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1st November 2018

Helping the homeless with a home-cooked meal

An interview with Gaby Hartfield, the homeless coordinator at the Student Action Group, who reveals how students are putting their cooking skills to good use
Helping the homeless with a home-cooked meal
Photo: Nancy Rennie

Even when you are living inside the student bubble, it is difficult not to ignore the problem of homelessness in Manchester. But often we feel that there is not much we can do — maybe give a homeless person some spare change, or buy them a sandwich. Yet truth be told very few students actually do this.

However, there is an easier and more effective way to help, which enables students to get involved with tackling homelessness.

I met up with Gaby Hartfield, a second year Law and Politics student, who is the homeless co-ordinator at the Student Action Group, to discuss the role that students can play in helping people who live on the streets.

Gaby volunteers with the Stockport Food Project, where she looks after a group of ten student volunteers who visit a shelter in Stockport every week, as well as two project leaders. The students take it in turns to attend the shelter in groups of five each week. Gaby does most of the administrative work, such as interviewing and selecting volunteers, and asking residents what food they’d like, while the project leaders oversee the daily running of the scheme.

Like a lot of students when they first come to Manchester, Gaby was shocked by the scale of the problem of homelessness in the city, and having always wanted to help others, knew that she had to contribute in some way.

“Back home I worked in a soup kitchen in town, but when I moved to Manchester it became apparent how bad the situation was here, so I found the Student Action Group on the SU website,” Gaby tells me. “The Stockport Food Project was set up last year, and I was the first student leader. It’s been satisfying to see it grow, but the paperwork is hard!”

What is inspiring about the project is how little commitment is required to have such a significant impact. Volunteers only to need to give up one Wednesday afternoon every fortnight. So what does a typical session involve?

“We meet at the SU, having done the food shopping before, with a budget of £30 per session, and we cook for 25-30 men. We brief the students about the situation and discuss safety checks,” Gaby explains, “then we get going and get cooking. The residents at the shelter also get involved and help to cook as well.”

This inclusivity is an important part of the project as it brings people together — “what everyone has in common is food, so that encourages everyone to get involved”.

One meal a week may not sound like much, but the actions of these students have a positive impact of the lives of the residents.

“We’re friendly faces, different types of people they can talk to,” Gaby explains. “They loosen up when we get there, they relax and talk to us. We might be a small project but we help with manners and communication skills.”

The Stockport Food Project also gives the residents something which we often take for granted — a sense of family. As Gaby tells me: “They remember you, they’re so excited… it has a homely feel when you’re there. It’s a home-cooked meal, [they say] ‘can you do this, this is what my mum use to do’.”

Each week they cook something different, often being adventurous with what they make, including Mexican and Thai food.

“We always do a main meal and a pudding, and bring enough tea and milk for everyone… we made homemade pizzas before, that was so good.”

The process itself is important too, as Gaby explains, “the aim is for everyone to do everything together, prepare, cook, and eat. Everyone washes up together, we’re all on an equal level”.

The beauty of volunteering is how it benefits both the volunteers and those at the receiving end — “it’s rewarding to see something you’ve worked on be successful, and to help others, but it’s also exciting,” Gaby smiles. “One of the people that we helped recently got a job in catering, so that was very rewarding”.

Volunteering is something that is achievable for students, and not only does it look impressive on your CV, it can give you invaluable transferable skills.

“With Law and Politics you need to be able to communicate with more vulnerable members of society, and volunteering is so easy to do alongside your degree… for one project to have such a large impact with such little hours is worthwhile”.

There are other projects which you can get involved with at the Student Action Group, so there’s no excuse not to get involved.

“It’s really important for everyone to do some volunteering, giving up your time for free can only be a good thing,” Gaby says.

“Student Action are understanding with student life… we don’t do things on Saturday mornings since everyone will be hungover! Balancing work, fun and volunteering is difficult, which is why Student Action is so good”.

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