A Rear Kind Of Shelter For The Homeless in North London
On a calm yet windy late afternoon in North London; sounds of music and laughter can be heard from afar in the N15 district. Noises of children running around, Afrobeats, Brazilians going to church and cheerful Congolese within warehouse units made up for the rather urban and rundown exterior feel of Tottenham’s Fountayne Road. Portuguese, Polish, Romanian, Twi, Yoruba and Lingala amongst other languages can be heard. For those in the know; Sunday evenings now represent a popular time for various businesses to rent out their warehouse spaces to locals. Bustling along to Birthday parties, evening services and other community events are members of the community with stern faces, golden smiles and anticipation.
As I make my way through the car park, sightings of Caribbean aunties, odd stares and the smells of Ghanaian food, I enter unit 8 and walked straight through the door interrupting a Romanian Church service on the ground floor. I briskly walked through and up the stairs. The sounds of tambourines from those on the ground gave way to the sight and smells of use mattresses, Polish and Romanian supper-clubs and rather mellow security-personnel. I approach a door and walked past a few rooms where young homeless men of Polish and Romanian origin cook their evening meals and into the small and humble office of a gentleman named Alex Gyasi. Here I was, sitting in the same office where Ross Kemp, David Lammy, the mayor of Haringey, BBC, Channel 4, Guardian Newspaper staff amongst other media and political figure came and went.
Rev Alex Gyasi is a pastor and oversees the Highway House and many other international projects. In late 2009; Alex and his wife decided to have two homeless people over for dinner. A few weeks later, the two men showed up with 20 other homeless men. And since December 2009 on their church premises; the rest is history. A church that is pre-dominantly African-Caribbean by day became a European homeless shelter by night. And still is. Men of every nationality, from their early 20s to late 70s, are referred to the church premises by hospitals across London, including University College London hospitals, Guys and St. Thomas, Royal London, Barts, City Mental Health Trust and others. What is more extraordinary is the unwillingness of local borough councils to cooperate or orgniasations to get involved with the homeless shelter project. One of the setbacks for Haringey council has been a fear of binding responsibility. If councils fund these kind of projects and it goes well. Homeless people from other boroughs will want to come in – and if they stay for six months – they have the right to claim housing and become the council’s responsibility. Furthermore, anything that is helping people that others might see as foreigners also gives offense. Brexit, stoic growth in anti-immigration rhetoric and lasting trends of institutional racism within recent months illustrate a growing culture of not seeking to help ‘others’. And it’s not just homeless men that need to be helped. This shelter also aids women.
Pastor Alex Gyasi shared a story of when a woman was discharged from the Royal Free, had nowhere to go and called him. She was involved in domestic violence – “I am standing outside the reception of the Royal Free. I’ve been abused. I’ve been to hospital and released. I don’t want to go home.” This woman slept in Pastor Alex’s office for three months; it was an office by day and a room by night. This is one of many stories that highlights suffering in our system and needs to be addressed.
Every day since December 2009; the maligned and homeless have been given shelter in what many would label the European city of fashion, riches and noise unknown to many of London’s residents. The shelter has housed people from Romania, Poland, Asia, China, India. Ghana, Nigeria, Germany, Australia, and many more including an American with Master’s Degree. The day to day running of Highway Homeless Shelter in Unit 8 on Fountayne Road, Tottenham is an amazing story. It reminds me of the Luganda Proverb: ‘Egyagaza omubi omulungi takimanya’ (What makes the ugly person beloved; the beautiful one doesn’t know). “It’s common to find Black British Londoners and African Pastors despised within members of their own community and British media, but with Pastor Alex and the Highway House, these very ‘maligned’ service provider indeed have a place within the London community.
They Highway House have indeed helped many homeless people “rebuilding their lives, their confidence and rebuilding themselves.” Plans for expansion are being considered so the shelter can accommodate women, too. To support Pastor Alex; please click here
By Tholani Alli