These may be strange and difficult times but despite the coronavirus pandemic, we've seen how hundreds and thousands of people have stepped up and shown each other true kindness. Whether that's picking up a neighbour's prescription or helping a vulnerable person with their weekly shop, we're each doing our bit to inject some warmth and positivity into the world.
One woman who is going above and beyond is charity founder Sinead Browne. Inspiring, determined and a larger-than-life character, Sinead gave up the comfort of her law career and salary to set up a charity that feeds the most vulnerable in London. All this by the age of 30 and from someone who has faced her own adversities – having battled with bulimia, experienced homelessness as a teen and grown up in foster care since she was a toddler.
Compliments of the House delivers food to the most vulnerable in London
Sinead's Brixton-based charity, Compliments of the House (COTH), collects fresh surplus food from the likes of Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer, Honest Burgers and Franco Manca and gives out meals from their Brixton hub to rough sleepers and those struggling to make ends meet. Given the government's closure of restaurants, COTH has had to shut down shop but is changing tack and has launched a delivery service. Instead of her vulnerable guests queuing up outside her Brixton Village unit, Sinead and her team are bringing the food to them by shopping at supermarkets and driving around London, dropping off groceries.
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Sinead Browne gave up her lawyer's career to set up the charity
"We have rough sleepers, we have homeless people who are in hostels and awaiting permanent accommodation, we have young mums with kids," Sinead says. "Some guests are referred to us from Lambeth social services. They have mental health issues, physical disabilities, learning difficulties, they're on benefits. Then we also have people who are working but who just can't make ends meet."
"We're not a soup kitchen, we're not a food bank, we're changing the game," Sinead explains. "A lot of soup kitchens ask for proof of benefits and income, we don't do that with our guests who come in off the streets. Before COVID, when our hub was open, we would give our guests access to expensive, nutritious food like Honest Burgers, Franco Manca, Pret, Costa, Sainsbury's, M&S, Greggs, Share a Slice, Growing Underground and independent restaurants in Brixton Village. We also just signed Upstairs, the private member's club nearby. They had a canteen at lunchtime and would give us their leftover lamb chops, beautiful pasta, salads – food that would otherwise go to waste. Our guests eat bougie! Now, with the restaurants closed, we're buying food at supermarkets and delivering groceries to our guests."
The charity has a hub in Brixton Village
But Sinead, who has spent all her savings on self-funding her charity since its launch in 2018, desperately needs your help. Her Just Giving appeal hopes to raise £50,000 to be able to continue feeding the homeless and most vulnerable through their new delivery service. Donate to Sinead's Just Giving page here.
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Hopefully, when normal life resumes, Sinead will be able to re-open her Brixton hub. The unit was previously open from Tuesday to Friday evenings and food donations from local restaurants and supermarkets flooded in. Sinead helped on average between 45 and 70 guests per day, many of whom suffer from mental health issues. She is now helping those same people by delivering supermarket food straight to their door.
Her biggest challenge currently is scraping together donations to keep her charity running. "I really urge people to donate because my guests need this," she says. "One of my guests volunteers every day, and when I've told him to do less, he gets very emotional. He's coming off heroin and he said this is a lifeline for him because if he isn't volunteering for us, he'll be on the drugs. It's a safe space for our guests to come, it's a community and it gives them purpose."
"I can't afford to keep funding it," says Sinead. "I have a mortgage myself, I'm going to lose my home. I barely have money to feed and clothe myself, pay my bills, let alone pay for our office and our shop. It's very hard to run it." She admits: "I cry most days because I'm scared. I have no family and no safety net. But I have so many guests depending on me. I've taken on this responsibility so I can't just leave them. We know everyone by name, we know their characters, we know a lot of their social workers, support workers, primary care workers. A lot of my guests have mental health issues, so I know what triggers them, when they're about to have a crisis and I get them the help they need."
Volunteers have been shopping in local supermarkets
Supporting the homeless is a cause close to her heart. During her childhood, Sinead moved from care home to care home. "I was two when my mum put me in foster care," she says. "I was in protective custody on and off until I was 16, and then at that age, the social workers closed my case and put me into a homeless person's unit. They said you're an adult now, get into the system and so at 16 I turned up with my bin bags and joined the unit. I didn't have a penny. I would go begging around my friends and I would eat one meal a day, a sandwich and a portion of chips and that was it. I didn't eat in the mornings or at lunch unless I went to someone's house. I ate in the evenings so I didn't go to bed hungry."
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"The food distribution for me is also really personal," Sinead says. "I've been bulimic since I was 17 and am in recovery now but I still have my slip-ups when I get very stressed. I have a very dysfunctional relationship with food. But with this charity, it's changed how I look at it. I can't be a hypocrite and have those disordered behaviours when there are people who are starving in our backyard, in our communities."
Volunteers pack up their delivery vans and mini buses with the food
Sinead is desperate for donations but also determined to keep her charity afloat. "I just want people to know that… I hit rock bottom when I was in the eating disorder unit, I hit rock bottom because I couldn't work. I had to go on benefits, I was disorientated and disillusioned with where my life was going, and to think that I've come from there and got back into work and set up Compliments of the House, there is always a way for people.
"Even if people think, oh I have this idea, just take a leap of faith. I literally went around to the businesses in Brixton with a piece of paper and said, will you take a leap of faith? The founder of Honest Burgers, Phillip, was the first person. I walked into their Brixton flagship restaurant and he was there and he signed up. And from then it just got easier and easier." Hondo Enterprises, formed by Chelsy Davy's ex-boyfriend Taylor McWilliams, later gave Sinead the unit in Brixton Village.
Sinead is also planning to set up a second hub in Hackney, and is in talks with MPs in Cornwall to bring her charity to Penzance, which has a large homeless population. "My dream is to have Compliments of the House become like a Tesco Express for those in need," she says. "A one-stop shop in every borough." She is also due to star in a BBC One primetime show come September, where two very big TV household names interview her about the charity. We can't wait to tune in!
The shopping is delivered to the most vulnerable in society
Inspired by Sinead's story? Here's how you can help…
- Give a one-off donation on her Just Giving page here or become a regular donator to the charity
- Sign up to the charity's patronage scheme and become a patron
- Donate items such as coffee cups and food packaging to her Brixton shop when it re-opens, located at 2A Market Row, Brixton SW9 8LD
- Become a volunteer in her Brixton shop when it re-opens. All you need to commit to is two evenings a month.
For more information visit complimentsofthehouse.org
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