The City Harvest charity helps redistribute surplus food. Its operations director Paula Merrony is no stranger to the need it fulfils.
I became homeless in 1990. When my eldest son Adam hit five, the support had dried up and I was a single mum with two children. We moved to Hammersmith but for some reason my tenancy didn’t get cancelled. When the council were looking to rehome us, it came up that I still had the other house, so they couldn’t help me.
I ended up squatting. As the tenants moved out, we squatted until the council needed the property back. Then we sofa-surfed until the council put us in bed and breakfast. By then we were officially a homeless family.
I eventually got temporary housing in Hammersmith but I couldn’t afford the rent so we ended up in court. My other half had multiple partners (though we all hoped that we would be the ones he chose) but he didn’t stay often and this affected the children.
The housing officer stepped in and gave support, advising me to get counselling and this enabled me to ease my depression and eventually ditch my partner.
But instead of being rehoused I was put back into B&Bs and the children had to rehome their pets. I tried to make it as fun as possible so they felt like they were on holiday. To complicate matters I was also working at Queens Park Rangers, doing the catering and admin.
I didn’t have a base, I was in limbo, with everything in storage and trying to feed my family with only a microwave and kettle. I had to buy cheap food but I also made sure we had fruit. We lived on pasta with sauces and cereal.
One of the worst things about homelessness is that you have no security or sense of belonging. You feel a failure. And it also limits your social life with nowhere to invite friends. We made use of libraries and museums and found a couple of cafes that didn’t mind us taking our time. We spent time playing in Hyde Park after school, delaying returning to the B&B until bedtime.
It was also a dramatic time. Some of the families we lived with carried knives and one mum even chased my children with one.
But there were lots of kind people too. We shared stories and supported each other. It made me realise that there were lots of families in worse situations fleeing from conflict and brutality.
“It’s a really brilliant scheme. I’m aware of organisations that have food to give but don’t have the transport to deliver it and there are groups who feed the hungry that need the food but don’t have the transport to collect it.”
It was five years before I was housed in Hammersmith on a quite nice estate. But it was overcrowded and the housing team didn’t recognise that my oldest son’s learning disability meant he needed his own room so he and I had to share a room until one of the girls went to university. Now three of my four children live with me.
My experiences have made me very aware of the need to make sure everyone is looked after.
I had been aware of City Harvest and the food redistribution service it provides and I was recently invited to join the charity as head of operations by a founder member. City Harvest puts surplus food to good use in a sustainable way, delivering to organisations providing meals to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, family and community centres and organisations that assist people with addictions.
It’s a really brilliant scheme. I’m aware of organisations that have food to give but don’t have the transport to deliver it and there are groups who feed the hungry that need the food but don’t have the transport to collect it.
This is where City Harvest steps in. We bridge the gap by collecting the food from donor organisations and delivering it to groups who need it and can make good use of it. My daughter is on maternity leave and is enjoying helping us get organised too.
A typical day as head of operations is challenging. There are lots of telephone calls to make, emails to deal with and routes to plan. I need to find a slot that we can come and pick food up and then find an organisation who’ll benefit. It’s so important to look after your neighbour. It’s what makes the world go round.
City Harvest needs donations of funding and refrigerated vans as well as volunteer time in order to fulfil its aims. Visit www.cityharvest.org.uk to find out more.
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