Thursday (19th March) saw the strangest but most necessary development since we began our ‘Meals for the Homeless’ project in Ilford. For months we have been trying to provide a safe atmosphere for London’s homeless to meet, share fellowship and enjoy a hearty meal.
However, this week we planned to take the service out into the open to ensure our practice was ‘COVID-19 compliant’. Social-distancing has become a buzzword commonly used to describe the introduction of a new temporary culture in global society, no longer to the British shake hands or the French and Italian kiss cheeks to welcome one another. Instead we see young and old people touching shoes or clothed elbows in an attempt to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic.
This goes against the cultural norms of most people and for our group in particular goes against the grain of what we have been supporting, which is the building of bonds amongst homeless people so that they no longer feel socially-isolated and build friendships that serve to improve knowledge of available help and support.
To make things work and in response to Government guidelines that have little advice for day centres like ours serving the rough sleeper community, we have had to devise our own operational practices.
Initially we obtained permission from the neighbouring Prince of Wales Pub to move our operation onto their large car park. We then brought along a small PA system with microphone and were ready to advise people who came to stand at least 6 feet apart while waiting for the boxes of food we would serve for each one fresh from our level 5 rated (food hygiene) kitchen. The homeless were then to take their meals away and exit the car park whilst maintaining the 6ft spatial gap between them. Finally we were to sanitize our table, equipment and our hands to complete the service.
But of course, things went wrong.
During the time of our service provision the clouds broke forth with rain, leaving us in a dilemma, firstly because Redbridge Council had refused our request to borrow a gazebo from them. Secondly because it would have been cruel to make homeless people who had travelled from across London to eat with us stand in the pouring rain while we served food – which would only weaken their immune system and create a whole host of other risks.
We are quite fortunate that the local homeless stagger their entry to our centre and so we made a dynamic risk assessment and altered our operational plan again. We allowed no more than five homeless people into our centre, spacing our chairs at least 6ft apart form each other. We instructed all the homeless people that they were required to wash their hands thoroughly and rub them dry with disposable kitchen roll before they would be allowed to eat. We then gave our containers of food to each homeless person and asked them to leave immediately after taking their food. After this we sanitized the chairs that were sat on before the arrival of the next batch of people.
All in all it went quite well. By a miracle we never exceeded the number of people in our centre despite serving our biggest ever attendance of 36 homeless people. Moreover when we ran out of food we were able to buy some food from the local chicken shop for the last two of our guests – not as healthy as our boiled rice and chill-con-carne but sustenance nevertheless.
A major issue we are finding with feeding the homeless in this current Covid-19 period, is that we are now queuing for hours each day and having to go to at least 6 shops per week, to simply remain legally compliant. To counter this BACA have placed a request with Tesco Head office calling for charities like ours that are supporting +70 year olds’ and people who have chronic health conditions and illnesses who are self-isolating, and the vulnerable homeless – should be given access to the ‘silver hour shopping’ allocation currently for +70’s and NHS staff.
Tesco have already sent our details to local stores to garner a response and Sainsbury’s hope to confirm what they will offer or not, later today (Saturday 21st March). This could open a pathway for many other charities across the UK to continue their services unhampered giving hope to large numbers of affected vulnerable groups.
On Wednesday morning BACA also served their first caller to our self-isolation support group. Joel Kyari a man known to the BACA who has a Chronic kidney condition was helped with some food gifts from our food bank. Last week he had an operation to remove a kidney and he has been forced into self-isolation. You can watch a video (here) or in the embed below:
Juliet Chowdhry, Trustee for BACA, said:
“It is inevitable that charitable groups will all have to redesign their operational practices to continue working safely and hygienically.
“The threat of COVID-19 is one we all have to collectively stamp out together – it’s not just something we can leave in the hands of the experts.
“We have a duty of care to one another that must result in practices that reduce opportunities for infections.”
“We are sometimes met with upset, as some end-users simply do not understand how serious the COVID-19 threat is.
“Even those over 70 years of age find the new practices grating, but that is to be expected, after all, many years of assimilated culture have made us very social beings – coupled with a God-given affinity for interaction with one another of course.
“However, groups must ensure that they maintain professionalism and ensure instructions are adhered to and reasons for changes to operation explained in full – it is the only way to quell argument.
“Prayer for our nation is a must for all Christians – we must bring our fears and desires before God with full vigour.
“He is our hope in times of trouble.”
Hannah Chowdhry, said:
“I hope more people recognise the need to support the vulnerable people in our communities.
“Working with the homeless has it’s challenges but it is a rewarding experience – I have a good rapport with many and consider them friends.
“These are the people that will be first to be forgotten and the one of the most at risk – some we serve are above 70 and others near that age.
“knowledge about COVID-19 is limited amongst them and we have been doing our best to make them understand.”
BACA is desperate to help the many people we are supporting during this COVID-19 outbreak. Our work can only continue for as long and as much as you support it. If you feel moved to donate to our work please click (here).