Christmas is of course a time renowned for giving back. At Nordens, one of our core foundations is to give back to our clients in all manner of ways, which over the past 18 months we’ve done to great effect. We’ve helped thousands of businesses through the pandemic at our cost; from filing furlough and SEISS applications, to always being at the end of a phone if one of our clients’ needs to talk to someone. No matter what challenges or struggles you may be facing, we pride ourselves on going above and beyond your accountancy needs.
Over the past few months, Nordens have been working alongside an incredible initiative called Friends Of Essex & London Homeless (FOELH) who are a homeless charity run by a small group of volunteers. FOELH have helped out thousands of homeless people through their soup kitchens, pop up stalls and donations for five years now, providing inspiration and hope through their selfless work and endeavour.
We spoke to FOELH co-founder, Steven Stuart, about the charity’s origins, the perils of lockdown and what the future holds for the extraordinary organisation aiding people on the streets…
Who are FOELH and what is your story?
Friends of Essex & London Homeless are a registered homeless charity who help those on the streets through hot meals, takeaway food, toiletries, sleeping gear, clothes and a team of incredible volunteers who listen and talk to people. We started out just me and my wife, Cheryl, in 2016 after she agreed to take some sleeping bags and blankets to a guy who asked for some help. She sort of railroaded me into being a driver to scoot around London and then off we went. That Wednesday night in the tail end of December we were just looking for people who were experiencing a rough way of life and essentially on the streets without a home. Eventually we joined forces with another organisation who were providing food and equipment for the homeless near Kings Cross. We saw all walks of life and it really resonated with me how unfortunate and unfair so many people had it. The positivity experienced unlocked something in me and provided the impetus to start something ourselves.
We took on our first set of volunteers in early 2017 and became a fully-fledged registered charity thereafter, since flourishing into the powerhouse we are today. All it ever took was Cheryl putting her hand up to help and here we are now, helping thousands of people with the basic essentials needed to survive and starting a journey which has completely changed our lives and hopefully others.
Have you seen an increase in demand for food and equipment since lockdown began and how have you combatted the restrictions and challenges brought on by the pandemic?
Most definitely there’s been an increase, it’s hard to deny that. Due to the anxiety and restrictions around the pandemic at the start, we actually stopped operating for around a month. We got wind through Cheryl’s sister who was a police officer that there was huge stockpiles of fruit, milk and other foods in Tilbury Port that couldn’t be shipped due to no one available to navigate the boats. We compiled everything together and delivered it to local community care homes, hospitals, GPs, and anywhere that was still open, as well as homeless organisations and foodbanks further afield in Basildon, Southend and Thurrock.
We continued doing that during the peak of lockdown in the Spring of 2020 and it was frightening to see just how many ordinary people needed our help, people who normally don’t fit the stereotype of a homeless person. The increase in demand of people who were obviously just laid off and who were relatively comfortable in life was just staggering and that almost happened overnight. We got in touch with Westminster and ended up partnering together with quite a few different homeless charities through a rota system where we set up and provided warm cooked meals and essential items. We developed a solid strategic operation which adhered to all the social distancing and sanitary guidance in place. There were two organisations a night, seven days a week and the local Westminster council were so impressed by the systems us, and others, put in place that we were considered the blueprint of how a homeless charity organisation should operate during the restrictions that lockdown brought.
It’s only in the past few months that demand has decreased as it seems like a lot of people have started getting their life back on track, are in work and have a roof over their head. This is of course massively welcomed but we’re still here for those that aren’t as fortunate, especially people who we’ve seen over a number of years who continue to rely on us.
Apart from donating what other ways can businesses like ourselves, as well as individuals, help out and join the amazing initiative to tackle homelessness?
There is absolutely no limitation to what anyone can do first and foremost, even if it’s something small like sharing us on the socials like Nordens have done recently. That bit of exposure can start off a conversation and we’ve seen lots of donations and help generated from bits like that. For businesses, it provides exposure to certain people who we necessarily wouldn’t be able to get to through our own channels. Even if it’s just word of mouth to a family member, colleague or whoever, that really can open up doors for us.
We also have our successful Amazon wishlist which we’ve compiled to show all the equipment, food and products that could go a huge way in helping someone out. All you do is view the wishlist, add the things to your basket, pay, and then it automatically gets sent straight to our address ready to be supplied out. So many people use Amazon and often this easily accessible way to get donations resonates with people, as they like to see where their money is going.
You only have to look at a lot of the big charities out there where CEOs and senior management are on huge salaries. People don’t necessarily feel comfortable making a straight up cash donation as you aren’t entirely sure as to where the whole of that money is going. We’re very open that we are a non-profit charity organisation and don’t pay ourselves a single penny, rather we often have to dip into our own pockets just to keep FOELH operating.
Fundraising for a particular cause whether it be a long-distance run, fancy dress, smash your boss with a sponge full of water, cake days etc., whatever it may be, it all is such a massive helping hand that we, and other charities, are so grateful for.
Do you think the government and local councils can do more to get people off the street and provide training/resources to help get their lives back on track?
Yes of course more should be done but I’m very mindful that the resources out there in terms of charities, healthcare, mentoring etc. are all so incredibly stretched. Often the bulk of these organisations rely on donations and whilst this is so beneficial, it’s just simply not enough to help everyone suffering. As well as this, because a lot of homeless people have gone through particular help programs that are massively under capacity and stretched to the limit, their trust and faith in them is ultimately decreased. As such, it regularly doesn’t have the desired effect of getting their lives back on track.
Many of these people have had it rough and experienced unthinkable things for a long time and they’re damaged. These people need a lot of help and guidance and by going through an underperforming help program a few times, sometimes it just doesn’t cut it. More specialist care is required, but simply put not enough funding is being given. It’s very difficult to witness.
What are the long-term prospects for FOELH?
I’ve always had this dream from when we started that we could set up a one-stop shop facility where people can come in and grab a coffee and a bite to eat, and have access to a range of services that can benefit their wellbeing. We’d have shower and laundry facilities where people could come in and clean themselves up as well as mental health services, exercise and yoga classes, recruitment workshops at strategic times of the week.
That way, it delivers an organic cycle; someone homeless comes in, eats and washes, talks to someone about their mental health, exercises, learns how to write a CV and gain skills in a particular field they’re interested in, and then walk out the door and get a job. That person then down the line comes back to donate or volunteer and show others what is possible. We could work with numerous organisations, with pop up clinics cropping up and building a community hub that really gives back to those in need. Financial management services, housing associations, addiction therapy, educational facilities, you name it and then we take the community hub philosophy and replicate it nationwide to help out the homeless up and down the land.
People who have fallen on rough times are often hesitant to go and seek help, whether that be in rehab or going to talk to somebody about how they’re feeling. By having something that is easily accessible and a friendly face to console in, it can ignite the drive to really change their lives. Obviously, this is all a pipe dream, but that is the ultimate goal for FOELH. We have the motivation and drive, all we need is the building and the funding and that dream turns into a reality.
We hope this has outlined to you who Friends of Essex & London Homeless are and the amazing work they do for the homeless around Essex and London. If you require any further information on anything outlined, or anything accounting related for that matter, please don’t hesitate to get in contact with us at Nordens where one of our trusted advisors would be happy talking you through your query.