PAULA MERRONY knows what it feels like not to have a home or know where her next meal is coming from.
She wasn’t always able to provide adequate food for her four children, despite the fact that she was working.
She eventually found her home in Hammersmith and was then inspired to work at City Harvest, a charity that gives food another life by distributing unwanted goods to organisations that feed the needy.
“I became homeless in 1990 when my eldest son was six,” says Paula (60), mum to Adam, now 32 and who has learning difficulties, Elisa (30), Sigourney (26) and Jack (23).
“I was a single mum — his father didn’t stay around and didn’t help bring him up. When Adam hit five, the support for him dried up once he was eligible for school.
“There were no suitable schools nearby, so we moved back to Hammersmith but for some reason, my tenancy didn’t get cancelled.
“The council were looking to rehome us, but it came up that I still had the other house, so they couldn’t help me.
“We ended up squatting in a flat and then sofa-surfing, until eventually, the council put us in bed and breakfast. By then, we were officially recognised as a homeless family.
“We got temporary housing in Hammersmith, but then I couldn’t afford the rent so we ended up being taken to court.
“The housing officer gave us much-needed support, and she also advised me to get counselling, which then gave me the confidence to ditch my partner.
“He was several people’s partner at this time — we’d all hoped that we would be the one he eventually chose!
“He didn’t stay very often and this affected the children, and I was suffering badly with depression.
“Instead of being rehoused we got put back into B&Bs.
“The children had to rehome the rabbit and the guinea pigs.
“The whole experience of living in a B&B opened up my eyes.
“It was a real introduction to other people with other problems, mental health problems, refugees, people with addictions and it was a bit of an eye-opener for the kids.
“I tried to make it as fun as possible so they all felt like they were on holiday really, and I kept them close.
“One of the worst things about homelessness and being in temporary accommodation like a B&B is you have no feeling of security or belonging,” adds Paula.
“You don’t have any of your personal belongings, you cannot help but feel a failure for getting yourself into such a mess.
“Living in a B&B also limits your social life. You’ve got nowhere to invite your friends to, so normal socialising becomes difficult, and the children couldn’t invite their friends over to play.
“I had to find ways of filling the day up for the children, which was especially hard in bad weather.
“We made use of libraries, museums and other public places, and found a couple of cheap cafes who didn’t mind us taking our time.
“We were lucky to be living near Hyde Park, and spent a lot of time playing in the park after school, delaying the return to the B&B until it was bedtime.
“I always tried to ensure that we kept positive about everything,” Paula says.
“I kept it upbeat, and my eldest daughter thought we were on holiday for most of this difficult time!
“Being homeless meant not having any base, being permanently in limbo, everything being in storage and trying to feed your family adequately with only a microwave and kettle for a kitchen!
“We weren’t eating properly or at all nutritiously, to be fair.
“We could only have things that you could micro or that needed boiling water, so we lived on lots of pasta with jars of sauces and cereal.
“My daughter Sigourney put on weight because she simply couldn’t get the right nutrition.
“Finances were very, very tight as I couldn’t shop normally and had to stretch my money.
“I had to buy cheap convenience foods — I made sure they had fruit, but fresh food was difficult.
“It was a dramatic time. There were difficult moments and the whole experience wasn’t brilliant.
“You simply don’t get to choose where or with who you live with.
“But there were lots of kind people, too, and I met people who came from very different circumstances, and we shared stories and supported each other.
“It took five years before I was housed in Hammersmith on quite a nice estate, although the flat was overcrowded.
“The housing team didn’t recognise that Adam’s disability meant he couldn’t share space and needed a room on his own.
“Jack and I had to share for years until one of the girls went to uni and we reshuffled a bit.”
PAULA MERRONY is now head of operations with food charity City Harvest.
City Harvest collects food from donor organisations and deliver it to groups who need it and can make good use of it, such as homeless shelters, soup kitchens, centres for veterans, family and community centres and organisations that assist people with alcohol or drug addictions.
“Homelessness and hunger are back on the increase,” says Paula.
“I am very much aware of the number of older women who are homeless these days.
“There is not enough available social housing and the rents in the private sector are not affordable.
“Three of my children are still living with me — 15 years ago they would have been able to find somewhere affordable and moved out.
“Some people who are homeless and hungry have not had the best of luck in their lives.
“They’ve ended up at the bottom of the pile, but many are just like the rest of us where negative circumstances have overtaken them.
“I know what it’s like not to have a spare fiver in my pocket — you can’t buy what you want to eat and when my children were younger, my friends and I used to share our store cupboard food between us to make sure all the children were fed.
“Finding affordable nutritious food becomes a problem when money is tight. My experience of existing on a low wage for so many years has made me very aware that I, through City Harvest, need to make sure everyone is looked after.
“It’s so important to look after your neighbour — it’s what makes the world go round.”
City Harvest is asking for donations of funding and refrigerated vans as well as volunteer time in order to fulfil their aims. For information go to www.cityharvest.org.uk