If there is one thing that most people in Walthamstow have an opinion about it’s the price of houses. Are prices too high? are local people being forced out because they can’t afford to live here anymore? It’s a topic that I’ve written about a few times but I never mention the segment of our community that would be unable to buy or rent regardless of how low the cost is. I refer to them as part of the community but the homeless people who live in and around Walthamstow are very much on the fringes of our society. If I’m being honest I never really thought about homelessness, I would see homeless people on the street but they just blended in to background and became part of the fabric of the place I live. Things started to change for me just before Christmas last year when I saw some kids picking on a man who used to sleep under the Sainsburys car park on Selborne Road. I realised that my ‘walk on by’ attitude was pretty shameful so I decided to try to do something about it.
The 7 days for Stow micro volunteering project gave me the chance to get involved. The aim of the project is to find ways that E17ers can, over the course of a year, give seven days of their time to help out locally. I went to the first 7 days meeting at the beginning of this year and just before leaving I added my name to a list of people interested in helping out at the emergency night shelter. Soon after the meeting I was asked if I would be interested in volunteering as they needed extra people for the morning shifts. A few days later I was working my first shift as part of the Wednesday Morning breakfast team at the shelter on Greenleaf Road. The more shifts I worked the more my opinion of homelessness changed. I had always used the term ‘homeless people’ as a sort of label, a way of describing a different section of the human race. As I spent more time with the people who used the shelter I realised that I had it wrong, using the term homeless people seemed backwards. They are people first and homeless second.
The more I found out about FCENS (Forest Churches Emergency Night Shelters) the more I realised how big a project it is. The shelter operates in different buildings across Waltham Forest between November and March each year. 150 volunteers worked during the season carrying out all sorts of tasks from cooking meals and laying out bedding to washing laundry. It takes a phenomenal amount of organisation to make this project work, just coordinating us volunteers is almost a full-time job in itself. Whilst the shelter was open this winter, around 170 people stayed in the various shelters around the borough. FCENS worked in partnership with an organisation called Project3 and between them they helped many of the guests to get back in to housing and find work. It’s pretty amazing stuff for something that is primarily led by volunteers. OK, so perhaps I’m biased as thanks to the 7 days project I volunteer at the shelter. But considering that a report published in 2012 showed that Waltham Forest had the highest rate of homelessness in England, there is clearly the need for this project in our corner of London.
A few months ago I was enjoying a pint of summer lightning in the beer garden at the Bell, trying to figure out what else I could do to help FCENS when I came up with an idea. I became involved with FCENS through 7 days for Stow and the shelter aims to open 7 days a week, 7 was clearly a significant number. One of the concepts of the micro volunteering project is to use the skills you already have so having decided to run to raise money I added in the 7 and came up with 7 races for Stow. Between now and April I am going to run a 10k, 4 half marathons, 1 marathon and the London Santa Run. Why am I doing it? Raising money for the charity is of course important, but just as essential is to raise the profile of this amazing community project that happens in and around Walthamstow each winter and provides the most incredible support to those who need it. If you would like to find out more about my 7 races challenge click here.