Every Wednesday four London-Irish pensioners, Mary Lordan, Ann Walsh, Elizabeth Cove and Theresa Costello, head to St Paul's Church in Stoke Newington, north London, with a boot full of food for the homeless.
Today the women unpack potatoes, carrots and mince pies and make their way to the entrance to the kitchen, at the side of the church. There is just over an hour to go before anywhere between 20 and 70 hungry guests start to arrive. Chopping and peeling gets under way with industrial efficiency. They are a gregarious bunch, so there is a lot of talking too.
Lordan, from Ballybunion, Co Kerry, arrived in the UK as a nurse in 1961. She and Costello have been working with the charity North London Action for the Homeless (NLAH) for more than a decade, and various other soup kitchens for 20 years.
“About blooming time I retired,” jokes Costello, who first arrived in the UK from Co Westmeath in the early 1950s.
"Next year, Tessa," says Walsh, from Fintona, Co Tyrone.
"She is 89," Cove, from Skibbereen, Co Cork, says.
A plaque with a message from Northern Irish rector Niall Weir, welcoming "those who attend church more than the Archbishop of Canterbury and those who have not darkened the doors of a church [for years]" sets the inviting tone of the parish.
Due to Covid precautions relating to the Omicron variant, tonight the food will be served outside. People come not only for the conversation and hot soup – cooked by a Parisian chef – but for help with finding accommodation, a shower and even a haircut.
The charity helps to arrange shelter for people, whether temporarily in hostels, or in applying for a fixed address. “But a lot of them don’t like going into the hostels,” Lordan says, “because they get their things stolen.”
It's about being able to spend quality time with people and being in the moment
Lordan used to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity in Elephant and Castle in the 1980s. On one occasion, she says, she went to the airport to pick up some of the nuns.
“Next thing I said, ‘Oh my god, it’s Mother Teresa’ – they never told me I was coming to collect her. She was lovely, chatted away all the way out to the car. I could not believe it. I only wish I had my camera.
“She stayed for a few weeks, and came out peeling the vegetables with us.”
Cecilia Cappel, a barber, sets up a makeshift salon on the stage of the church and devotes an evening a week to giving haircuts to the homeless.
“I think it’s about much more than a haircut,” she says, “It’s about being able to spend quality time with people and being in the moment. We’ve got a diffuser going for some nice scents. I use oils for beards and hair – just to give people in a precarious housing situation some things you normally take for granted.”
One of the this evening's arrivals for soup and mince pies is fifty-year-old Sean, from Dublin, who wants to remain anonymous. Arriving in London at 16, he says he went to Cricklewood Broadway, where manual labourers would be picked up in the morning, and began working in construction. When he was made redundant from a large London-based building firm, he used his severance to qualify as a crane driver.
Despite years of experience operating three different types of crane, he says, his licence expired at the start of the pandemic. “I couldn’t renew it. You had to go to Yorkshire, which I couldn’t do given the restrictions, and they weren’t seeing people at the test centre.”
I had no fixed abode anyway, so I couldn't apply for a job – a bit of a catch-22
This is when Sean began “sofa-surfing” and living in squats, which he says he has been doing for two years. Though he has not had to resort to sleeping on the streets – “thank God” – he says the past two years have been “hell”.
The welfare payments helped but also kept him stuck, he says. "Universal credit was paying me extra and I wasn't even getting interviewed, it was just payment into the account so there was no encouragement to get a job.
“And, as I said, I had no fixed abode anyway, so I couldn’t apply for a job – a bit of a catch-22.”
With the help of the staff at NLAH liaising with the local council, Sean now has a fixed address and is optimistic about finding work.
“I see a lot of static cranes and wonder, ‘Why aren’t they being operated?’ I presume they can’t get a driver,” he says. When he told the unemployment office he had an address, he says, their attitude changed entirely.
“They were treating me with kid gloves before, because I was ‘vulnerable’ as a homeless person,” he says. “So they never called me in for interviews or asked what I did during the day, they never hassled me with that.
“As soon as I got housed, it all changed.”