It’s almost dinner time at Shelter From the Storm, an inspiring and unusual homeless shelter in Central London. Delicious smells of home-cooked food fill the large, open-plan living room where a string of round tables topped with brightly colored cloths is ready for service. At 6:30, the guests start to arrive, hurrying in from the chilly evening. Some help themselves to mugs of steaming tea or coffee; others take a quick shower before the food is served.
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In the kitchen, a handful of young volunteers set out the cutlery and a stack of 50 plates needed for the meal. When the food is ready, the guests come to the counter for it before joining one of the communal tables. That’s Shelter From the Storm‘s most important rule: Here, everyone sits together to eat and share their experiences of the day. Those might be holding or looking for a job, sitting in a public library, or being out in the streets. The shelter operates from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.
“Homelessness is on the increase in London, though it’s hard to put a number to it,” says Sheila Scott, who co-founded and runs the live-in shelter that houses a maximum of 48 guests, many whom stay for more than a month.
“Unfortunately we turn away about 20 people every day that we just don’t have beds for. We try to help as many people as possible to find work, because without work it’s almost impossible to find housing. But some are just not able to and have lived here with us for several years.”
There are some happy outcomes, though. She proudly quotes a 40% success rate in finding work for shelter guests. (Finding lodgings is more difficult.)
Tonight’s menu is basmati rice with a fragrant chili — in meat and vegan versions — that’s been cooked by Andrew Hardwidge, a modern dancer better known for his avant-garde work with choreographer Tino Sehgal. He’s one of the regular volunteers who cook at this shelter. The volunteers are from all walks of life, and include professional chefs, financial workers and art students as well as former guests at the shelter. And the emphasis is on real food.
“You won’t find processed food or even soups here,” Scott says. “We’re nothing like the stereotypical soup kitchen. For us, food underpins a life in which people are members of a community, where they can feel safe to share and resolve their problems.”
In the beginning, they relied on handouts and supermarket food that otherwise would have been thrown away. Now most of the shelter’s food is either bought by them or given by loyal suppliers who understand their needs. “After all, you need fairly large quantities of each ingredient to feed 50 people at each meal,” she says. The chili started with crates of fresh red peppers, zucchini, eggplants and onions donated by a local greengrocer.
The shelter’s residents receive three meals a day, 365 days a year, for free. Breakfast is taken before 8 a.m., when the guests leave for the day; lunch is usually a sandwich provided by a London supplier; dinner is always a cooked meal, eaten at the shelter.
Shelter From the Storm is located in an unprepossessing industrial warehouse in the hinterland behind King’s Cross Station, in what was once a rough, no-go red-light district. Today the area is being gentrified, and new luxury apartment blocks are springing up within the maze of train tracks, canals and through roads.
“We were lucky to find somewhere so central, but soon this area will be financially out of our reach,” Scott says.
In the meantime, she spends her days fund-raising and providing the guests with free legal aid and counseling.
They come from all over the globe and all kinds of situations.
“We’re an independent charity, so we can accept people who are fleeing domestic abuse, ‘honor’ killings, trafficking and slavery as well as those who have fallen into homelessness through job loss, illness or substance abuse.”
The shelter began eight years ago as an emergency night center, and referrals for the 20 women’s and 24 men’s beds come from the police, Red Cross, social services and other agencies.
As for the food, it’s prepared with fresh produce and enough care to accommodate the guests’ diverse cultural, religious and health needs.
“We no longer use pork here, and always offer a vegetarian option,” says Olivia Fairweather who, with her partner Haydn Appleby, runs the Tuesday night cooking crew. “We’re attentive to people with diabetes and other food-related conditions that are often exacerbated by life on the streets. But we’re free to cook whatever we want, from lasagne, gumbo and moussaka to curries, fish pie and stews.”
Scott finds a deeper significance in the cooking process. “What matters is the symbolism of the fire that transforms the work of people chopping raw ingredients in the kitchen into nutritious food,” she says. “Feeding people well is integral to the healing process.”
The guests agree. “I never imagined how important it would be to me to eat a hot meal at a table again,” says a young man from the Basque part of Spain. “I was lost when I came here, a month ago, but with their care and support and great food I am beginning to find my way in the world again.”
Main photo: A delicious cooked dinner is served to the guests every night at Shelter From the Storm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo