This is London in 2020 as hundreds desperately queue for a meal

Published: 20 October 2020

Post Desk : It was raining in Trafalgar Square as I watched hundreds of people queue up for a meal. I fear I saw the beginnings of the predicted surge in homelessness and hard times. It’s hard to believe this is London in 2020.

Andrew Faris, chief executive of Rhythms of Life, said to me: “We are on the front lines. We’re feeding 200 people a day. This time last year we had 100.”

The sun was only just setting and the line already snaked all the way around St Martin-in-the-Fields. “The system is not working,” Faris continued as I pulled on plastic gloves and began to hand out fresh fruit and yoghurt.

First I met Davey Bourne, who is 39 and originally from Ireland. He lost his zero-hours contract job in security this year and appealed to Stockport council for help. “They gave me two Penguin bars, a bottle of water and a rail ticket to London,” he told me.

As the queue shuffled round, the six volunteers and I bustled to hand out Marks & Spencer salads and juices. A woman passed through clutching a hot cup of tea, using the previous day’s Evening Standard newspaper to shield her head from the rain.

One volunteer, Jamal, has been helping out for four years. He greeted many of the clients like old friends, asking about friends or health problems.

His colleague Kate said to me: “It’s a desperate situation seeing this queue every evening. It breaks my heart that these services are required.”

Rhythms of Life has been a recipient of food from the Evening Standard’s charity partner, The Felix Project. Last week our campaign marked the delivery of 13 million meals since the start of the lockdown. We expect to deliver food for many millions more before the end of the year.

Joe Payne, 39, is on the streets because his relationship ended due to lockdown stress. “We were arguing about money and everything,” he told me. “This place is important.”

Another man, Charlie, who is 25, has been homeless for two months. “The numbers are going up,” he said. “Every time I come there are more people here.

Just down the street another charity operation, run by the Hare Krishna Food for Life initiative, is also helping record numbers. Hindu and Sikh charities are prominent in this space due to the principle of Seva, or “selfless service”. Asish Jaidev Soni, a 39-year-old accountant at the Home Office, manages the stand which doles out curry and other food. “The saddest thing is when you hear how people are suffering,” he said.

Linda Bawden, 51, the chef who manages the operation, described their newly impoverished clients as “like rabbits caught in the headlights. They don’t know what to do. Every night someone asks us, ‘Have you got a sleeping bag?’”

With a plate in hand, Gavin from Yorkshire told me that as someone who has been homeless for two years, he feels abandoned: “When Covid comes they said, ‘We’ll get all these homeless and put them in hotels’ and the minute it eases off, they kick their arses straight back. Boris Johnson doesn’t give a shite. If it wasn’t for these charities a lot of people wouldn’t eat. I was a Marine. I fought for [my] country, put my life on the line and what did I get when I came out? Nothing.”

Both these charities operated throughout the pandemic in Trafalgar Square itself, but have recently been moved to neighbouring streets as the council seeks to keep the square clear.

A spokesman for Westminster City Council said: “To support some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society, we work with a number of volunteer food providers able to deliver safe and socially distanced meal services to more than 200 people every night. To enable the police to provide essential support and safety measures during lockdown, these providers were moved temporarily to Trafalgar Square.

“As measures began to ease and visitors and businesses returned to this part of the city, the providers were moved back to their original locations where the council continues to engage with their services.”

Back at Rhythms of Life, I see a familiar face — an elderly woman whom I met at Refettorio Felix in Earl’s Court, another food project supported by our campaign. It was a reminder that many of these people come not only for the food, but also for the chance to socialise.

Volunteer Jamal apologetically interrupted the clients at the front who were deliberating over the selection of food. “I’m sorry, but we’ve got to keep the queue moving.”