“We had no idea what we would become”

Since March, Mutual Aid groups have sprung up across London in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Though each group develops in their own unique way to meet the needs of their neighbourhood, their aim is the same: to support and help people in their local communities. 

We spoke with Kat Thompson, the Chair of Haggerston Mutual Aid, who explained a bit more about how the group was set up and how it has adapted over the last few months.  

Haggerston Mutual Aid is a network of residents who came together in March when Covid-19 struck to support our south Hackney community. Back then, we had no idea what we would become. We were a group of neighbours who had never met before, and in the early days, we organised everything from our living rooms and kitchens, on WhatsApp and Zoom calls. All we knew is that we wanted to make a meaningful impact and ensure that no one in our neighbourhood would fall through the cracks.  

Fast forwarding to today, it’s heartening to see what it’s been possible to achieve through our collective efforts. Our team now totals nearly 500 volunteers and between us we provide a rapid response to meet the needs of those struggling in our area. What began as help with running errands, like shopping and collecting prescriptions, has evolved into so much more.  

We’ve established a food bank for anyone who doesn’t have the financial means to pay for their groceries and donate excess items to similar services nearby. And, through our Haggerston Plates project, we’re providing around 200 meals a day to people in a vulnerable position across Hackney.  

As well as delivering to families and individuals in households, we send bulk drops to charities and earmark a number for people affected by homelessness. To date, our total is nearing 10,000 meals. This service is a real lifeline but running it is rarely plain sailing. I’ve lost count of the times the project has hung in the balance – when we didn’t know if we’d have funding or premises.  

Our Haggerston Plates project started when the team at our local mosque had the idea to prepare daily meals during Ramadan for anyone needing support. At that time of year, they would usually make food every evening so their members could come together to break the fast, but when the virus forced places of worship to close, they decided they wanted to do their bit for the wider community instead. Haggerston Mutual Aid stepped in to provide over 150 volunteers, but just seven days in, cash flow became a problem. With the money about to run out and the cupboards soon to go bare, we had to go to pretty great lengths to keep going.  

Week two saw us move to a new home – a back garden belonging to one of our committee members, James. Thankfully a connection we’d established with Queen Mary University saved the day and they donated nearly 1,000 frozen meals free of charge. But we still had to figure out how to get them out warm to our recipients and we ended up having to source four domestic microwaves to frantically (and rather comically) heat them up.

After a couple of weekends cooking from a church in London Fields and another stint at the mosque, we made it through to Eid. This was always meant to be the end date, but we knew the need was still there and that we had to carry on. With a modest amount of crowdfunding and a new residency in a pub, we kept fighting to stay afloat.

We were shackled by uncertainty, aware that there were barely enough pennies in the bank to plan for tomorrow. With our financial difficulties nearing a crescendo and realisation growing that we might have to call it a day, suddenly we received some positive news. A grant application for £5,000 we’d submitted to the London Community Response Fund, in partnership with our host charity, Lives Not Knives, had been accepted, thanks to backing from the National Emergency Trust. For the first time in the project’s history, the ground felt firm beneath our feet.  

We’re so grateful to our sponsors and to The London Community Foundation for welcoming mutual aid groups and recognising the value our embryonic offering can add, alongside more established organisations. After weeks of doubts about our future, finding out we had a stable pot of money to sustain us and broaden our horizon for planning beyond the next day was an emotional moment and an indescribable relief.  

We’re under no illusions that the coming months will be easy. Our fundraising efforts continue and once again we’re on the hunt for a new kitchen, but with our first grant success under our belts, we’re more ambitious than ever to cushion those who need us from the harshest effects of the pandemic and its economic toll. Our whole team thanks The London Community Foundation and the National Emergency Trust for believing in our work and becoming part of a legacy that Haggerston will remember forever.

Haggerston Mutual Aid received £5,000 towards their work by applying through the London Community Response Fund. They work closely with local organisations who are now referring people to them, including Hackney Migrant Centre, Age UK East London, L&Q Housing Association and healthcare services. You can follow them on Twitter and Instagram or get involved by filling in this form. You can also learn more about them through their short film.