Shul shelter finds right recipe to help homeless


It was 7.30 on a Saturday night and Lorelai Burcea was stirring herbs into a large saucepan of mushroom sauce gently heating in the kitchen of the West London Synagogue.

The guests had already arrived and were chatting or reading the papers over coffee. Outside, the wind nipped at the unprotected ears of entertainment-seekers streaming into the West End.

Ms Burcea, 28, who comes from Romania, now works in finance in London, is one of the volunteers at West London's night shelter. Once a week throught the winter the Reform congregation provides a hot dinner and bed and breakfast to homeless people.

"Tonight they are having tomato soup with garlic bread, cheese and mushroom pasta and salad for mains, and then sticky toffee pudding," she said.

Undaunted by her first attempt at the English dessert was Madeline Young, 36, of French-American background, whose daytime job is in corporate social responsibility. "Jamie Oliver recipes are easy," she said.

"When we were kids in Wisconsin, my mum liked volunteering and used to take us to help at a soup kitchen," she said. "It's lovely to see something like this in a synagogue. People who may have no idea of who Jews can see that our doors are open. At Chanucah, we lit the menorah and made latkes to share with them."

Each week, the synagogue welcomes 15 people assigned by the West London Day Centre, which runs a project for rough sleepers. On the other nights of the week, different churches locally take turns to host the group. It is the second year that the synagogue has offered the shelter, part of a social action programme that also includes a drop-in centre for asylum seekers.

"So many times you pass people in the street and you feel paralysed but this is a nice way to help," said Ms Burcea, who is one of the synagogue's young adult leaders. "A few weeks ago we had a projector here showing movies, and served chips and dips. There's nothing more homely than eating in front of the television."

Laura Solomons, 25, who was the synagogue's social action manager and now works as a fundraiser for a charity, led a volunteer team of 10 for the first time last month. Some came to cook, others to host and eat with the visitors, and others to sleep over.

"Remember, some of the guests have been recovering from alcohol or gambling issues," she briefed the team. "So you don't want to talk about how you might have gone out last week, got drunk and had a hangover."

Around 30 people who used the synagogue shelter last year eventually found permanent housing.

Often the story is of someone losing their job and falling into debt, unable to afford housing in the capital - like David, who appeared at West London for the first time last month. He was made redundant as an undertaker in 2008 and has struggled to secure permanent work. Last summer he had spent two weeks sleeping out in Parliament Square when he found a job doing barwork in a hotel in Surrey. "After four weeks, the chef said, you do know they are selling the hotel, don't you?," he recalled.

Imoh, from Nigeria, once played as a professional footballer until a knee-injury ended his career. He had been working as a kitchen porter in the UK for several years when the job disappeared. Like others, he has faced growing casualisation of work, with too little regular income to pay rent.

Tugging down the collar of his T-shirt, he revealed a silver pendant inscribed with a six-pointed star. "It's the seal of David," he said. "It was given to me by my grandfather. It gives me inspiration."

Like others, he spoke appreciately of his West London hosts. "It's not just the food, it's the way you are treated".

Each guest receives a mattress and a bag containing bedding which they keep it for the duration of their stay," said Ms Solomons. "We also prepare toiletries, so they don't have to carry around a toothbrush."

Volunteer Sebastian Weiser was doing his second all-night shift, sleeping on site. A lawyer, 40, he said that "helping other people is the practical realisation our faith as Progressive Jews".

He was due to rise at six to help prepare breakfast, supplemented by rolls, croissants and muffins donated by the local branch of Gails' bakery.

Before leaving, the visitors would also be supplied with a packed lunch.

Generally, all passes off quietly, although the odd incident occurred last year, said Ms Solomon, "but nothing serious. There were a few squabbles over breakfast when someone took three croissants and someone else thought that was greedy."

Jerry, 67, who returned to the UK after losing his job in France, was sleeping rough at the end of last year. His craggy face seemed to have endured all weathers.

Outside the synagogue, taking a drag on an after-dinner roll-up, he looked at the sky and said simply, "thanks be to God that I found this."

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