East London charity faces closure unless it finds new home

Smile London and Essex supports around 2,700 in-need people each year (Maria Quaife)
Smile London and Essex supports around 2,700 in-need people each year (Maria Quaife)

An east London charity that helps thousands of low-income families is facing closure unless it can urgently raise £20,000.

Smile London and Essex, based in Romford, supports thousands of people in need by providing essentials like food, clothing, toiletries and homeware.

But it was reportedly given notice on Tuesday that it must vacate its premises within seven days.

The charity, founded by CEO Maria Quaife in 2017, has been allowed to use the same premises as a hub for four years, where it is not charged rent.

But the landlord has reportedly evicted them so the site can be renovated and leased.

 (Maria Quaife)
(Maria Quaife)

“I'm heartbroken,” Ms Quaife told the Standard. “I haven’t slept really since Tuesday.

“I have my team asking ‘do we still have jobs?’

“And we've had to publicly announce were closed. Clients have been asking ‘what are we going to do? Where am I going to get my food and support?’”

Ms Quaife says that after negotiations the charity has now been given 30 days, until May 9, to find a new premises.

“It's given us a bit of a breather but it's still nothing, to find a new premises we can afford,” she said. “We also need to pack up about 12 tonnes of food, and four commercial fridge freezer units, the retail shop with rails of clothing, and the office.”

Ms Quaife said Havering Council has suggested it has a premises Smile could rent, but that the charity must raise £20,000 in the next week in order to secure this.

Maria Quaife (Maria Quaife)
Maria Quaife (Maria Quaife)

“If we can raise as close to £20,000 as possible in the next week, we can go to the council,” she said.

“That would just be one year’s rent, then we still have to pay the normal utilities, insurance. Our running cost £6-7,000 a month at the moment.”

Smile London and Essex supports around 2,700 people a year. It also distributes more than 2,000 Christmas presents and Easter eggs to children living in hostels across London and Essex each year.

Around 60 families a day visit to collect vital food supplie, and many more use the charity’s clothing bank.

Ms Quaife explains clients are treated like customers, picking up food and clothing in a shop where they may choose what they take, before paying with vouchers.

Clients also volunteer at the charity, gaining confidence and skills to help them back into work.

“It was only a small project to start with, but the need outweighed the support that was available and it just snowballed from there,” said Ms Quaife.

“We pride ourselves on giving clients dignity.”

If the charity can’t find a new premises and has to close, she fears clients won’t have the support they need.

“There is no charity like ours,” she said. “There's not going to be a safety net for clients that rely on our food services.

“We're not a money-grabbing charity, but at this point we need something to keep the charity alive.”

A Havering Council spokesperson told the BBC: "We're sad to hear about the potential closure of Smile and the impact this will have on the residents who rely on its invaluable support.

"The building is privately owned, so we have no control over commercial decisions.

"However, we are currently exploring if there is an opportunity to accommodate Smile within any vacant commercial council premises, so that they can continue to support local families.”

Visit the charity’s fundraising page here.