Features

Cornerstone of humanity

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Long before local charities got fashionable during lockdown, Wanstead has always been a thriving hub of goodwill; and The Corner House Project is perhaps the jewel in its crown. Jackie Clune reports

Residents will know the Corner House itself, with its lovely volunteer-planted front garden and welcoming signs, situated opposite the park and alongside Co-op. The house has become the central node in a network of extraordinary local people who have come together with one simple aim – to do good in the local community.

Last year, Forest Churches Emergency Night Shelter came to Wanstead, and from November to March, together with the Waltham Forest Churches, helped to give shelter to around 150 homeless guests over the winter. The outreach touched local businessman John Wagstaff, who set about collecting trainers for the homeless. Overwhelmed by the kindness in the area, he then got involved with another local legend, Frank Charles, whose Feed the Streetz initiative in Stratford was thriving. Suzi Harnett and Lizi from The Cuckfield pub joined forces to provide hubs for collection of donations.

As well as homelessness outreach, the Corner House Project supports other wonderful charities such as The Magpie Project, providing essentials for women and small children in temporary accommodation. We also work closely with the Tin in a Bin network, supporting the Wobble Rooms for NHS staff, providing fruit supplies to vulnerable people and visits to those living in hotels from Lola’s Homeless during lockdown. Other lines of support are in the offing.

The Corner House Project is a loose collective of local people who want to cut through bureaucracy and deliver what is needed to those who need it most. As well as providing material things, we want to offer outreach to the vulnerable; advice, support, a friendly face.

With that in mind, every Tuesday in a car park tucked behind a high street in E17, a group of homeless men start to congregate from around 6.30pm. At 7.30pm, a big catering van called The Christian Kitchen will roll in to serve a three-course meal to everyone there. Tonight, the Corner House Project is back after a lockdown break. We set up two trestle tables and load them with donated coats, trainers, bagged-up emergency toiletry supplies and pumps of hand sanitiser. The men are wary at first – who are these people and what do they want? But as soon as one comes to browse, they all trickle over, and soon there are clothes and pants flying in all directions.

“Thank you, Miss, thank you!”

“Bless you, thank you so much!”

“Have you got any socks, please? Thank you, thank you!”

The humility of these people is heartbreaking – how can we be living in such a divided world where Dickensian gratitude is still the norm? Shouldn’t we be relying on our governments to look after their most fragile citizens? How can this be the responsibility of a handful of do-gooders who care enough to give up their own time?

It would be easy to fall into this kind of despair but none of the team shows any sign of such compassion fatigue. Why do we do it? I ask Charlotte, founding member of Feet on the Street. What draws her here every Tuesday when she now lives miles away?

“I don’t know,” she smiles shyly, “I think I’ve got an excess of empathy. Doing this doesn’t necessarily make me feel better but I have to do it. I wake up at three in the morning sometimes worrying about them. I’ve got to know so many of them, I care about them. Sometimes, I’ll call them in the middle of the night to check in, and they say: ‘Haven’t you got work in the morning?!’”

John Wagstaff is equally committed. “From the first moment I spoke to one of the homeless guys and saw the difference I could make just by acknowledging they exist, I wanted to do more and more. To help as many people as I can. The first time I put something in someone’s hands – that direct transaction – the feeling you are really helping someone. I just felt like I belonged, and having suffered from mental illness from a young age, my empathy comes from the thought that it could easily have been me living on the street instead of them. There but for the grace of God…”

Other members of the team – Christelle, Michelle and Julie – are busy handing out jeans and home-made cookies. They are enjoying seeing the clothing collections they have been pouring hours and hours into during lockdown finally reaching their intended recipients. Michelle tries to source a bag for a man who is being taught to read by a fellow homeless person and wants to say thanks to his teacher by getting him something. One small man around my age is hovering near the jeans. They are all too big for him. Suddenly, I remember seeing a pair of size 32 Levis in a pile. I fish them out and hand them to him. He is utterly delighted. We swap names, and Jason tells me he suffers from terrible anxiety but that the jeans have made him feel good.

“I feel like it’s Christmas. Please know that I will be thinking of you all tonight.” As he walks off with a few jumpers to go with the jeans, I spot a brand new pair of fluffy Christmas socks and give them to him. He smiles. I tell him to put them on and remember us when he does, that we will be thinking of him too. And I know we all will be until we see him again next week. The Corner House Project – it has that kind of effect on you.

To donate money to The Corner House Project visit wnstd.com/wansteadcares
A drive-through collection of clothing and toiletries will take place at Wanstead Cricket Club car park on 5 and 6 December.
For more information, visit wnstd.com/cornerhouseproject