There have been long, socially-distanced queues in Trafalgar Square this week - but people weren't lining up to see the latest exhibition at the National Gallery. They have all been guests of the new Homeless Refreshment Station, under the Fourth Plinth which started up on Monday. Organised by Caritas Westminster with the Sikh charity Nishkam Swat, the project offers drinks, snacks, toiletries and other takeaways for the growing number of homeless people stranded in a deserted central London.
Since the lockdown began, central London churches - including St Patrick's, Farm Street and the French Church - have been serving hundreds of breakfasts and evening meals, thanks to the generosity of Claridges and the Connaught Hotel. Now homeless people also have somewhere to go during the day.
Anthony Doran, from the lead parish, Farm Street in Mayfair, explained that his group, which also includes volunteers from Westminster Cathedral, Holy Apostles, Pimlico and Holy Redeemer Chelsea, work on Monday, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Holy Apostles has loaned their mini-bus to carry trestle tables and supplies. The team, (who supplied their own personal protection equipment - PPE) give out hot and cold drinks, snacks, and cookies donated by 45 Park Lane Cafe at the Dorchester, toiletries and takeaways. Anthony said: "One the first day we had 75 guests. On the Tuesday 85 people came. By the Wednesday there were 140. We think we can take up to 250 altogether."
"These people need our support. People don't realise - with this lockdown - even most public toilets are closed. When the weather is warm its not so bad - but when it starts raining its miserable out there."
The Sikh charity Nishkam Swat takes over on Thursday and Friday - as well as sometimes offering evening meals in the Square. CEO Randeep Lall told ICN that besides hot and cold drinks they offer veggie wraps with hash browns, mushrooms, veggie sausages and biscuits. This week they were also able to give t-shirts, caps, rucksacks and reusable coffee cups.
When the Covid-19 lockdown began on 23 March, it was reported that the Mayor and Government had committed more than £10m to providing London's rough sleepers with "hotel accommodation and support during the pandemic."
A press release from City Hall on 14 April stated that "more than 1,000 homeless Londoners are now self-isolating in hotels and other safe locations across the capital, thanks to the work of the Mayor Sadiq Khan's rough sleeping team, boroughs and charity partners."
No one was available to answer enquiries today, but it would seem that there are many more homeless people now in central London than there were at the start of the lockdown, many of whom have not been housed yet.
Randeep said: "Some of the people who had been given rooms in hotels, settled well, but they were given very little food and no support. We've heard some horror stories. Some were given frozen meals but they had no microwaves. If someone has a mental health or drug problem you can't just give them a room. Its a recipe for disaster. They need more support. "
He added: "To be honest though I don't want to point the finger at anyone. For us it is an honour to be able to serve the homeless. We embrace and value this opportunity to be able to serve in this way."
Several people attending the Refreshment Station appear to be newly homeless - staff from the hospitality and catering industry, and others, who have lost their jobs and live-in accommodation - and have nowhere else to go.
Anthony Doran said: "This looks as though its going to become a growing problem - but we will be here doing as much as we can for as long as we are needed."
Fr Dominic Robinson, SJ, Chair of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Westminster and Parish Priest of Farm Street Church said: "Since the lockdown seven weeks ago this has been an emergency situation and remains so as the needs have escalated daily. We all need to be grateful for the incredible generosity of the volunteers from the Catholic Church and other faith groups.
"The situation has brought the best out of ordinary Londoners who simply want to step in and help. Without the local hotels and others stepping in to provide hundreds of meals every day, completely free of charge for seven weeks, these homeless would be in very dire straits. In the past week alone Catholic parishes involved have also received £8,500 in generous donations to go towards these homeless services. This has truly been a great team effort between faith groups, local hotels co-ordinated mainly through The Connaught, the police, local residents and the Westminster City Council who have gladly accepted the offer of help. There is, however, still much more to be done for the up to 200 homeless still on our streets at this most dangerous of times and we are still actively looking for accommodation through Catholic Church networks and food services from hotels".
Fr Robinson went on to say: "As this crisis on the streets continues, the Catholic community must also ask who is really accountable for this clearly serious gap in provision being filled by the Church, other faith groups and hotels. It is particularly disturbing that our volunteers in Trafalgar Square are daily meeting desperate people who have requested but are unable to be accommodated and so many who have lost their jobs and are newly homeless as a result, it would seem, of the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis.
"But now is not the time to point the finger of blame in the midst of these complex circumstances. Rather it is time for us as faith groups, businesses, residents and local government to continue to work together to meet these vital needs of the most vulnerable victims of this current crisis. It is a time for recommitting ourselves to the most vulnerable under our noses so that the homeless will not simply be forgotten when the lockdown ends.
"It must be the hope of all involved that government will continue to work together with faith groups and agencies to ensure every individual who finds themselves homeless in these unprecedented times is given the offer of shelter, sustenance and the respect and dignity they deserve as human beings made in the image of God".
Colette Joyce, Justice and Peace Co-ordinator for Westminster Diocese, said: "Westminster Council Rough Sleeping Team have been working miracles to get rough sleepers housed and supported in hotels but they have had to turn to the faith groups to provide the majority of the assistance to those still on the streets. We have mobilised volunteers and donors to give generously of their time and resources and we will continue to do so as long as necessary, but this shouldn't be happening. The Council staff need to be given more resources - including more accommodation - to get people off the streets and into places where they can isolate properly to protect themselves and others from disease transmission. The government should also be ensuring that new cases of homelessness are prevented or picked up and resolved immediately.
On VE Day 1945, Trafalgar Square was a place of jubilant celebration. In 2020 it saw only those in desperate need of something to eat and drink and some human care. This is a shocking situation has to be dealt with as soon as possible."
Westminster Cllr Pancho Lewis, (Lab) told ICN: "Basically my view is that first and foremost we need to make sure everyone who we can possibly house is housed. The Council and government were good at getting people housed in the initial phases of lockdown but now seem to be doing too little and moving too slowly. This is very worrying and I've been pressing them to take action.
"In the meantime, those who are stepping up to support the vulnerable through foodbanks and soup kitchens - including Catholic, other Christian, and people of other faiths - need our support and should be applauded for their tremendous efforts."
Farm Street Church: www.farmstreet.org.uk/ (Includes details of donate facilities to support their work.)
Nishkam Swat - https://swatlondon.com/
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