By Chris York
“Bless this food and nourish our guests.”
There are seven golden rules in place at this Glass Door homeless shelter but, as the 11 volunteers say a brief prayer before opening the church to 35 guests this evening, this little line captures the essence of them all.
“It’s a quiet space that we try and make like a home as much as possible,” says Rachael Lindsay, communications officer for the charity.
The menu this evening is vegetable soup, fish pie and trifle – a three-course meal for 35 people plus the volunteers, cooked fresh on an astonishing budget.
James Burke, 30, is the venue’s chef. “We’re restrained a bit with the budget but we do the same thing every week. Tonight we spent £55 for three courses, around 40 portions.
“The main course we did tonight was fish pie and we always make sure the soup is vegetarian. Last week we had a guy who is vegan so we did a pasta dish for him.”
This year, providing what people need has proven particularly difficult – and the people seeking shelter provide what appears to be a snapshot of the wider failings of Britain’s social safety net.
A report by housing charity Shelter revealed on Tuesday that homelessness in England had risen to 280,000 – an increase of 23,000, or 9%. London is the worst affected region, with a shocking one in 52 people now classed as homeless, but the highest rise has been in the north-west, where there has been a 117% increase.
Matthew Falk, 31, is the venue’s shelter manager. “Everyone has a story,” he says.
“We’ve had several guests who had been in hospital recently. Living on the street makes you more susceptible to getting sick. We had one guest who was undergoing chemotherapy and tonight we have one pregnant guest.
“If someone has no immune system they should be in a private residence.”
This is just at one of the shelters – Glass Door runs 35 across the capital, all of which have similar stories.
“We’ve had three pregnant women now,” says Lindsay.
“There was one lady who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. She had nowhere else to turn, stayed with us a couple of nights and then our casework service worked with her during the day and we ended up funding her accommodation for her in a hotel until she gave birth.
“The oldest person we’ve had was 83. And we’ve had people coming out of prison which obviously isn’t ideal if you’re supposed to have an address to go to.
“Services are falling down and we’ve been taking people in.”
The Glass Door homeless shelter operation is slick and efficient. It operates in seven London boroughs and each one is called a circuit. On each circuit, there are seven churches, one opening each night of the week.
Those registered move round the circuit each day as they do whatever they must to get off the streets.
It’s designed to make sure the guests don’t become reliant on the service. They’re only allowed in for a period of 90 days, and aren’t supposed to use the service more than twice in five years.
The ultimate aim of the shelter isn’t to take people in – it’s to get them into a place where they don’t need to use it again.
Farid* is almost there. The 42-year-old Algerian is starting a new job as a pub chef on Monday, hoping to put his long-dormant skills as a cook in a Michelin-starred French restaurant in London to use once again.
“I wouldn’t have been able to get the job if I didn’t have somewhere to eat and sleep while I looked for work,” he says.
Farid has family and friends in the UK but his sense of pride means they don’t know he is using a shelter and he hasn’t asked them for help.
“I don’t want them to know I am here,” he says.
Inevitably, however, there are darker stories. Luce* is 46 and from the Congo, a country ravaged for decades by wars largely forgotten in the west but that millions of lives.
Luce sought asylum in the UK but was denied and now lives in legal limbo, neither a citizen of the country in which she lives nor the one she tried to leave behind.
She is learning English and wants to work. Her eyes light up as she describes what she wants to do.
“I could earn money, pay taxes and contribute to the UK but I am not allowed,” she says.
Gesturing around at the others in the shelter, she adds: “There are so many people who could work but just don’t have the right papers.”
Once the three courses have been eaten, the tables are folded away and replaced with camping mats and sleeping bags.
Thirty men bed down in the room and five women sleep in a separate area to the side. A night manager makes regular checks but there is rarely any trouble – those who made it in know they’re fortunate to be there.
“Demand has been really high – we have 100-plus people on the waiting list,” says Lindsay.
Glass Door is completely paid for by fundraising. It needs £60,000 to run all 35 shelters over Christmas.