Opinion

Homeless and hungry elderly people have become a silent crisis. We must help those who need it most

It takes a village to raise a child – and it takes an entire city to support its most vulnerable, says Alex Brown, director of Soup Kitchen London

Image: Valou _c / Unsplash

London is magnificent at this time of year. With its endless Christmas markets, glittering lights of the West End and endless things to do, there is never a dull moment. However, the vibrant streets often overshadow the unseen struggles faced by some of its most vulnerable residents – those grappling with being homeless, food poverty and the challenges of growing old alone.

‌A silent crisis has unfolded in the heart of this ancient and beautiful city. Homelessness and food poverty have been significant issues for decades, predominantly impacting the young and middle-aged. More recently, however, homelessness and food poverty are leaving older people in their wake. The reality is that a significant number of Londoners find themselves without a roof over their heads, struggling to find nutritious food and facing the harsh, isolating realities of ageing without a support network.

‌The image of someone sleeping rough on the pavement, wrapped in cardboard, has become synonymous with homelessness in the public consciousness. However, the hidden faces of this crisis are increasingly the elderly, who, due to many circumstances, find themselves without a secure home.

‌At Soup Kitchen London on Tottenham Court Road, 20% of our 200 daily guests classify themselves as pension-age. Sadly, that number has increased significantly over the last few years and we only expect it to grow. Many older adults are left grappling with the harsh reality of not having enough to eat and find themselves utilising the resources of charities like ours.

‌The loneliness that often accompanies homelessness exacerbates the situation. The absence of a reliable support system leaves people feeling isolated and without the emotional and practical assistance they desperately need. The image of an older person facing food poverty, alone in a city that moves too quickly for them to keep pace, is a devastating one.

‌Addressing this blossoming crisis requires a comprehensive and compassionate approach. First and foremost, we must acknowledge its depth and complexity. It’s not just about providing a bed for the night or a hot meal; it’s about understanding people’s unique challenges and tailoring our solutions accordingly.

‌It’s difficult to witness anyone in our society needing assistance for life’s essentials. However, picture the poignant image of an 80-year-old descending our weathered iron staircase, reliant on a walking aid, tightly clutching the rail for stability. Seeing them wrapped in layers, with a freedom pass hanging from their neck and a head full of grey hair, is even more heartbreaking. Unfortunately, it’s a scene we encounter daily. That’s why we recently created a photography series called ‘Homeless Christmas Dinners’ to highlight the dinners homeless people have had to eat on Christmas Day and what life is really like living on the streets.

‌Supporting existing organisations that work tirelessly to combat homelessness, such as Soup Kitchen London, is crucial. Our charity not only provides immediate relief through meals and shelter, but we also work towards establishing long-term solutions, such as counselling, legal support, accommodation and friendship.

‌Fostering a sense of community is essential – it’s one of the things we reiterate to our volunteers and team members daily. Loneliness can be as detrimental as hunger and we encourage social interaction with our guests – it can make such a significant impact. Creating a space where our friends can connect, share stories and find solace in each other’s company is vital to addressing the loneliness that often accompanies being homeless.

‌I’m asked frequently why the government isn’t doing ‘more’. The truth is, we all have more to do. Government agencies, the private sector and individuals alike must unite to prioritise and fund initiatives to alleviate homelessness and food poverty. Establishing affordable housing, investing in mental health services such as the groundbreaking drop-in clinic we launched in 2019 and ensuring access to nutritious meals are essential components of a comprehensive strategy to address these issues. It takes a village to raise a child, as the old proverb goes and it takes an entire city to support its most vulnerable.

‌Our collective responsibility to address homelessness and food poverty among London’s elderly and unprotected is not just a moral imperative but a societal one. By acknowledging the struggles faced by people and taking concerted action, we can work towards creating a city that cares for all its residents, regardless of age or circumstance. It’s time to shine a light on this crisis’s forgotten faces and build a London that extends a helping hand to those who need it most.

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