The project, which has been going for 10 months and was awarded charitable status this month, collects unwanted 'essential household items' from affluent London homes, and sells them, heavily discounted, to people who cannot afford to furnish their homes properly.
HFP vans have delivered to more than 2,000 homes, and at its Brixton headquarters the thank-you letters never stop coming. 'If you've been on the streets or in a B & B, when you're finally allocated a place from a housing association, that's your home,' says Mick Kelly, the founder of the project. 'But it doesn't mean a thing if all you've got to sit on is a wooden box. Imagine the frustration when there's no job, no money, and no prospect of money. That's when people do silly things like stealing just to get furniture.'
Behind his desk is a large laminated board, divided into six sections, Monday-Saturday. Under each day are scrawled dozens of surnames with their attendant postcodes, black for collections, red for deliveries. About 35 houses are visited each day. 'Yes, Mrs Roberts,' says Mr Kelly down the phone. 'Black and white's quite acceptable, believe you me. We'll be round.' He replaces the receiver.
'Our policy is that we don't accept stuff we wouldn't live with ourselves. We don't want to make our clients feel second-best. Sometimes our lads do refuse to take stuff; we're not a tipping service.' However, after a trip with the delivery vans, it's clear that most donors are happy to earmark still-usable but unwanted goods for a second life.
The HFP has opened a north London branch in Haringey. The modest profits of this private organisation have created 18 full-time jobs for people who were previously unemployed. 'People in Leeds and Manchester have already rung us, to find out how we do it,' says Mr Kelly, who started off with a pounds 5,000 grant from South Thames Training and Enterprise Council and a pounds 3,000 overdraft. He looks out of the window at HFP employees who are lugging a wardrobe and mattress out of a van. 'After a day's work, you do go to bed feeling fulfilled. But you don't stop thinking: There but for the grace of God, go I'
From Jill: a sofa
Jill ('Please only use my first name') has just bought a 12-bedroomed Putney house, complete with dressing-rooms, swimming pool and chandeliers. Previously converted into three flats, the building is undergoing more than half a million pounds' worth of restructuring before she and her husband, an investment banker, and their two children move in.
'We're gutting the lot,' she says, waving a diamond-ringed hand airily at the house. 'We're blocking up the pool so the garden can be a proper garden again. And we wanted to throw out all the furniture that was here; but it's good-quality stuff, so I felt it shouldn't just be dumped.'
The HFP collection men heave past her with a two-seater sofa in pine and cream linen. 'I think that was a kind of outside thing, used by the pool,' says Jill. 'We used to live in New York, where the Salvation Army would come and take away anything. But here I had to work quite hard to make sure this furniture got into the right people's hands; I found out about the HFP in the Big Issue. I'm very keen on this sort of project.
'When I lived in Chicago and in New York I did a lot of charity work for the homeless. And here in London I take my two children to work in the American Church's soup kitchen by Goodge Street tube. It's important not to forget some people's situations are not as privileged as your own.' She looks critically over a pile of discarded pine kitchen units, pictures in glass frames and stone garden ornaments. 'You can have all of this as well, if you can fit it in your truck. Otherwise, come back again tomorrow.'
To: Aman and Alem
The next day, the sofa is on its way to Ethiopian refugee Aman's one-bedroom, top-floor flat on the Harrow Road, in west London. As we arrive, Aman is sticking his head out of the window.
'I've been here two weeks. Before that I was in a hostel for about two years, sharing with four others.' Aman and his girlfriend, Alem, both 18, stand back as the men place the sofa in the corner of his living room, which boasts a glass dining table and six velour-backed chairs, also courtesy of HFP.
'It looks quite good in here now,' he says, eyeing the sofa. 'Do you like my telly and hi-fi? I saved up for the speakers.'
Indeed, Alem's flat is now probably of a higher specification than those of most London students - particularly as far as the kitchen is concerned. He has a gas and an electric cooker, both from the project. 'It's my bills,' he says, by way of explanation. 'They gave me an electric oven, but it's too expensive, so I'm swapping it.
'When you get your own flat, life becomes different,' he says. 'You can do what you want. Before all this furniture, though, it looked quite humble. Now it looks great.'
From Mrs Anne Clark: an oven
The HFP driver gave instructions: 'Right, then left. One cooker to pick up.' The appliance in question belongs to Anne Clark, who lives in a neat Victorian terrace in Wimbledon, south London. 'I've cooked for ever on this oven,' she says, appearing in the doorway in a smart blue culotte suit. Mrs Clark works from home as a stock controller for an upmarket boutique in Wimbledon. She leads the two delivery men through her open-plan living room/kitchen, which is hung with saucepans and ropes of onions, and full of cook books in efficient-looking plastic covers.
Mrs Clark surveys her spotless Valour Vanity cooker with affection. 'It's done birthday cakes, dinner parties, everything. My father gave it to us as a wedding present, oh, 14 years ago. In those days all I had was a kind of two-ring camping Gaz sort of thing. This oven's still brilliant; but I think we've outgrown it, now our two children are older.'
The two men from HFP begin to hump it past her Welsh dresser. 'I feel sort of sentimental about it, particularly as my father's now dead,' she continues. 'But he'd have been so pleased it was going to a new home. I didn't want to take it to the dump; it would have been, well, criminal, and I found out about this project from the Big Issue just in time.
My new cooker? It's a double-oven, about which I'm going to have to read a book before I dare to switch it on. My next big dinner party's in April, so I have some time.'
To: Charlie Chamberlain
Charlie Chamberlain looks with satisfaction at his living room. He had just bought a pounds 155 'starter pack' from HFP: a bed, wardrobe, ironing board, fridge and Mrs Clark's oven. His one-bedroom flat, which he moved into two weeks ago, is on the Guinness Trust Estate, a large Victorian brick building in Bethnal Green, east London.
Mr Chamberlain, 40, has lived in St Munro's hostel and slept out in the West End. Since moving into the flat, accompanied by his hamster, he has spent every free hour redecorating in preparation for the arrival of the 'Starter pack', which is all the furniture he will have for the moment. He has never had a home of his own before. 'I was a carpenter, and used to work in Germany at an aeroplane factory. I lived in B&Bs. But I had a drink problem, so I ended up coming back to London and roughing it in the West End.'
Mr Chamberlain's new flat was allocated via the magazine for London's homeless, the Big Issue, for which he now works as production manager making office pinboards. 'Soon I'll be on PAYE,' he says. 'It's good to be back again.'
He looks around the newly painted flat with pleasure. 'We start from here now,' he says excitedly, going into the kitchen. The cooker, so incidental in its previous home, looks like the centrepiece of the room. 'It's great. If you're living on takeaways every night, it gets so expensive. I've got a Tesco's down the road, so I'll be cooking my own meals every night. Will you come back in six months and see what I've done to this place?'
If you live in London and have furniture or electrical goods for the Homeless Furniture Project, call 071-738 7080 (south) or 081-808 8591 (north).
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