Adjoa Wiredu discovers the charity that helps keep the borough’s homeless people from going hungry
Every evening a crowd of people appear and approach an ordinary-looking white van parked in Walthamstow.
They form an orderly queue and wait patiently to be served. Volunteers dish out a cooked meal to each of them.
This is the Christian Kitchen. Despite the name, some of the volunteers who work here are members of mosques and other local faith groups, or have no faith at all. On a rotation, they each volunteer their time once a month or more, to cook for anyone that turns up.
The charity has been running for 25 years and feeds homeless and marginalised people a three-course meal, 365 nights a year. Norman Minter, a former trustee for Christian Kitchen who has been involved with the group for the last 15 years, describes a typical menu: “Friday’s meal for instance was mash potatoes, sausages, baked beans, a separate salad, plus a dessert of cake with custard.
“There’s also tea, hot chocolate, coffee – it’s very popular.”
A small team usually starts off the evening cooking at the Branches Hostel kitchen in Forest Road, where they hire a space, and then another team will come in to load the food on to the van around 7pm and take it down to the venue to distribute at around 7:30pm.
Serving dinner for anything between 30 and 50 people usually lasts an hour. Norman says: “The team that go out in the van are sometimes five people, it’s a good number of people to make sure there’s security and everyone queues up.
“The same team will clear up any mess that will be in the area at the end of the shift and we finish up at about 9pm.”
When I ask why they choose to serve the homeless community an evening meal, he tells me there was no question: “It’s quite likely that the meal we provide for them is their main meal of the day, if not their only meal of the day.
“Most of us eat our dinner at that time of the evening so it seems obvious.”
Norman goes on to make it clear that beyond the food, the relationships formed there are also vital.
“It’s not just about the food, which is the primary aim and goal. It’s hugely important if you’re hungry, the aim is to feed people.
“But there’s also a degree of friendship and compassion involved in that. I can think of one or two people there that I’ve known for years and we have conversations; ‘how’s your day been?’ – stuff like that.
“So there’s a spin-off from the primary purpose, which is to feed people.”
One of the other volunteers, David West, explains that they are also committed to producing the best food they can. “Everything we cook, we cook like we are cooking for ourselves,” says David. “The quality of the food is second-to-none. We’re very proud of it.”
Norman Coe, who co-ordinates the group and has been involved with Christian Kitchen for more than 20 years, is also involved with shelters in the area. He says there should be more for vulnerable people: “I think if you look on the website of the [Waltham Forest] Council, they will try and make out that they have something for everybody, but the reality is not so.
“It’s very, very difficult to get people the help they need, but we do point people in the right direction. There were about 50 people tonight and I can see that number increasing.”
Liz Rutherfoord, chief executive at homeless charity SHP, a charity supporting homeless and vulnerable people in London, said: “Latest rough sleeping figures showed that rough sleeping in Waltham Forest is rising at more than double the rate of the rest of London.
“Perhaps unsurprisingly, this coincides with the closure of almost all supported housing for homeless people in the borough.
“Street outreach services like the Christian Kitchen are absolutely crucial, but they can’t solve the problem on their own. What we really need in the borough is proper provision for homeless people and a strategy rethink.”
Figures released by the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (Chain) on 29th June, recorded 139 people living on the streets in the area in 2015/16. At the same time in 2014/15, the number of rough sleepers in the borough was counted as 118.
If you would like to donate food for Christian Kitchen, Sainsbury’s in Walthamstow High Street has chosen it as its nominated charity for the year and is accepting donations. To volunteer or for more information:
Email [email protected]