Celebrating 300 years
Tuesday, 07 June 2016 01:00

Community support on the streets

At the vanguard

When Ezra McGowan started handing out crisis packs to the homeless from a burger van, he knew he had found his calling. Imogen Beecroft discovers how it complements his Freemasonry

At 10pm on a cold February evening, a biting wind is rattling the windows of Ezra McGowan’s house. But while most of us would keep warm inside on a night like this, Ezra zips up his fleece and heads out to work. 

By day, Ezra runs a waste disposal company, but he spends his free time handing out food and other necessities to homeless people in London, Peterborough and Manchester. 

Ezra, who is a member of Hand and Heart Lodge, No. 4109, started The Forget Me Not Trust two years ago with his brother Nathan because, ‘We were seeing homeless people everywhere we went in these major cities. We realised this was an epidemic problem, so we thought we should try to do something about it. We’ve been blessed in our own way with business, so we’re in a fortunate position and wanted to give something back.’

The brothers acquired an old burger van, pitched up in Manchester city centre, and started giving out food and hot drinks to the local homeless population. Ezra and Nathan are both self-employed, which gives them a certain degree of flexibility with their working hours. However, Ezra explains, ‘If we finish work at 3pm, then we’ll go out for a few hours, but usually we like to go out late in the evening. Those are the hours when we’re really needed.’

Ezra is modest about what they can provide. ‘It’s not à la carte. We try to serve food that we can make go a long way – soup, coffee, tea, biscuits, sandwiches. If we can, we serve hot food, but it’s really about how far we can make it go.’ A meal or hot drink isn’t the only necessity on the menu, however. To those in particularly desperate circumstances, the brothers also provide vital crisis packs, which contain hats, gloves, socks, toothpaste, a toothbrush, toilet paper and sanitary products for women. 

‘We’ve been blessed in business, so we’re in a fortunate position and wanted to give something back.’ Ezra McGowan

Nowhere to turn

The Forget Me Not Trust mainly operates in Manchester, where Ezra lives, and Peterborough, where he owns property, but the brothers also travel down to London for weekends when they’ve raised enough money to do so. 

In London the van pitches up at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, just a stone’s throw from Freemasons’ Hall. 

Revisiting the same areas means Ezra has a few regulars who he gets to know over time, and he’s even met some people who have masonic connections in their families. 

He stresses that the homeless people he meets come from all walks of life. ‘Some people have been very successful businessmen and have just fallen on hard times. Maybe they’ve missed mortgage payments and things have got on top of them so they’ve been reduced to homelessness. It could be anyone. It could happen to each and every one of us.’

Just last month Ezra met a boy from Ireland who was living on the streets of Manchester with his dog. When Ezra spoke to him, the boy explained that he’d had an argument with his parents and, with no money and nowhere to turn, ended up homeless. 

‘We gave him some hot food and a crisis pack, but he had no one to turn to. I’m not an angel; I fell out with my parents as a child, but we always had family members I could have turned to,’ explains Ezra. ‘Some of the people we work with have no family at all. Others might have mental health problems, which makes it so much harder to get help.’ 

Luckily, he says, some people do get rehoused, but all too often these stories don’t have happy endings. ‘A few months ago a man was killed. He was beaten up by some youths because he was homeless and they burned him to death. The people we try to help are often neglected, abused and forgotten. That’s how we chose the name for the charity: we wanted to show them that they haven’t been forgotten by everyone.’

Ezra finds it particularly difficult when he encounters young women living on the street. ‘While the homeless population is mainly male, there are usually about three or four women for every 25 men coming to us for help. Women on the street are in a very vulnerable position and it’s heartbreaking to see. I have daughters myself and I’d like to think that if anything like this ever happened to them, there would be someone looking out for them.’

Ezra sees his work with the homeless as his calling, explaining: ‘Some people are blessed to be doctors or psychiatrists. My brother and I haven’t been able to do that, but we’ve always been hard workers and can help people by offering them food and support. We’re everyday lads, not multimillionaires, but this is what we were meant to do. It’s very satisfying and is a breath of fresh air.’

While helping people in this way is undoubtedly rewarding, it isn’t an easy ride. He says: ‘We do get some abuse, particularly on a Friday or Saturday night, when it’s busy in town. Some people call us “do-gooders” and “churchgoers” or swear at us. It’s not all rosy on the street.’

Despite these challenges, Ezra estimates that they can help 60-70 people every night. However, providing everyday essentials, food and drinks to this many people is a costly business, and he can only do so much of it on his own. 

Initially, Ezra and Nathan funded the project themselves, buying supplies in bulk from wholesalers. When it started to grow in scale and ambition, however, Ezra turned to his lodge for extra support. 

Tony Harrison, the Provincial Grand Master for West Lancashire, emphasises that the ideals behind The Forget Me Not Trust coincide wholly with those of Freemasonry. ‘Ezra told me of the work they do to support these individuals in need by providing warm food and clothing. This is a wonderful example of members of our fraternity working in the community to support others less fortunate than themselves.’

‘We’re everyday lads, not multimillionaires, but this is what we were meant to do.’ Ezra McGowan

Spreading the word

Since reaching out to other Freemasons, the response has been excellent. ‘The feedback we’re getting from brethren has been fantastic,’ says Ezra. ‘Hand on Heart Lodge has been wonderful – the brethren have given donations and arranged a raffle to raise money for The Forget Me Not Trust. I don’t think anything like this has really been heard of in Freemasonry before and now other lodges have started donating, which is great.’

In return, Ezra proudly displays the square and compasses wherever he can. He explains that he’d been a mason for 15 years when he had an accident and was offered help through the fraternity. ‘It was a wonderful, unexpected thing to have people knocking on your door offering to help you. I thought it would be nice to give something back, so now we try to promote Freemasonry in the community.’

Ezra is hoping to increase his fellow masons’ involvement with the charity, and has big plans for the future. ‘We’ve started small, but once we’ve got everything running perfectly in Manchester we’d like to branch out to other major cities. It’s our ambition to reach a point where we can advise other Provinces how best to run these events. Ultimately, we’d like to have one event a week run by Freemasons in every major city in the UK.’

Ezra enjoys engaging people in lively discussions about Freemasonry and challenging their existing preconceptions about the fraternity. ‘Lots of members of the public come over and talk to us when they see the badge displayed. Sometimes they might have a negative impression of Freemasonry, but we’re finding that we can open their eyes and change their perspective. Often we have people saying, “Oh, that’s fantastic – I never knew that about Freemasonry.” ’

Find out more about the charity’s work and how to lend your support at www.theforgetmenottrust.org.uk 

Forget-Me-Not charity set up by Freemason brothers to help the homeless

The adjective term of a ‘down and out’ person relates to a person being without money, a job, or a place to live, in fact quite destitute. This form of destitution is clearly apparent and seen on many of the UK city centre streets, under many highways and by-ways. The term ‘objective’ relates to ‘a thing aimed at or sought a goal’, conjoin these two terms and in this case is where the needy become quite literally, served by some good.

Ezra McGowan of Hand and Heart Lodge No. 4109 and his brother Nathan, a former Freemason in a London lodge but soon to be a joining member of a West Lancashire lodge, through their travels have seen many situations in our city streets and in particular Manchester, Peterborough and London where people were and clearly still are, just living in tents and makeshift cardboard box homes or just sleeping rough and in fact quite destitute and many through no fault of their own.

Two years ago, Ezra along with his brother took an objective decision to try to support these unfortunate individuals and to give some support by way of warm food, warm clothing and in the really destitute circumstances what Ezra refers to as crisis packs which contain, a hat, gloves, sandwich, drink and male or female specific toiletries. Ezra initially purchased what he refers to as a burger van which he had inspected and passed by the authorities for distribution of hot soup and other food.

Between the brothers, they then set up trailers for use in the Manchester, Peterborough and London areas which is where they distribute today. They proudly display the square and compass on their trailers and on their hats, of which they are frequently asked about their significance to which Ezra responds it’s about helping others and helping people to realise themselves.

When Ezra was asked for his reasons and his experiences for their work, he said: 'I have been blessed in life with family and business; I have also been privileged to have the total enjoyment of support from within Freemasonry.' Ezra refers to his lodge as a wonderful friendly experience and he said it’s time he and his brother gave something back into society and he saw the homeless and those very much less fortunate people as a way to do exactly that.   

Ezra’s experiences transmit quite a stark vivid realisation of what it is actually like to be in such a social disposition that affects all are all faiths. He estimates in his own experience that there are less than five women to every 50 males. There can be threatening situations and sees people having to move from location to location. He said that in one recent scenario a man and wife had lost their home, business and everything associated with family and were living in a derelict shop doorway – this is why he helps.

The brothers also assist in supplying provisions to local shelter homes and an outreach men’s home in Salford, Manchester and more recently supported both the local Women’s Institute and PROBUS meetings at Urmston Masonic Hall in providing coffee, tea, biscuits and chocolates.    

Currently self-funded, Ezra along with his brother have recently set up a registered charity, numbered 1164359 which is called The Forget-Me-Not Trust and hope that any further donations they can obtain will assist those who are in dire need. They have a website too which is: http://theforgetmenottrust.org.uk

At a recent Hand and Heart Lodge Christmas ladies to dine evening, a presentation of £50 was donated towards the charity and a forget-me-not raffle raised a further £110 with a further donation of £20 from a very moved lady, Ezra responded by thanking the lodge members and their ladies for such fine support saying he was most humbled and quite taken by the support and said that the donation will go such a long way in feeding a lot of people on these forthcoming, cold winter nights.    

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