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Long read: From hospitality to homelessness

Published:  03 December, 2020

With 30-40% of people made homeless this year estimated to be former hospitality workers, the situation has become dire for many. Hugh Jones, who also lost his job this year as a result of the pandemic, investigates the depth of the problem, and how the trade can help.

It doesn’t take much to end up on the streets. Unfortunately, this is something that many in our industry have discovered this year, with growing numbers of former hospitality staff finding themselves without not only their jobs, but without a roof over their heads. The numbers should be cause for concern. According to CHAIN, the official database for homeless counts in London, 1,841 people became homeless in the first three months of this incredibly tough year. From there, the numbers grew: 2,680 from April to June; 1,901 from July to September. That’s a total of 6,422 (N.B. some might only have been homeless for a short period of time), of which homeless charity Glass Door estimate 30-40% are former hospitality workers.

Mikkel Juel Iversen is the founder Under One Sky, a collective of volunteers bound together by a shared desire to support marginalised and vulnerable communities. Under One Sky set up their Emergency Food Initiative on 2 April 2020 for homeless people left out on London’s streets during the first lockdown. On many nights since then, teams of their volunteers have walked the streets to deliver meals to rough sleepers.

Are 30-40% of the homeless community really former hospitality workers? “This estimate feels quite in line with our experience on the streets,” says Iversen, “If we apply 35% to the total above, you end up at approximately 2,250. A more conservative method would be to only include April to September given lockdown started at the end of March, which would lead to approximately 1,600, so an estimate of around 2,000 seems quite sensible”.

It’s not just forced business closures and redundancies causing such a large proportion of former hospitality workers onto the streets. Many restaurants use Tronc (the service charge added to your bill) as a pot from which to pay or top up wages. Furlough pay doesn’t take Tronc into account, so what should be 80% of their wage is actually closer to 50%.

Anna Sebastian, bar manager at the Artesian, started volunteering with Under One Sky in April when lockdown began. She tells me, “People who used to work on food trucks, markets in the city, chefs, bar backs, furlough couldn’t cover their rent so they were chucked out of their homes with nowhere to go. They don’t have a huge support network they can turn to.”

To add to the picture, the homeless community relies on certain things others might take for granted, many of which disappeared in each lockdown. With cafes closed, there are no leftover sandwiches at the end of the day, nowhere to charge their phones, and fewer toilets.

“Every public bathroom but two in London closed,” continues Sebastian. “People are getting into fights at public phone charging points, and people’s mental health is deteriorating fast. There are times we’ve had to call the police to help stop people from taking their own lives.”

For those who are unlucky enough to find themselves in this situation, the consequences are extreme. “Because they’re exposed to so many other viruses, [Covid-19] is the last of their worries. Unless the government can provide more accommodation, many will die of hypothermia over the winter. Numbers are increasing and resources are less. Hostels have to operate at severely reduced capacity in line with government guidelines, so only the most high risk can get a bed for the night.”

The Under One Sky team and volunteers

In addition to volunteering, Sebastian has worked with Sam Ayling, general manager of Metropolitan Pub Company, to raise funds for the charity via two ‘Skywalker’ cocktails launched in the summer (one alcoholic, one non-alcoholic), delivered on bikes across London. No. 3 Gin, Aecorn and Seedlip supported the project, and the initiative raised £2,000 during the first lockdown. It’s also inspired others to follow suit.

Hospitality charity Community Spirit UK (led by industry professionals Sophie Bratt and Sly Augustin) was founded in the wake of the 2017 Grenfell Tower tragedy. It was an initiative organised by bartenders and spirit brands who pulled together to help raise money for the victims and their families. As Bratt puts it, “We’re about making people smile again, because that’s what hospitality is about.” They understand that people who work in hospitality don’t just serve the community, they are the community.

This year, when Community Spirit became aware of the growing number of former hospitality workers on our streets, they once again took action by hosting a dinner that raised over £1,000 for Under One Sky. Since then, they have partnered with Moet Hennessy to launch the ‘Crocodile Rock’ cocktail – a sparkling rum highball created by Alex King, bartender also at The Artesian. One bottle serves six and costs £36, the profits of which go to Under One Sky. “It’s a great Christmas cocktail,” Bratt enthuses. “Great with a mince pie and perfect as gift.”

At the beginning of the second lockdown, Sebastian used her social media presence as a platform to generate more support for Under One Sky, stressing how difficult this winter is going to be for the homeless community. She’s set up an amazon wish list of essentials for the homeless community, and hopes the generosity she’s seen so far continues over the Christmas period and beyond.

In a normal year we’d be in the peak of another hectic Christmas season with parties, revellers, and big spenders filling our bars and restaurants. Instead, we’re watching as our community and peers fall through the cracks around us. The good news is that we can all do something to help, as Sebastian points out, “If we all do a little, it becomes a lot”. You can donate to Under One Sky here, buy the essentials on Sebastian’s wishlist, and buy your friends and family a bottle or two of Crocodile Rock for Christmas.

How can you help?

Under One Sky – daily food runs for the homeless 

Anna Sebastian’s Amazon wishlist, includes warm clothes and amenities for those sleeping on the streets. 

She said: “We’ve met so many hospitality people that have been made homeless as a result of Covid-19 that have nothing, no job, no money, no support network. This will be the worst winter in recent memory. Covid restrictions mean many of the winter shelters will be shut or operate at lower capacity. It is getting cold and the feedback from the street is that people are already freezing. The reality is people will die on the streets if we get a hard winter. There is no safety net, councils are running beyond capacity.”

Proceeds from the Crocodile Rock cocktail go to the homeless