this is my home now really. Since I came over here, I worked, did loads of part-time jobs fitted in around my kids. This is it, I’ll end my days here.”

There have been sponsored sleep-outs professing to help the homeless but Geraldine says of these: “They have it advertised everywhere now on the internet, ‘Go and find a church to sleep in overnight to see what it’s like to be homeless’. But sure that’s not seeing what it’s like really, lying in a church. What about the people outside? I think they could do something like this (helping in a soup kitchen), that’s more useful really: Hands-on rather than sleeping in a church and getting someone to sponsor you and get some money. I think if you see the people and you understand the way they’re living, it’s better.

“More people should do it. What is it? A few hours.”

Mary Donegan adds: “We all have our own personal struggles but one of the things I find about coming to the soup kitchens is- I think I have my own problems in my own life, I come down here and it puts everything in perspective. When you see what people have been reduced to and how they have to struggle, it puts your life in perspective and I come back frequently full of gratitude that I have a comfortable bed to sleep in. It puts everything in perspective.”

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