By Piriyanga Thirunimalan
A man whose family was hit by homelessness when he was growing up has set up a project to help rough sleepers in South London.
Stefan Nicholas Jones, from Streatham, lost his mother just years after getting her back from homelessness and addiction, and the project was driven by this loss.
He founded the AR Rihla Project in September 2020 and his team of volunteers have been distributing hot food and backpacks full of essentials to those in need.
The emergency backpacks contain everything necessary to live on the streets, including sleeping bags, blankets, food, hand warmers, socks, protein shakes and soap, in large hiking bags.
Mr Jones, 33, said: “I want to be the person that I wish someone could have been for her when she was out there.
“She used to be in such a bad state… I just don’t want that for people.
“Every single person should be allowed food.”
Mr Jones hopes his work in the community will inspire youth to have compassion and help those in need.
A lot of the initiatives are held in Croydon, however the team also work in other areas of South London and hold a drive in the Strand each Sunday where they feed about 115 people weekly.
The team also provide food and essentials to Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham and aid those transitioning from homelessness to being housed with necessities such as cereal.
Before starting initiatives to help the homeless in South London, Mr Jones and a partner in the project, Tariro Mudarikiri, fundraised and built nine water wells in Pakistan and Zimbabwe.
The idea for emergency backpacks came a little while after Mr Jones used the Streetlink app- a service intended to temporarily house rough sleepers- and found that it was inefficient.
Mr Jones said he used the app twice and was told two weeks later by Streetlink that they could not find the rough sleepers and that it takes them up to five days after a report to go out to find them.
He said: “How does that make any sense?
“I came home and I couldn’t sleep at night because I’ve told this person to just stand there and wait.
“So, I thought to myself how can I bridge this gap, and I came up with backpacks containing everything you need.”
A number of people who were supported by the AR Rihla Project when homeless have joined the team of volunteers to help others once they found their way out of homelessness.
One such person is Donna Atkinson, 66, who, along with her daughter Gemma Atkinson, now helps the AR Rihla Project after being placed in housing by WeCare.
The mother and daughter, now living in Croydon, were homeless for six years before being housed and were supported by Mr Jones and the AR Rihla Project when moving into housing.
They both now cook and distribute hot meals to rough sleepers in Croydon several times a week.
Ms Atkinson said: “Nobody should ever go hungry in this day and age.
“If I can put something back into the community like Stefan does then why not?
“I can have a good night’s sleep knowing that I’ve fed people.”
Martin Burns, a street camper who is supported by the AR Rihla Project, said that those in the project and those they support are now one big family of friends.
Mr Burns said: “Stef asked for advice on how to find homeless people for his outreach and I told him about lost sheep and the Shepherd.
“He didn’t know then what I was getting at, but a few weeks later he started his outreach, going around finding lost sheep, helping them as much as he’s helping me.”
AR Rihla are also collaborating with other small organisations such as Back on your Feat to expand their work further.
To find out more about the project or donate click here: https://uk.gofundme.com/f/ar-food-project
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