The crushing loneliness of being homeless during a pandemic

At the Salvation Army emergency food truck in Neath, Mike Hughes is queued up for a hot meal and a coffee. It’s the first time the van has been in Neath town centre since the coronavirus pandemic started in March and it is bringing Mike one of his first hot meals in weeks. But food is not the only reason that has brought him there.

Since becoming homeless in May during lockdown, Mike, 46, said one of his biggest daily challenges had been dealing with loneliness. He is one of many homeless people in Neath who have been offered interim accommodation during lockdown by Neath Port Talbot Council, at the Ambassador Hotel.

Mike Hughes was having one of his first hot meals in weeks The crushing loneliness of being homeless during a pandemicWarm drinks were also available The crushing loneliness of being homeless during a pandemicLoneliness is one of Mike’s biggest enemies

Though Mike, who would otherwise be living on the streets of Neath, said he was very thankful to have a roof above his head, he said it didn’t mean it had been easy. “I’m only recently homeless through being an alcoholic.

I’ve been homeless for five months and before that was sofa surfing, I’ve also been sober for the last five months,” he explained. “The hardest part for me has been the loneliness. “I keep myself to myself in the hotel.

From 5pm onwards each day, that’s when the loneliness kicks in and the battle to stay off drink comes in.”

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Mike said being able to go to the Salvation Army truck for food and a chat had done wonders for him. Salvation Army volunteers said they started serving again after contractors stopped serving hot meals to those staying at the Ambassador Hotel during lockdown around six weeks ago. Neath Port Talbot Council said it had only been able to provide meals on a temporary basis.

“The highlight of my day at the hotel during lockdown was getting my hot meal,” said Mike. “It’s brilliant to have a hot meal again. In our rooms we have a kettle but no cooking facilities, so until now I’ve been having pot noodles and sandwiches.

We also get a Tesco delivery of sandwiches and other food which is getting close to its sell-by date, but that’s first come first served. Everyone scrambles to get something. “But beggars can’t be choosers, we’re all very grateful for whatever we have.

“Some of us have also gone to food banks, but because we only have a kettle and there are lots of tins there, we can’t cook it. I returned everything I got so someone else could have it. “It’s not just my situation, I see people who have turned up to the food banks in suits, they’ve lost their job because of coronavirus and can’t afford their rent.

People from all walks of life become homeless and need help like this. “Having the Salvation Army truck has been brilliant. I spoke to the volunteers for 30 minutes here yesterday.

It’s really good having a roof over my head at the hotel, it’s just nice having somewhere else to go where I can have a chat, as well as having a hot meal. “The people who would normally give food to the homeless have stopped because of the virus, it’s a really tough time.”

The crushing loneliness of being homeless during a pandemicLisa Linsey has been homeless for three years

Lisa Linsey was also at the food truck. She said she had been homeless for three years and had been either on the streets or sofa surfing ever since.

In lockdown, she had been living with a family member in Neath. During the pandemic, Lisa said life for her and other homeless people had been miserable with many more isolated from family and friends than ever, causing people to feel lonely and depressed. She felt that the truck was so important for people in a similar position to her, that she had been spreading the word to others in need.

“I’m on universal credit and get GBP240 a month to live off and when I am sofa surfing, my money goes on food, electricity, gas or on my grandchildren,” said the 47-year-old. “Coming here helps you meet people on the streets, it’s nice that if you’re lonely, or if you’re vulnerable – like a girl on her own – you can come here and connect with people without feeling as though others are looking down on you on the streets. “I’m ex-army service and I’ve had to beg.

You feel like a piece of rubbish, it’s not our fault we are in this position. “I know a lot of homeless people and I’ve spread the word so they know they can come here. When you’re homeless and in lockdown, it’s nice to know there is somewhere you can go where you can relax with the lovely people running it, get hot food and watered – that’s basically all you need.”

Bethan Moore was one of those who found out about the truck through Lisa.

The crushing loneliness of being homeless during a pandemicBethan Moore The crushing loneliness of being homeless during a pandemicShe said she too got lonely

She said it had been nice to connect with others going through something similar at the truck. “I was homeless at the beginning of lockdown, having been kicked out of a flat due to my own fault,” the 29-year-old explained. “If it wasn’t for the second lockdown, I would still be on the streets.

I have a temporary flat and I am very grateful as it’s getting very cold now. “But where I’m living, it is in the middle of nowhere, it’s good because I don’t have people knocking on my doors and I feel safe, but it does mean I get lonely. “When I’m allowed, I get the bus down to Neath town centre.

My family live here so it’s nice when I get to see them. “I’ve known Lisa all my life, so I came down to the Salvation Army van with her. “It’s been so nice to come down here and chat with people who understand and are going through the same sort of thing as I am.

“We have all got to pull together with the virus going on, so I will definitely be going back.” Find out about coronavirus cases in your area: Mary Wolfe, 70, is a Salvation Army minister and was one of the dedicated volunteers serving food to the homeless that day.

“We came back on November 9 because in recent months they stopped having hot meals served at the Ambassador Hotel. “We were asked to bring the emergency vehicle out to engage with vulnerable people and get them fed – not just those staying at the hotel, but anyone who is in need. “People have told us that they have been very, very hungry.

Someone told me they had the first piece of meat here they’d had in three months.”

The crushing loneliness of being homeless during a pandemicSalvation Army major Mary Wolfe

She explained that for the volunteers, they wanted to offer much more than food and that they were due to open a permanent centre for vulnerable people in Neath town centre. “It’s a process because we want to help people by giving them food – that brings them to us and then we befriend them and get to know them. “But in the long term it means we can hopefully get to engage more with them and make a difference to their lives.

“We are working very closely with the local authority and other agencies to open the new centre in Neath, which will offer things like food, someone to talk to, a doctor, primary care, mental health support and spiritual help – for whatever that spiritual journey may be. We didn’t want to just help with food.” That’s not the only support on offer for the homeless and vulnerable in Neath.

Briony Powell, Housing Justice Cymru’s coordinator for Neath and Port Talbot, was also at the truck supporting the Salvation Army, raising awareness and catching up with former night shelter guests.

The crushing loneliness of being homeless during a pandemicBriony Powell, Housing Justice Cymru Neath Port Talbot co-ordinator

The charity is launching a new project, called Citadel, in the area to train volunteers to help the most vulnerable people as they move from temporary accommodation to more permanent homes. Briony explained: “Housing Justice Cymru are launching a new project, working with the local authority and partners to help people at risk of homelessness set up and sustain new tenancies. “We know the pandemic has hit the most vulnerable people the hardest, and this has been particularly true for those who were homeless when the pandemic hit.

“We’re launching Citadel, a project which trains volunteers to help support people with everything from small practical steps, such as setting up direct debits or registering with a GP, to on-going support to help people connect with their communities, find employment and prevent isolation.

“We hope this will give people the best start in their new tenancies and prevent anyone from returning to homelessness.”

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A spokesman for Neath Port Talbot Council said: “The council agreed to provide hot meals on a temporary basis due to the limited options available during the spring lockdown.

“Whilst the council does not generally provide food to those we place in temporary accommodation, we work closely with a number of partner organisations to ensure people who are homeless are able to access the support they need including information of other services that provide food.”

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