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Social Justice

‘Nothing has changed’ Returning to the Glasgow food queue that shocked the UK

A photo of 200 people queuing for food in blizzards in Glasgow’s George Square laid bare the reality of poverty and homelessness during the pandemic back in February. The Big Issue returned this week to see what has changed since

It was an image that uncovered the reality of homelessness and poverty during the pandemic in the UK.

Almost six months ago, a quick photo snapped on a smartphone during a freezing blizzard in the centre of Glasgow showed more than 200 people queuing for food despite sub-zero temperatures.

The shot, taken by volunteer Graeme Weir, laid bare how volunteer-run group Kindness Homeless Street Team were working in the snow to feed Glasgow’s poor and hungry just yards from the city chambers in George Square. 

It soon went viral and incited a furious reaction. The Scottish Government said: “This makes clear the need to continue to tackle poverty and inequality”. Local MP Anas Sarwar, now Scottish Labour leader, called the image “devastating”.

But the photo was never intended to kick up a fuss, volunteer Andy Lockhard tells The Big Issue as we return to George Square to see what, if anything, has changed. 

“We thought nothing of it at the time, it was just a quick picture,” he says.

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The media circus moved on and the weather improved, but the need for Kindness Homeless Street Team to continue running the soup kitchens has remained.

“Nothing has changed in terms of what we’re doing, except we are providing help to a lot more people and it’s people from different circumstances that are coming into our queue now,” Laura McSorley, who founded the charity in October 2019, told The Big Issue.

“In the last wee while we have had kids coming through with their parents that really concerns me. Certainly the clientele is changing and it is people that you might not expect to be in a queue waiting to be fed.”

While the soup kitchen now operates three nights a week compared to seven during the height of lockdown, there are still around 50 people needing the help of the Kindness Homeless Street Team when The Big Issue drop in.

Among the group are people sleeping rough or in recovery from addiction but there is also a Just Eat jacket in the queue, which still stretches almost to the centre of the square. One elderly gentleman browsing the food on offer is dressed in a suit, underlining the breadth of people relying on the charity.

While it’s business as usual for the street team — offering hot meals, haircuts, clothing and more at the soup kitchen — the surroundings in George Square are a far cry from February.

The soup kitchen is now just yards from hospitality tents outside a Wetherspoons bar with diners and drinkers sat a stone’s throw away from the volunteers handing out free curry and rice, steak pies and more to anyone who needs it.

Elsewhere, the hustle and bustle of city life has returned to the square which is now packed with people rather than the snowstorm of six months ago.

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Mick Daly, 39, still remembers how it felt to be out in the cold.

“It was horrible, fucking horrible being out in the cold,” he tells The Big Issue. “Over Christmas it was really hard and a lot of people were coming down to this just to get out of the house even though it was so cold.

“I come down once a week now but during the pandemic I used to come down all the time. It’s really good. If you’re ever struggling for clothes or anything good to eat there’s always something there for you.”

The support has made a world of difference for Mick. He tells The Big Issue he has been in recovery from addiction for the last few months after spending five years in homelessness before the pandemic. The charity’s efforts have helped give him the grounding to reckon with his addiction.

“The last three or four months I’ve been clean so I’ve been keeping myself fit and healthy, eating better stuff and living a little bit normal. Before that I was here all the time because buying some food would not have been an option,” he says.

“I’ve met a lot of nice people here so during the pandemic it has been really helpful for people. It’s great to have this support – they will help you out with your house and everything. 

“You have to be here early to get in the queue – it starts at seven but some people are here from four o’clock to get to the front of the queue and get the best choice of stuff.”

Another man attending the soup kitchen, who gave his name as John, was also there on that freezing night in February.

He says he will never forget the support Kindness Homeless gave him during the winter. He continues to receive help today, showing The Big Issue a brand-new leather hold-all given to him by a volunteer.

“These guys go above board. They do this for nothing. I’ll never forget the snowstorms – they were out here and never complained about it. Some of them are working 12-hour shifts and they are coming down here, it shows how amazing they are,” he says.

“It was murder being out here in the cold. It did cause a lot of arguments. People were complaining and moaning that the way the system is in this country means people were sat out in the cold. It shouldn’t be happening in the country. This is one of the richest economies in the world.”

That economy is not as strong as it was before the pandemic, however, which has affected the jobs market and driven more people into poverty.

It has changed the face of homelessness too. In the first year of the Covid crisis, local authorities in Scotland received fewer homelessness applications while people experiencing street homelessness were offered hotel accommodation to protect them from the virus. But recent Scottish Government statistics show a 12 per cent rise in the number of households living in temporary accommodation.

Kindness Homeless Street Team has seen the change, too, with the number of food parcels given out from their donation centre “rocketing” and the group furnishing 20 homes per week, according to McSorley.

The support is key to keeping people in properties, she says.

“We get people who have had full-time jobs and have been employed for 35 years and now they are facing homelessness. They’ve got no food, they’ve got nothing and definitely the pandemic has hinged that a bit,” she adds.

“It’s been crazy. It’s like a full-time job but obviously it’s volunteering. My van is out every single day and we probably cover around 700 miles a week to make sure we are helping people.”

While the viral photo gave everyone a glimpse into homelessness and poverty for many, the issue remains a daily struggle all over the UK. 

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