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Coronavirus: The rough sleepers who can’t self-isolate

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For more than 35 years, The People’s Kitchen in Newcastle has opened its doors to rough sleepers and vulnerable people.

Based in a former church, tables for up to 120 diners sit in-between floor-to-ceiling beams, with a professional kitchen at the back – once the heartbeat of the operation. But today it is all empty.

Instead, the charity’s dedicated volunteers serve hot soup, sandwiches, cakes and pastries from tables in the car park. In the evening, it is hot food from a catering van.

This has become the new reality as coronavirus cases rise across the UK, in an attempt to keep supplying food to the neediest while minimising the risk of spread.

Many soup kitchens in the local area – particularly church-run ones – have already closed.

The People’s Kitchen estimates it has lost up to 30% of its volunteer workforce, with all those over the age of 70 reluctantly asked to stay home.
One woman, Sophie – who says she spends her nights sleeping rough in a shop doorway – describes the service as her lifeline.

“I’m really scared,” she says. “Not many hostels are taking people in because of the virus, and I’ve got nowhere to stay this evening. No family I can turn to.

“I’d love to be put somewhere, anywhere – even a derelict building.
“If this place [The People’s Kitchen] gets closed down, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Sophie has been given baby wipes by the volunteers to help keep herself clean during the day, and is able to shower there too – although the service is limited amid increased cleaning.

She is being regularly supported by the charity’s welfare team, but says the outbreak is taking a toll on her mental health.

“I’m low to start with, and this is making it worse. I can’t sleep at the moment.

“The doctor has given me anti-depressants, but I don’t know what I’d do if the chemist was shut.”

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