By David Hennessy
The manager of a West London soup kitchen says the mental health impact of the pandemic on the homeless and vulnerable has been so severe that he now has to wear a stab proof vest to work after several violent incidents. He says that people who were never violent before are now lashing now because they feel ‘all hope is gone’.
He also says he has seen people who never thought they would need a soup kitchen reduced to relying on its food, including those who have supported them by donating or volunteering in the past and a larger amount of Irish people through the door.
Andrew McLeay, manager of Ealing Soup Kitchen which we have featured before in this report from Christmas 2018, told The Irish World: “It has been a lot harder. The mental health side of things has changed. I think volunteers’ and guests’ mental health have deteriorated because there’s a lot less hope in the world. At least it feels that way.
“Some of the guests’ mental health has plummeted so far that that the things that they’re doing now they would never have considered doing before. There’s some guests that have become increasingly violent to the point that I actually have to wear a stab proof vest to work now.
“One guy brought a knife to the soup kitchen a couple of times.”
Andrew told us earlier in the pandemic that the homeless were dependent on a broken system. While things have only deteriorated since then, Andrew is just happy that it was himself and none of his volunteers that have on the receiving end of the aggression.
“It was to do with social distancing. There was a gentleman who decided he wanted to cut the line. It’s always got to be me to say, ‘No, you have to go to the back of the line’. He didn’t want to go to the back of the line and pulled a knife on me.
“Another one was when the same guy came with a posse of people, ten of fifteen and they were all encouraging him to stab me. They thought it would be fun to do that.
“It’s just the mental health side of things where they just feel like they’re so let down they’re going to take it out on someone.”
“It’s not scary per se. It’s more discouraging because you spend your life building up broken people and then you find that it only takes one or two to then knock the whole dominoes/jenga back down. That’s been really tough.”
“I honestly think they’ve become that way because they feel all hope is gone. They haven’t been put into a hotel or if they have, they’ve been kicked out. There’s nowhere else for them to go. Everyone’s working at half capacity these days. That’s just the way it seems. I’m sure it’s not the case but you try phoning the council, it’s not as effective as it was and it was never really that effective in the first place.
“It’s all a self-fulfilling prophecy. They got promised, ‘No one will be left out on the streets’. Here they are.
“I think a lot of people feel that they’re genuinely alone. I can understand why people feel angry and some will take it out on other people.
“It’s the same with the job seekers: The ones that have lost their jobs and don’t have any money, there’s not that much hope left. They’re applying for these jobs but they don’t seem to be getting anywhere. A lot of these guys started coming at the start of lockdown. They’re still here. They’re still in line. There’s obviously still need. That’s really concerning.”
Dealing with violent incidents has been tougher by the fact that while ordinarily they could be ejected from the premises, there is little Andrew can do when their behaviour takes place on a public street.
“Another time he saw me he tried to run me over with his bike.
“Being on the street is a lot harder. When you’re inside a soup kitchen, if someone pulls a knife or does something, that person can be exited much more easily. When you’re on the street, whose responsiblity is it? It’s a public street. They’re not on our property. How do you enforce that?
“When they have weapons, you can deny them entry. You can’t deny them entry to the street. It’s a lot harder these days to enforce social distancing and good behaviour.
“It’s been tough on the guests as well because they feel scared in line. It’s one thing being scared in a soup kitchen but in line on the street, what can you do about that?
“A lot of homeless folk don’t really wear masks. They don’t believe in it. They don’t care. How do you keep the others that come, the jobseekers, the working poor and the refugees, how do you keep them safe when other people in the queue don’t care.
The restrictions have also prevented the charity from doing what they are there to do which is give people a helping hand or perhaps some company as well as some nourishment.
“We were always a social service. You saw people sitting down and having a chat. It’s kind of what we’re good at. People being in line, it feels slightly inhumane like they’re a number. You don’t want to talk to them too much because you don’t want to encourage them to hang around because they need to get their food and move on. It’s not exactly a loving environment and it’s not the environment I fostered for the last two and a half years.
“When you look at the news, the government doesn’t really have anything positive to say. It’s either about Covid or Brexit. I think it just makes everybody really sad.
“We’ve found that it’s harder now to even just get a team together because people’s jobs have got jigged around. The start of lockdown, everyone was off so we had loads of volunteers. Now it’s really hard to determine who comes down and how doesn’t because if someone is in a particularly social job, sometimes you have to pick somebody else. If they’ve been around too many people, that’s too much of a risk, isn’t it? There’s all these things that we thought we would never have to think about that we now have to plan for.”
The soup kitchen has seen an increase in the demand for its service since the start of lockdown with many people who never thought they need to go to the soup kitchen finding themselves reduced to it.
“We have had a whole bunch of different types of people down. Primarily, we served homeless and vulnerable people before. Now we’re seeing families, out of work folk, the working poor and quite a lot of refugees at the minute.
“Some of them are long term. Some of them started using our service at the start of the lockdown. There’s quite a lot of people who say to us they never envisaged having to wait in line for food and it’s been really difficult for them.
“Now families come down with children and that’s always difficult. It’s a not a place families with young kids should be coming. It’s quite awful to see that but you also get people in Versace suits coming down. They’ve got their suits but they can’t even afford groceries at all.
“It’s a challenge to have to rise to that.”
Andrew has also seen some of the charity’s former benefactors and volunteers having to avail of the service themselves.
“There’s also people coming that used to financially support us or volunteer. We’re helping them. It’s a privilege but it’s also a bit bizarre.
“There’s a few that used to volunteer and then they had to isolate and lost their jobs so we ended up delivering food parcels to them.
“There’s some folk who have donated to us in the past and now they’re relying on food from us. It is strange. I often think about the people who donate to us and what their stories are. I know from looking at PayPal or whatever when someone sends us some money. Then you see the same name email you and say, ‘I need this’ or ‘I need that’. You just think, ‘Wow, it’s come full circle’.
“Sometimes I think, ‘If they knew they were going to be in this situation, would they have still donated that £100?’ It’s horrific people have to be in that situation that they could financially support us and now they can’t even support themselves.”
Some of these newcomers have been Irish.
“There’s quite a number who have come. I know there’s quite a few accents out there, particularly Northern Irish for some reason. There’s a gang of Northern Irish guys that have rocked up that I haven’t seen before.
Ealing Soup Kitchen operate a take away service from the Salvation Army in Ealing 6- 8.30pm on Monday evening.