It’s been a decade since Hope House first opened on Boundary Road. Founder Nigel Adams tells us how the pandemic has proven a challenge, but one they’ve met head-on.
The laugh Nigel Adams gives before telling me what this year has been like for him contains just the right amount of sardonic cheer to almost make his reply redundant. “It’s been weird’ he says, his eyebrows letting me know this is quite the understatement.
It certainly has been a far from normal few months for the founder of Hope House, the food bank in Beeston North that has been a safety net – and a trampoline, which we will explain in due course – for the past decade. “We knew instantly we had to react fast. We decided to close half of the food banks in our network (Hope oversees 14 similar places across the county), as many of our volunteers had to shield, and we saw that a delivery service was the best way to help.”
Nigel opened Hope House ten years ago, perhaps uncoincidentally the same year a new austerity-inflicting government came to power. An engineer by trade, he had taken ‘a leap of faith’ to change careers to set up the charity, after helping the Parish Pantry, an under-resourced (“It was little more than a Portakabin, no water, and a sideboard to store the beans in”) soup kitchen operating out of Wollaton Road Methodist Church. “We had a vision to set up something more holistic on bigger premises and eventually got offered Boundary Road Reform Church he explains The CAB were signposting many people to us, and people presented themselves in all sorts of situations”. Seeing demand would only grow, he took up an offer to take over the disused Boundary Road Reform Church and registered as a Trussell Trust foodbank. Since then, it’s become a much-praised institution, that’s helped countless vulnerable individuals and families.
Yet food is merely one element of what they do there “Food is important, obviously. But we have to have a more holistic approach, so as we’ve grown we’ve put in place things to help people help themselves: help accessing the right benefits, help getting back into work. We have a literacy group, an IT tuition group. The church itself is a community cafe” Nigel is very much an adherent to the idea of addressing the cause, not just the symptom “We build confidence, we give people the tools to help themselves. Often they come here as a last resort – they’re literally starving – and while we can address the hunger immediately, we want to be able to get that person out of the situation that led to that hunger”.
It’s a much more rounded approach: while food banks are often seen as single-purpose – handing out food parcels – they often address a variety of needs It’s a myth I acknowledge I’d believed before talking to Nigel, who is quick to set me right “The longer you spend in a bad situation -debt, joblessness, whatever – the harder it is to come out of it. The sooner we can help, the better. Yet it’s often only desperation that means they seek help”.
That decade of experience proved invaluable when the pandemic hit and with it lockdown. “Just getting food was difficult” Nigel explains “Panic buying had emptied the shelves, so people who don’t have the financial means to do a big shop for staples were left struggling. We had to help people stay at home and stay safe just as much as to mitigate against poverty. Yet there was a tremendous outpouring of good, with organisations coming together to help. We worked with Himmah (Muslim charity based in Forest Fields) and other food banks as well as local authorities. Everyone pulled together, and did so well before central government got going”. Demand rocketed, yet with its offers of help “Post-apocalyptic films always show that society reacts to disaster with an ‘every man for themselves’ attitude” he laughs, and with more than a hint of pride says “the reality is people actually just want to help”. Such was the response, an answerphone service had to be added to the phone line “Otherwise our admin staff would have been overwhelmed…it’s a great instinct, to want to help”. In just one fortnight in May, Hope House distributed more food than it usually does in a year.
This help, alongside generous donations and grants from the speedily, set up Robin Hood Fund, DEFRA and others ensured that they could keep providing help across the region. They were able to not just hit a food in -food out equilibrium, but, in the manner of more conventional banks, store up some supplies. “We have a stockpile ready for winter. We tend to see much generosity over Christmas, but that falls back in January and February. By March, our shelves can be fairly empty: just as high energy bills hit households and topple them into debt. We have a buffer this year”.
Is he confident about the future, as the shadow of Covid falls over a long winter, with the wave of a mighty recession about to break on the shore? As the moratorium on evictions and the furlough scheme approach an end, things could get very grim.
“I’m an incurable optimist,” Nigel tells me. “Opportunities will arise, society will restructure” In no way should this be mistaken for complacency “We’re readying ourselves: strengthening the job clubs, working closely with the CAB, and so on”.
Such is the effectiveness of the social and signposting activity at Hope, the hardest part of lockdown is having to shut the cafe. Such is its worth as a safe space, a place for confidence, sociability and employability to rebuild that having closed for any period of time greatly slows down the way Hope works. Yes, they can keep people fed, and do that well. Getting them out of the rut that leads them to need help, not so much.
What can we, as caring helpful Beestonians do? “A simple thing to do, which would have such an effect if we were all to do it, is instead of just giving to a food bank, check your neighbour. See how they are. There is a poverty of companionship in this country, and we can make giant steps by just looking out for our community directly. It’s often much harder to check your neighbour than drop some pasta off with us, and could mean we wouldn’t see that person present to us”.
And if, by some miracle, everyone had enough to eat and Hope’s role became redundant “We need community. If we weren’t doing food we would be still providing that. Community is – like food – a basic need, but one much easier to overlook”
Picture credit: Nottinghamshire Live