Meet the street saviour providing homeless people in Newham with food, sleeping bags and hugs
PUBLISHED: 14:30 29 November 2017 | UPDATED: 18:14 29 November 2017
It’s 11pm outside on a freezing night. You’re hungry and exhausted but too afraid to sleep.
Thankfully, many of us will never face this situation but it’s a daily, dangerous cycle for rough sleepers in Newham.
One woman has set out to change this. Her name is Lorraine Tabone and she runs Lola’s Homeless, a community group providing practical support and advice to homeless people.
The 47-year-old Canning Town resident, who was born and bred in Forest Gate, provides regular handouts at Stratford Centre and Memorial Church with an army of volunteers.
Over the last two years, she’s hosted Christmas giveaways, pamper parties and organised hotel stays for vulnerable sleepers.
All have received home-cooked food, clothing, showers, haircuts, sleeping bags, toiletries, travel cards, treats and information packs signposting local services at hundreds of Lola’s events.
Equally important, they have experienced kind human interaction.
“I did not realise the battle that they go through,” said Lorraine of those she helps. “It’s the battle for someone to talk to them and to find facilities to get clean.”
She says her support is vital as many rough sleepers are subjected to verbal and physical abuse, a 60-year-old man who was recently firebombed in Canning Town being an example.
“The homeless are very vulnerable in this area,” she said. “They get knifed, they get s**t on. You spend 24 hours a day watching your back.”
Lorraine estimates the number of rough sleepers in Newham to be 300, far higher than the 41 recently reported by housing charity Shelter.
Her guess is that 90 per cent of them are men, with many divorcees.
The former pub manager’s approach is compassionate, having experienced homelessness herself after a relationship ended.
“I did not know where to go,” said Lorraine who spent 18 months in a Canning Town bed and breakfast infested with cockroaches, mice and bed bugs.
“I was told there were not any places around. That was 17 years ago and it is the same today.”
In fact, it’s worse. There’s been a 49 per cent rise in rough sleepers in Newham since 2013, fuelled by immigration, austerity and a housing shortage.
And it was the case of one woman that made Lorraine swear to take action.
In November 2015, she and her friend Laura found 28-year-old Chloe, huddled in a foetal position on a Stratford pavement.
“She was cold and filthy,” said Lorraine. “She was in a hospital blanket and it was freezing.”
The women felt compelled to help by giving her a hat, gloves and food, plus continued help.
Two weeks later on December 13, the first giveaway took place in a Morrisons’ car park and Lola’s was born - the name a combination of Lorraine’s and Laura’s.
They continued to visit Chloe and managed to reunite her with her mum for Christmas in Essex. Sadly, Chloe succumbed to heroin addiction, dying two months later of a heart attack due to an overdose.
The news left Lorraine devastated. “Chloe, I will never get over,” she said.
After Laura returned to Germany with her family, Lorraine vowed to carry on.
She grew a Facebook group from nothing to 5,000 members, along the way recruiting volunteers such as nurses and teachers to act as drivers, cooks, emailers, sorters and packers.
Community Links is one Newham charity now signposting people with homelessness queries directly to Lola’s.
Administrator Jane Underdown said: “She is a local saint. Without Lorraine, her volunteers and donators, many homeless people would be dead.”
In a borough where one in 25 people are now homeless - the highest in London - Lola’s serves as its crisis point.
Nine people are permanently homed because of Lorraine while she has helped to fully furnish four flats.
In return, love for this street guardian grows. She is adored by those she calls “my homeless” and their thank you letters are testimony to that.
“They are just like us,” she said. “They just don’t have a home.”
If it wasn’t for Lorraine, Kevin Muncey, 50, may have lost his legs to gangrene.
A regular at Lola’s handouts, he had fallen on hard times after losing his job at Ford Dagenham.
In August, Lorraine noticed he could barely walk and was in extreme pain.
“I thought he was going to die,” she said. “He was so vulnerable.”
Over the course of several hours, Lorraine battled to get Kevin a place in a central London hospital.
She says staff didn’t want him to stay because he was homeless and tried to send him to a night shelter in his hospital gown with steroid cream.
Eventually after seeking advice, she obtained a safeguarding measure which enabled him to receive proper treatment.
She has also secured him a stable home with help from Newham Council.
Wiithout her intervention, Lorraine believes Kevin would have fallen through the cracks.
“If you’re on drink or drugs there is help. For someone like Kevin there isn’t.”
Helping the vulnerable
This Christmas, Lorraine has arranged for 146 vulnerable children who are homeless to be delivered five gifts from Santa.
The campaigner is now appealing for more help for her rough sleepers.
On her “wish list” is free storage space for donated supplies. Urgent items still needed include sleeping bags, socks, pre-paid Oyster cards and old mobile phones - for more info visit Lola’s Homeless on Facebook.
What is the ultimate thing on there?
“Number one is a building,” said Lorraine. “Instead of the homeless walking the streets, I want somewhere where they can come.”
Her idea is to create a year-round “warming centre” where homeless people can get fed, pick up items, see a nurse and get advice.
A Newham Council spokeswoman said the local authority had invited Lorraine to bid for specialist funding and grants, while other sources would be open if Lola’s becomes a charity.