It is impossible to walk down any street in London without coming across a homeless person. You may notice their curled up figure, hidden in a sleeping bag, or glimpse them sitting on a salvaged piece of cardboard, trying to keep their dog fed and watered. But precisely because homelessness is so commonplace nowadays in the city, perhaps it has lost its ability to shock. The sheer volume of people living on the streets has almost become part of the scenery, making it easier for the masses to walk by and ignore the issue.
There is no shortage of charities and organisations attempting to address the problem. Soup kitchens and food banks are popping up left right and centre, offering a place to sit and refuel with some nutritious food – a brief moment of solace and comfort before those with nowhere to go spend yet another night on a pavement.
These food banks and soup kitchens, however, often only serve up food in the evenings. We are constantly told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so why is there such a lack of attention paid to the morning meal when it comes to the homeless? After a whole night in the cold, breakfast is very much needed by the hundreds of individuals living on London’s streets.
Introducing ‘Breakfast in a Bag’ (BIAB), the brainchild of Michelle Clark, who has been working with the homeless since starting her Off the Streets London outreach project. BIAB is pretty much what it says on the tin – breakfast in a bag – yet so much more. These bags, often containing juices, breakfast bars and fruit, are delivered to the city’s homeless to provide them with a healthy start to yet another day without a place to call home.
Michelle explains that while she was aware of the many resources available for homeless people, she realised that no-one was giving any attention to breakfast. ‘I gave it some thought and realised that a healthy breakfast would really kick start their day. Illnesses such as diabetes are quite common among the homeless, maybe due to a bad diet. It can be quite dangerous for diabetics not to eat in the mornings so the breakfast bags are very important for them.’
Initially, the contents of the bags were completely self-funded, but now Michelle has been lucky enough to receive donations from brands such as Weetabix and eateries including Pret, who want to help the campaigner on her breakfast mission. ‘To start with, I was buying pretty much everything locally, I’m sure my local supermarket thought I had some sort of cereal addiction! Since then I’ve been lucky to have had support from the likes of Greggs, Pret, Morrisons and Weetabix with donations of food. Only yesterday we received 3 boxes of Energy Bars from HIGH5 Sports Nutrition who supply them to world class athletes. These will have huge benefits for our homeless friends as many of the carbohydrates that benefit a world class runner will be just as welcomed by a homeless person. I think it’s unrealistic to ever expect to be fully funded by food manufacturers and supermarkets but we are hoping to partner with as many as we can as we move forward. Every time we get a bulk donation through from a food supplier it means our donations from the public go a lot further so we can make and deliver more bags.’
Currently, Michelle does ‘bag-drops’ three times a week, and has recently opened a static Brekkie Station at Victoria on a Friday night, where people can come and collect a breakfast bag for the next day. ‘The numbers for this are increasing each week as word spreads among the homeless community’, explains Michelle. ‘It’s quickly become a safe place where the homeless gather to socialise over some hot food and a cuppa and is already about so much more than just providing them with a meal and a breakfast bag for when they wake up on Saturday mornings.’
As BIAB becomes bigger, more and more people are donating to the cause. Just £3 can fill a bag, and it is amazing just how many are prepared to part with that bit of change to fund a breakfast. Michelle is clearly overwhelmed with the reception her concept has received. ‘I’ve learnt that plenty of people are prepared to hand over the price of a decent cup of coffee to buy a breakfast for someone less fortunate than themselves through the response to our “Sponsor A Bag For £3” campaign. Some people have said they’ll be making a regular donation each week or month which is fantastic. I’ve learnt that there are many angels out there who have stepped in to help me – one example is the lady that’s just taken time out from her paying clients to design and build us a new website (breakfastinabag.co.uk) for free.’ And what else has BIAB taught her? ‘One of the more interesting things I’ve learnt is from when I went to collect a donation that came in via one of our Twitter followers: you can fit 192 boxes of Kelloggs cornflakes into a standard sized car. But only just!’
We may not give a second thought to our breakfast in the morning. We may grab a piece of toast or bowl of cereal before heading out the door, or pick up a coffee and croissant en route to the office. But for London’s many homeless, who don’t know where their next meal may be coming from, the promise of a healthy and substantial breakfast after a whole night exposed on the streets is invaluable. Instead of a pastry and coffee on your usual morning café run, if just one day you gave that £3 to BIAB, think of the difference it could make. If everyone in your office did that too, imagine the bags BIAB could provide.
Michelle is doing a fantastic job, but times are hard. ‘The number of rough sleepers in London has doubled in the last five years to an incredible 7.500 last year so it’s not surprising that all of the resources for the homeless are stretched. I think we’re all just doing what we can to help some of the most vulnerable people in the community and to try and show them that they haven’t been completely abandoned by society.’
Come on London, let’s all chip in.
With thanks to BIAB and Michelle for the opportunity to talk with them about this amazing project.