Ray Barron-Woolford with the phone box. Image: Andy Parsons
What can you do with one pound?
For Ray Barron-Woolford, the answer was to buy a phone box.
Sitting under Deptford bridge, the phone box was unloved and used as a toilet. Barron-Woolford, who founded the We Care Food Bank in Lewisham, thought he could put it to better use.
Within three days of contacting BT, he had signed a contract to buy it for £1. It was transformed, opening at the end of February as a 24/7 community hub.
Every nook and cranny was used. The phone box was filled with food and drink for those in need, its walls covered with advice and numbers to contact vital services, and given a redecoration.
It was a different way to help people – and a way to do so that made sure people didn’t need to ask for help to get what they need.
“When we opened it everyone said people would trash it and keep using it as a toilet,” Barron-Woolford said. But one month on, it’s thriving – a sign of how much it was needed.
Supplies need to be replenished every day or two. To Barron-Woolford’s surprise members of the community have stepped in, dropping off spare items from their weekly shopping trips to help those in need.
The phone box has also facilitated connections. Two refugees from Syria, both women in their 50s, had never learned to ride a bike in their home country – an activity considered taboo for women. After discovering the number for a local charity in the phone box, the pair have learned to cycle, and even been given bikes.
“Who would have thought from a phone box somebody would end up with bike lessons and a bike?” says Barron-Woolford.
When two Polish women standing near the phone box realised a pair of homeless men were struggling to read the labels on Pot Noodles inside, they decided to help. Now, they stand outside the phone box at the same time every day, explaining what help is available to those who can’t read.
“I’ve been in your country for 11 years and I’d never spoken to a homeless person,” one of the women told Barron-Woolford. “Now I feel I have a new responsibility through a phone box, I now have two friends, two men I never thought I’d have something in common with.”
Far from being dismayed at the need for the phone box, Barron-Woolford believes the community’s work can show those in power what needs to be done.
“What my work is, is always trying to find solutions. Yeah, you can say the Tories are bastards and Labour councillors are bastards, and that’s fair enough, but that doesn’t help people that are starving, it doesn’t help people facing eviction, it doesn’t help people that are dying in our doorways,” he said.
“The reality of my work is about coming up with solutions that shame councils into acting.
“You only need one square foot to change a community, to empower a community.”