Next Meal: Muswell Hill soup kitchen inspires launch of a website to help the homeless

Muswell Hill's Sean Lock, Naomie Harris and Lee Mack

Muswell Hill's Sean Lock, Naomie Harris and Lee Mack - Credit: Archant

Sean Lock, Naomie Harris and Lee Mack give their support to assist homeless people in finding their next meal

Martin Stone with Muswell Hill actor Naomie Harris

Martin Stone with Muswell Hill actor Naomie Harris - Credit: Archant

Martin Stone hails the launch of a new website to help the homeless as a shining example of “a community based idea”.

This being the leafy environs of Muswell Hill, that community includes a Housing lecturer, a film star, a comedian and a tech expert.

“Muswell Hill is a resource of knowledge and wealth,” says Stone who “inherited” the area’s soup kitchen 10 years ago.

“Next Meal is about sharing that with London, not just living for yourself but saying London has a problem, how do we solve it?”

The volunteers at Muswell Hill Churches Soup Kitchen, with organiser Martin Stone (middle).

The volunteers at Muswell Hill Churches Soup Kitchen, with organiser Martin Stone (middle). - Credit: Archant

Stone dreamed up the idea for a clever app that maps the opening hours of London’s soup kitchens, after coversations over his garden fence.

His lightbulb moment came at a bus stop, when he wondered whether the same technology that told you when the next bus would arrive could “answer the question where is the next meal coming from?”

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He pitched the idea to city tech expert Oli Roxburgh who describes Stone as “a very persuasive neighbour” and ended up working on the app in his freetime.

“I had no idea so many homeless people have mobile phones,” he says. “So we focused on the idea of getting someone off the street to some form of meal.”

Comedian Sean Lock is another neighbour who has lent vocal support.

“I moved to Muswell Hill and after the usual neighbourly nods we got chatting and he explained he ran a soup kitchen at the top of the hill so I said I will come and help out,” said Lock, who subsequently paid a visit to the kitchen in the Baptist Church on Duke’s Avenue.

“I have three kids I am not a lot of help in my own house,” he admits. “My real strength in life is sitting around making smart arse comments so when Martin said ‘there is another way you can help’ it was a great relief for all of us.”

Lock put his smartarse skills to help launch the site which lists the nearest open soup kitchen where the homeless can find food and support.

If successful it could be rolled out in other cities.

“I am not a good person, I don’t do a lot of charity work, I avoid chuggers like a Kiwi scrum half, but I felt I should help the incredible work that Martin does by doing for Next Meal what George Clooney did for Nespresso,” adds Lock. “This website gives information that’s hidden to most of us about a network providing support to homeless people. With no help or money from any charities, through sheer determination this group got together to create something that’s not a solution, but another way of approaching the problem.”

Stone hopes that Londoners will download the app so they can offer useful information rather than money to a homeless person.

“This is designed to give someone a place of safety. It enables Londoners to develop an understanding of the provision so they can best to respond to someone homeless and signpost a vulnerable person to somwhere they can get immediate support.”

Another Muswell Hill neigbour, Bond actress Naomie Harris has also helped: “I got to know Martin because my mum volunteered at his soup kitchen. I wanted to get involved and mum said it was a great place to start. Most of the people I saw I wouldn’t have thought were homeless. Most are incredibly well groomed. Homelessness has multiple faces, many young vulnerable people are couch surfing, they will all benefit from Next Meal.”

Lock admits homelessness invokes an uncomfortable sense of powerlessness on both sides: “When you see people begging it creates a dilemma. You start making judgements, are they genuine? is the money being used for what they said? We either completely ignore people begging or give money. A lot of people care but feel confused about what’s the right thing to do. This is another option, putting people in touch with someone to help them.”

Stone says: “Part of that response is we don’t want to engage with the reality of what that their life is. Every person who finds themselves on the street has a unique story. It’s a tragedy that someone finds themselves there. You don’t live long and you don’t live happily, anything you can do for them is good including becoming more informed about where there is provision.”

Stone says homeless users who have previously relied on hearsay to find out when soup kitchens are open have “totally embraced” the app. “They find it a fantastic resource.”

So the next time you are shopping at Muswell Hill Sainsbury’s give a food donation at the end of your shop to the kitchen or perhaps pop down on a Sunday to hear live jazz and help out.

“The soup kitchen is incredibly supported by the community.” says Stone. “When we needed a new kitchen they raised £50,000 in two months.”

Harris adds that on her volunteering shift, Stone told her “it was also about talking to people about their lives and giving them information.”

Stone agrees: “There’s a lot of mental illness among the homeless, lots of people isolated, in extreme need, many on antpsychotic drugs. They need love, support and interaction. If something is well run it attracts volunteers because they feel safe and it attracts guys to behave well, everything works together to take it from a scary place to a place of warmth and comfort.”