As he sits down, Mike Tomes looks more humble than one might think he would, considering how much he has done for the local community. Dedicating over 25 years to London’s homeless population, the 59 year-old manager for the North London Action for Homeless (NLAH) charity begins by offering me a chocolate. “Try one of these, they’re delicious. Have you got a cup of tea? ”
Evidence perhaps of his giving nature, Tomes is clearly the right man for the job, having held the position for 10 years.
“The charity was set up about 21 years ago by a synagogue called the North London Progressive Congregation,” Tomes says. “A lot of Jewish charities give money and help to Jewish causes and they saw loads of local people sleeping rough and they set up the NLAH. Some of the people from the synagogue are still on the board today; they’re all getting on a bit, but there is a lot of new blood as well.”
“I was vulnerably housed for a long time before I got my flat; I was on the edge of homelessness when I first moved to London – nothing like some of these guys. It really is scary, especially for people that have been looked after a bit, like people in the army or prison.”
The NLAH is based at St Paul’s Church hall in Stoke Newington, North Hackney and still stands strong after almost 22 years. It is a vital support system for those in desperate need in the surrounding area. The charity runs almost entirely on donations, receiving not only huge amounts of food but also bundles of clothes and bedding.
Before joining the charity, Tomes spent some time teaching. “I realised I didn’t really like teaching. Before that I worked in hostels for homeless families in Islington and did that for about 17 years. I spent three years teaching then applied for this job. It’s really nice, there’s nothing statutory about it, just donations from well wishers.”
As the volunteers are busy prepping the vegetables and setting up tables for lunch, Tomes can’t help but glance over and I get the impression that he’s desperate to get stuck in – not a “stand back and direct from a distance” sort of manager.
“We fill in a lot of applications for support, so we apply for grants from the London guilds and get a bit of money from that. It costs roughly a good years salary to run this place.”
When I compliment the great smells wafting from the kitchen, Tomes tells me a little more about Lucy, the chef. “We’ve always had great cooks, but Lucy is really good. If you stick around you can have a meal later.” He seems naturally open and welcoming.
In a stark reminder of the growing homelessness issue Hackney is faced with, he says: “We began with 15 clients, and now we have roughly 88; we do 200 meals a week. We outgrew ourselves and moved to a Catholic church up the road, and outgrew ourselves again, and had to move here.”
In their 2015 annual report, the NLAH said that 45 per sent of London’s homeless population suffer with mental health issues. “There’s three strands that go through all of our clients: mental health issues, alcohol addiction and loneliness. You’re lonely so you drink, you’re drinking which can lead to mental health issues…it’s a vicious cycle,” he says.
When asked to describe Hackney in three words, Tomes gives a wry smile. “Vibrant, mixed and complex. It depends where you’re coming from. A homeless person would answer differently to a hipster living in Shoreditch.”
“Why homelessness? I’ve been close enough to homelessness for it to scare me. It made me want to take action.”