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Soup Kitchen serves up mental health support to London's homeless

Project is first of its kind to offer therapy in addition to hot food to help tackle rising need

Soup Kitchen serves up mental health support to London's homeless
Eat and meet … Soup Kitchen at the American Church on London’s Tottenham Court Rd. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Caroline, who is 10 weeks pregnant, clutches a colourful antenatal zip-file folder from the NHS. It has pregnancy advice written all over it, telling her to eat healthily and stay active. But she is in an unusual position for a soon-to-be mother – she’s a rough sleeper.

The 28-year-old is one of many who have been getting food, but also mental health support at the Soup Kitchen at the American international church on Tottenham Court Road in central London.

The project is the first of its kind, with no other soup kitchen having ever opened up a mental health clinic on site.

Alex Brown, the director of the Soup Kitchen, first made the suggestion. He felt that by giving free mental health support to homeless people you could help them get off the streets.

Alex Brown. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Michael Brown, a Soup Kitchen trustee and the founder of the advertising company MKTG, helped by setting up a crowdfunding page to raise money for a part-time therapist. They needed £30,000 and it exceeded this target in late 2017. There were further steps to take before launching but they opened their doors with a party last week.

Last week Caroline was being helped by Dr Dobrochna Zajas, a cognitive behavioural therapist. She and her colleague Dr Brett Grellier have been offering specialist therapy, using techniques tailored for those who have been through trauma.

Caroline has experienced a great deal of trauma in her life, after being trafficked to the UK from Poland and made to wash cars for £32 a week. Realising they were being exploited, she and her partner left their employer and attempted to find other work. But Caroline had to give up her job when her boyfriend became suicidal. She was later raped and that resulted in her current pregnancy.

Pregnant women in her situation are entitled to support, but Caroline’s immigration status means she does not have access to temporary accommodation at the moment.

Stories like hers can be unearthed through Zajas, who speaks several languages, and relevant support then provided. “Being on the streets is very stressful,” Caroline said. “You get more isolated and withdrawn and it becomes destructive.” She added that mental health support was vital in terms of getting out of that situation, especially when you had experienced violence and sexual abuse.

About 80% of homeless people have mental health issues like Caroline and despite their great need for support, being homeless can make it harder to get help.

The kitchen offers informal mental health support in addition to one-to-one sessions. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

The therapy Zajas and her colleague offer is cognitive behavioural therapy and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR). Both are recommended by National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) for the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder or trauma.

Since the opening, a lot of people have come for one-to-one sessions, but others have also had informal chats. “A space for them might be anxiety provoking,” Zajas said. “Around five people have booked in sessions and a few have spoken for about 15 minutes with me before they have found it hard to continue,” she added.

So far, the programme is proving valuable. The clinic is open two days a week – Tuesday and Wednesday – while the Soup Kitchen itself is open 10am-12.30pm throughout the week.

“Mental health is so important because it is a basic need every person has in terms of their health. Housing is just as important as emotional wellbeing but it is not always looked at in this way. Mental health issues are not as visible as physical ones maybe so sometimes overlooked in some way,” said Zajas.

For people such as Caroline the addition of mental health support is already proving a lifeline. “I will be coming here regularly now. I worry about depression but also postnatal depression,” she said. “There is just a lot of stress on the streets. Situations you want to avoid, people dying – you wake up and someone is dead. After everything I have been through it is very hard.”

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