Friday Food has gone through a rapid transformation over the last week as a consequence of the pandemic and lockdown. Due to the fast pace of developments, I have not had time to share up until now.
On Friday 20 March Friday Food met as usual for our weekly meal, our last meal prior to the announcement of a lockdown the following Monday when Richard, with sadness, took the only decision he could: we had to suspend Friday Food with immediate effect. The guests had already been informed that we may have to shut at very short notice and that, in any event, we would continue to support them as long as we reasonably could.
On Thursday 26 March I had a call from AHAG, who work alongside Oasis (drug and alcohol outreach), Connections (housing outreach) and AVDC under the RSI (Rough Sleeper Initiative). They had settled on a plan to get all rough sleepers off the streets if at all possible. We were asked if we could help.
AVDC had procured the use of 10 rooms on the ground floor of a local hotel for the use of high-risk homeless people, plus the services of a security company to provide 24-hour security cover. "Could we continue to provide hot meals?" we were asked. Even extend our provision? Guests were moving in to the hotel the following day, no food would be available.
Lots of phone calls and emails flew around for about 24 hours, after which a plan emerged. Each group (see card above) did their own day and the next, and Joseph (one of our Security stewards) took responsibility for Sunday with the support of the Labour Action Against Poverty Group. I am coordinating the Quaker and Methodist teams who, for logistical reasons, have been combined for this particular project, forming a single "Quethodist" team covering the four days (as above) for which the combined projects are taking responsibility. Over 20 people have volunteered so far, without whose generosity, commitment and compassion food help would not have been possible. I have created a rota of a driver and a cook for each night, trying to match people who share geographical proximity. We have to be prepared to commit to this for many months potentially. I have also had kind offers of support from others who due to their age or vulnerability cannot offer to help with the practical tasks required. At this stage there is no need for financial help, but prayer help always more than welcome!
On Saturday 28 March we went "live" with the meals, with Joseph cooking and delivering the first meal. I dropped off a few things from our supplies to keep them going for snacks, and a couple of games. If anyone has unneeded books of sudoku, crosswords, puzzles, old magazines, or simple things for the guests to do when they get bored with television etc let me know.
RSI workers are still communicating with the rough sleepers to persuade them to use the rooms. Many are happy to have a bed. Some not. Those with alcohol and drug addictions will have additional challenges: is this the right time to go cold turkey with no support available??. Some anticipate feeling constricted and trapped spending 24/7 alone in a small room. In addition, there are new rough sleepers appearing on the streets (possibly as a result of relationship tensions due to the lockdown). As of yesterday, 5 of the rooms were filled – one by a young woman 7 months pregnant. Two more guests in today. (I hasten to add, this is not the only provision – other guests have been sent elsewhere with food support already in place.)
The three security men were not initially provided with a room, but have now been allocated one by AVDC for them all to share (social distancing issues spring to mind here!). They have no cooking facilities. They have organised their own rota each doing 8 hour shifts 7 days a week. They are all Welsh, don't know Aylesbury and seem to be on tenuous contracts. The company are unclear about whether the men will stay for the duration or be replaced weekly (not good for guests, obviously). Life is not easy for anyone, it seems!
The Hotel reception staff are friendly, accommodating and supportive. They have already gone out of their way to help make things comfortable for the guests and easy for us.
The project is also being supported by Tesco's allowing our cooks to access their stores to collect items for cooking, and providing sandwiches for the guests at lunchtime.
Obviously, our regular provision on Monday's will remains suspended for the foreseeable future, as we adapt to this new role. If anyone has the desire to help and ideas for how they could do so, please let me know. Kevin, Zack and I are communicating regularly.
A huge thank you to everyone who has offered their support and encouragement. Please pray for the hotel staff, security team, the RSI planning team, guests and all those helping in their various capacities.
On behalf of myself, Kevin and Zack
29 March 20