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Anyone who’s ever worked in retail will tell you, being a store manager, you deal with all sorts of challenges – good and bad. And one of my most difficult days running the Ilford store was last summer, when I got the call from our Paddington office about a planned Guardian article on an alarm we had at the store to deter rough sleepers from the back of our store. It was a measure we’d taken to try and clear our fire exits to keep trading safely and legally. But, having the alarm wasn’t right and we therefore took action, we removed it and promised to draw up a local action plan and work with charities to help fund practical measures to support those affected.

So, my colleague Jo, from the M&S Plan A team, and I spent time over the summer listening to charities, community members and the Council. What we found makes for tough reading – on the last count there were 65 rough sleepers in Redbridge – one of the richest boroughs in London. Yet a large number have no recourse to public funds (you can read more about what that means here) and so the problem persists. But we also found something amazing – a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, a great deal of collaboration.

Individual businesses are already involved in helping support rough sleepers in the area, but it felt like there was more we could do as a business community and, over the past few months, I’ve been proud to be part of the creation of #RedbridgeTogether.

Redbridge Together is a crowdfunding initiative aiming to raise £500,000 in the next year to support the short and long-term needs of rough sleepers in the borough. It’s a partnership between the Ilford BID (and hopefully the hundreds of businesses in the area), the Council, the Police and voluntary organisations – most notably the Salvation Army and the Welcome Centre for whom the money is being raised. For the Salvation Army the money will go towards Project Malachi - a radical new approach to entrenched rough sleeping, creating a new kind of homelessness hostel, with an integrated bicycle refurbishment social enterprise. For the Welcome Centre, a day centre for homeless people, it will help with the practical side of hot meals, showers, clothing, laundry but also advice and support, training and employment and a nurse led clinic supporting health and mental health.

Last week I spoke at a business engagement event to try and drum up support for the initiative, there were dozens of great thoughts, ideas and comments I could pull out – from what was said by John Clifton (Captain at the Salvation Army), Phil Herbert (Director of HLP Charity at The Welcome Centre), Mike Gapes MP, Councillor Farah Hussain (responsible for Housing), Councillor Jas Athwal (Leader) and Keith Prince (GLA member for Redbridge & Havering). But what stood out for me were the words of Russell, an amazing man who used to live on the streets and now works at the Salvation Army. Russell said that people always think “somebody else is going to deal with it” and it’s true, it’s human nature, but someone else isn’t going to deal with it and we need to take action. At M&S we don’t just want to ask what’s going to be done to help us deal with the issue, we want to help.

Redbridge Together isn’t just about funding, the employability of rough sleepers will be an important focus as the campaign progresses. At M&S we’re proud to have already taken on one rough sleeper for a two-week work experience programme – and she’s now working permanently in our store and doing a great job – we have two more people starting next week. It’s just the beginning – for us and for other businesses including the Ilford Exchange.

Nearly 220,000 people visit the Exchange every week – if every one of them gave just £2 we’d be most of the way to our fundraising target.

Homelessness is a growing issue, it’s a complex issue and it’s undeniably an appalling issue – the fact that in one of the world’s richest countries the average age a rough sleeping man will die is 47 years old is just not okay. We’ve all been impacted by the recent weather – we know how cold it is out there and whilst emergency provisions are in place for the real cold snap, it’s not a long-term solution.

I’m not saying we have all the answers at M&S or as part of Redbridge Together. What I am saying is this - as a human being I don’t want people to have to sleep outside of M&S Ilford and as the Ilford Store Manager I don’t want my team and I to think “somebody else is going to deal with it”. It’s why I’m pledging this – that my team and I will play our part in #RedbridgeTogether as we aim to raise £20,000 towards the £500,000 target, this is in addition to the £5,000 M&S has donated to start the fund. Redbridge is an amazing community – there’s amazing people doing amazing things and I hope that this initiative shows the business community wants to help the voluntary one and that together we can make a difference.  

#RedbridgeTogether