The volunteer helping rough sleepers avoid Covid-19

The London Homeless Welfare Team was on the streets pre-lockdown to get homeless people the basics the rest of us can access – and now they're sending supplies across the country

Jorawar Singh Rathour is running a “mini-factory in [his] front room” as groups across the UK ask for help from his initiative getting virus-beating soap and tissues to rough sleepers.

The Crouch Hill resident launched a small outreach group, the London Homeless Welfare Team, for what he expected to be a one-off giving away food in Finsbury Park on New Year’s Day.

But as the COVID-19 outbreak accelerated he realised some of London’s most vulnerable people could be last to receive the protection they need from the virus.

The team of six volunteers took on regular outreach work to get health packs to rough sleepers containing soaps, tissues, water bottles and NHS-approved advice on hand washing and coronavirus symptoms.

“A few weeks ago we started sourcing soap and tissues mostly from small local shops,” Rathour told The Big Issue. “We’re very careful about that – if a shop has say 20 soaps we’ll take five at most from there so as not to deprive other people. Whenever we’re out and about we get a couple of bits here and there. It all adds up.”

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The team set up a crowdfunder with the aim of raising £500 to support the project – and have since received more than £5,000 in donations from the public. One woman donated £700 alone.

This has enabled them to start producing health packs to be posted to other homeless welfare groups as far away as Warwickshire. Rathour said the interest is increasing as more and more organisations struggle to find supplies of basic hand wash. This is now the focus of their work after the UK government introduced a lockdown to stop the virus spreading.

“We’ve been quite saddened by how much our help was needed. You can’t know the sheer scale of homelessness until you’re out on the streets,” Rathour said. “The rough sleepers we’ve spoken to have welcomed the packs and said no one had bothered to speak to them about the crisis or give them information.

“As ever, their main concern is survival. A lot of them have underlying health conditions so they’re vulnerable. And we don’t have answers for them when they ask where they can self-isolate.”

We need to be doing something, not talking about it

Rathour, who is self-employed in the building trade, has experienced homelessness himself so said he can empathise with the people they meet on the streets. He has stopped working for now to coordinate the London Homeless Welfare Team full-time and said he has been inundated with emails from people looking to volunteer or get the health packs for rough sleepers in their area.

“I’m working on this from when I get up at around 5am until 11pm,” he said. “Our volunteers are in full-time work and some are recent graduates. We get together in the evenings and weekends to go through what we need to do and come up with a plan.

“Our priority is to get these packs out as soon as possible,” he said. “It could be saving lives.

“This is not a time to be complacent. Action needs to be taken – we need to be doing something, not talking about it.”

Last week the Mayor of London made a deal with Intercontinental Hotels Group to open up 300 hotel rooms to rough sleepers in the English capital so they would have somewhere to protect themselves from the virus and self-isolate if they become unwell.