November 26, 2020

‘I’m seeing an industry disappear’: how lockdown is leaving hospitality workers homeless

https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/nov/16/im-seeing-an-industry-disappear-how-lockdown-is-leaving-hospitality-workers-homeless

When chef Sam Pinnock lost his job in late February, he offered to help around his landlady’s house in exchange for a rent discount. But tensions rose and the relationship broke down. “I was trapped, shouting at my friends on the phone, but no one could help me out,” says 26-year-old Pinnock. He’d often go and sit in a field for hours.

By June, the situation was impossible. Pinnock was waiting for a self-employed grant from the government when he was asked to leave. (As a lodger, he was classified as an excluded occupier, making him exempt from the eviction ban.) He went to his parents’ place in London. They both have health issues and Pinnock didn’t want to expose them to the virus, so for the next month, he slept in a shed in their garden, creeping into the house only when they were out to shower and use the toilet. “You can’t live in a shed,” he says. “It was fun for the first week but the novelty wore off.”

In the shed, Pinnock spent his time emailing people for assistance. “Every single charity organisation you can think of,” he says, “I messaged them for help.” A young, single, healthy man is bottom of the list for social housing, and so Pinnock remained in his parent’s shed, unemployed, homeless, with debts mounting. “When you don’t have a secure home it has such an effect on you,” he says. “But you can’t sit there feeling sorry for yourself. It doesn’t work.”

Pinnock is one of many hospitality workers hit hard by the pandemic. Pre-Covid, the sector was valued at £133.5bn. Data from UK Hospitality found that £4.7bn of turnover was lost in March and April, with the sector accounting for 33% of the UK’s entire drop in GDP. Around 80% of hospitality firms ceased trading in April – the highest of any sector.

Rishi Sunak’s “eat out to help out” scheme offered a temporary boost, with 100m discounted meals claimed through the chancellor’s scheme. As the sector clambered back on its feet during the summer, a new body blow in September: the 10pm curfew on bars and restaurants. Sales dropped by 12.9%, along with further lockdowns across the country.

The furlough scheme, which provided up to 80% of workers’ salaries, was due to end on 31 October, but was extended until December when England entered its second lockdown. But with pubs and restaurants only able to offer takeaways, the hospitality sector has suffered a huge setback. Katie Nicholls of UK Hospitality warned that a third of all yearly turnover is typically generated between Halloween and Christmas Eve. The loss of that turnover may well prove fatal for many businesses. She said the industry needed at least as much support as it had received in the first lockdown. “Viability is on a knife edge,” she warned. In London alone, 250,000 hospitality jobs are at risk.

Many bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants will not survive the strict new regulations in each of the four countries of the UK. More layoffs seem inevitable. But the sector is trying to mitigate against that. They’re looking after their own. At a theatre in Leith, in Edinburgh, a group of chefs and ex-chefs are feeding their community – many of them also ex-hospitality workers – free of charge. “It’s incredible how quickly it’s grown,” says Lewis MacLachlan, the founder of Empty Kitchens, a community kitchen and food bank, “but terrifying. In a week or so we’re going to hit 200,000 meals we’ve provided.”

MacLachlan, a chef, had planned to spend 2020 studying for a master’s degree in food politics. Instead, he is on the frontline of Scotland’s Covid-19 response, feeding ex-hospitality workers who have fallen on hard times. He set up Empty Kitchens following Boris Johnson’s announcement on 16 March to avoid bars and restaurants. “It was a fortnight of panicked messages from friends and former colleagues,” he remembers. “One got made unemployed and homeless from a hotel he’d been working at by an A4 piece of paper with 50 words on it.”

As job losses increased – Sunak did not announce the furlough scheme until 20 March, by which point many workers had already been let go – more of MacLachlan’s peers found themselves homeless. He had a couple move in with him during lockdown – one had been let go from a hotel without any severance pay. Meanwhile, former suppliers were telling him they had warehouses full of stock and no restaurants to send them to. “I saw masses of people with skills sitting around doing nothing,” he says, “and a ridiculous amount of food going to waste. I decided to try and do something about it.”

Chef Sam Pinnock beside his old dodgem kiosk



Chef Sam Pinnock had been homeless and planned to convert an old dodgem kiosk into a doughnut wagon, plans which are now on hold due to the second lockdown. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt

MacLachlan found suppliers who were willing to donate food that would otherwise spoil, and recruited some unemployed chefs. They set up in a small farmhouse and began distributing two hot-meal services, as well as take-home food parcels for those in need. Empty Kitchens was soon feeding 500 people a day using their take-home packs, with an extra 100 coming in for a hot meal. To date, they have collected more than 2.5 tonnes of food from supermarkets that would otherwise have gone to waste.

Many of the people using Empty Kitchens’ food parcels and hot meals would once have crewed side by side with the chefs preparing the food. “In a restaurant, you treat everyone with the same level of respect and we do the same with the hot service,” says MacLachlan. “We’ve had four chefs who came in to get meals, built up a rapport with the people serving them, revealed they were chefs and started volunteering in the kitchen. Two have managed to move back into employment as a result, and get their lives back on track.”

Long before Covid-19, parts of the industry worked to help vulnerable people, including the homeless, into employment. Such support is now more precarious than ever because, for the foreseeable future, paid work in hospitality will be thin on the ground. Greg Mangham has worked in the industry since he was 14, including contract catering and as an area manager for “hellhole pubs in east London”. Now 62, he’s the founder of Only A Pavement Away (OAPA), a charity that helps homeless people find jobs in the sector.

Since launching in October 2018, OAPA has supported 68 formerly homeless people in finding paid work, partnering with charities and restaurants including Gaucho and the Ivy, and pub giant Fuller’s. By the time Covid-19 hit, OAPA had just celebrated one of its biggest success stories, a man who’d been homeless for 18 months before he met the team, and who had just completed his first year at the Ivy Collection. Now Mangham and his team are desperately trying to keep the people they support in paid work – and off the streets. “Jobs are drying up,” he says.

Many members – as OAPA calls the people it supports – had been furloughed by their employers. Such workers are often reliant on the “tronc” – the communal service charge fund shared out between staff. The tronc can account for as much as 30% of the average waiter’s income, meaning a furloughed waiter could be taking home more like 56% of their normal income.

“The furlough scheme was amazing,” says Jig Maidment of the House of St Barnabas, a private member’s club in central London which also operates as a homeless charity, offering training for those who have been, or are currently, homeless. “For hospitality workers who are predominantly low paid, they rely on 100% of their wage; 80% just isn’t enough.” The House of St Barnabas partners with OAPA support the homeless or those at-risk of homelessness to find paid work: OAPA fronts the cash and the industry contacts, and the House of St Barnabas provides training and emotional support.

OAPA has been topping up the salaries of its furloughed members to 100% of their pre-pandemic levels. This has been a lifeline for Blossom Green, a House of St Barnabas/OAPA member. She is a slight woman who speaks slowly and has multiple face piercings. When I ask her where she’d be without OAPA and House of St Barnabas, she wells up. “I don’t think the situation would be good,” she says. Green was at risk of homelessness before she entered the training scheme. “I always had rent arrears,” she explains. “I used to spend my money like no one’s business.”

After going through the training scheme, she found work as a commis chef at a Fuller’s pub in Shepherd’s Bush. “They welcomed me with open arms,” she says softly. To its credit, Fuller’s hasn’t let Green go but it has reduced her shifts from three a week to just one – a considerable income hit. Last month, Green was about to go to work when her manager texted to tell her not to come in, as there simply wasn’t enough work. “That was hard,” she says, “because I was literally just about to jump on the bus.” Were it not for the fact that OAPA was topping up her salary to its pre-Covid levels, Green could well be in rent arrears once again.

The House of St Barnabas has been working hard to protect its members, who have overcome so much to get off the streets, and are once again at risk of homelessness. “Trying to get through to the council is hard enough in a non-Covid world, but in Covid it’s near impossible,” says Maidment. “It’s email after email, phone call after phone call.”

Many graduates of the House of St Barnabas training scheme saw their job offers fall through in March, including one person who’d secured a kitchen porter job, and another who was a barista. “We had someone who’d been in employment for three years,” says Ollie Stewart of the House of St Barnabas. “They were estranged from their family, and their job as a kitchen porter was the main thing in life that made them feel like they had a purpose. During Covid, he lost his job. He walked away from his tenancy because he lost his job, and became street homeless.”

This kitchen porter is one of the luckier ones: the House of St Barnabas was able to provide him with temporary accommodation and build an unfair dismissal case with his former employer. Not everyone is able to get this level of support. “At the moment, we’re seeing people who were working so precariously they’re not even caught by the furlough scheme or universal credit,” says Neil Parkinson of the homeless charity Glass Door. “These were people who were working off the books, or EU nationals who aren’t entitled to the same benefits as British citizens.”

He explains that EU nationals with non-domiciled status are only entitled to universal credit if they’ve been working legally and file a claim immediately after being made unemployed, which many would not know to do. “In May we started seeing a new cohort of people out on the streets who weren’t known to our services and were homeless for the first time,” says Parkinson. “They were people who’d been in precarious work but had been in informal housing arrangements and weren’t protected by the moratorium on evictions.”

In April, the Guardian reported on the case of Martin, a Polish chef who’d been sacked shortly before lockdown. He’d had to leave his rented room, as he had no savings, and was sleeping rough in central London. Parkinson tells me that around 30-40% of the people Glass Door sees out on the streets were formerly in the hospitality industry. The charity Hospitality Action has also been issuing emergency grants to unemployed ex-hospitality workers, to cover money for food or rent. “We helped over 3,500 households during the first wave,” says Jeremy Gibson of the charity, “and we are expecting a wave as big again.”

I had met OAPA’s Greg Mangham before Boris Johnson announced England’s November lockdown: I call him up, to get his reaction to it. “I’ve got to go out and find £6,500 to top up my members’ wages for another month,” he says. “Because they can’t afford to lose that 20%. And the people I would go to top up their wages are looking down the barrel of losing their own businesses.” He’d only recently placed four new people into roles in the hospitality sector – their jobs are now vulnerable.

But Mangham is determined to top up all of OAPA’s 24 members to 100% of their former salaries, come what may. “I will go out and sell my soul and protect my members,” he says grimly. “We will raise more funds.”

Many problems within the industry predate Covid-19: workers were susceptible to the economic shocks of the shutdown because this is a low-paid sector in which operators often struggle to be viable. Insolvencies in the restaurant sector increased by 25% in 2019, the highest level since 2014, with more than 1,400 restaurants going out of business.

Ollie Stewart, employment manager, House of St Barnabas, London



Ollie Stewart, employment manager, House of St Barnabas, London: ‘During Covid, one of our trainees lost his job and became street homeless.’ Photograph: Phil Fisk/The Observer

Employees went into the pandemic without much in the way of savings. Theirs is a workforce that lives pay cheque to pay cheque, renting within a private market made unaffordable due to a lack of social housing. “The root cause of all of this is that for people on low incomes in this country there is nowhere affordable to rent,” says Polly Neate of the housing charity Shelter. “Ninety per cent of the private rented sector is not affordable to people on low incomes.” The UK needs around 3.1m homes for social rent to meet the needs of the low-paid. Just 6,463 were built in England in 2017-2018. “There is no end in sight unless the government builds social housing,” says Neate. “That’s how this crisis will turn a corner. People in hospitality are the most vulnerable because these businesses are hanging on by a thread. When local lockdowns start to happen and furlough ends, these people will be laid off again, and there’s no eviction ban in place any more. They will have nowhere to live.”

These are bleak times for the sector. “I’m seeing an industry I love and have been in for the last 40 years just disappear in front of me,” says Mangham. “The sector has done everything the government has asked of them: track and trace, sanitising, social distancing. What more can you ask them to do?” He fears mass homelessness when the extended furlough scheme ends in December. “The new homeless will be the hospitality workers who can’t afford to live,” Mangham concludes.

For Pinnock at least, the future is looking hopeful. He successfully applied for universal credit, which will cover his rent in a Bristol houseshare for the foreseeable future. And with the money from a bounce-back government loan he has bought an old dodgem kiosk, which he plans to turn into a street-food business, selling donuts, tea and coffee. He’d hoped to launch it this winter, but now it will have to wait until next year. “I’m good at surviving,” he says. “If I have to wait, it will be OK. I’ve always wanted to work for myself.”