Clutching a cup of tea and a blue plastic carrier bag filled with donations of food and essential items, the softly spoken 58-year-old looks like any other man on the street.
Except he isn’t.
Mike Reid is one of a growing number of normal people like you or me who are quietly suffering in silence as the cost of living crisis continues to cripple households across Aberdeen, the north-east and the country as a whole.
So desperate is the crisis in fact – and it is a major crisis – that Street Friends, a community group of volunteers who take food and drinks out to people on the streets, say that they used to help about seven people in a day but now they’re supporting up to 72 people a day.
Just a short walk along Union Street – the beating heart of the Granite City- and it’s hard not to lose faith in humanity at the depressing scene as folk go about their daily business while people sit on the ground pleading for help.
But one person who refused to just walk past is Justin Ritchie, the founder of Street Friends who, along with his dedicated army of volunteers, is tirelessly juggling his job as a porter at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary with helping those in need.
He invited Your Life to join him and the volunteers as they take to the streets around the city centre, restoring faith in humanity one cup of tea at a time.
All alone in the world without enough money to live on, Mike Reid tells me that Street Friends are his only family and lifeline now.
Fit, active and full of life, Mike got a lot of satisfaction out of his work repairing shipping containers.
Everything changed though when he was forced to give up work due to health reasons.
“I used to repair shipping containers but I had a bad accident at work when a forklift rolled over my toes so I lost two of my toes and had to give up work,” Mike explains.
“Things have been really hard since then as I’ve not really got any help as I’ve got no family.
“My mum and dad passed away and I don’t have any other family.”
£40 to live on
With just £40 a month to live on after using the little benefits he receives to pay his bills, Mike, who lives in Mastrick, simple doesn’t have enough money left over for food.
“By the time I’ve paid my electricity bill and other things I’ve got £20 to last me for two weeks,” says Mike, who also has diabetes, chronic heart disease and arthritis.
“It’s been really terrible.”
A light at the end of the very long tunnel for Mike has been Street Friends – the community group he describes as his family.
“I come to meet Street Friends in the city four times a week – it’s made a big difference to me,” says Mike.
“Most days I have to come to Street Friends for food.
“Some days I take a cup of tea or a can of juice and other days I get food.
“It’s really helped me.
“Today I’ve got a Pot Noodle so I’ve got something to eat later.”
It’s not just the food that keeps Mike going, it’s also being able to chat to the volunteers that brightens what would have been a very lonely day.
“Sometimes when I come here I feel down but the volunteers always cheer me up and we have a laugh and a joke,” says Mike.
“The volunteers are excellent.”
While politicians continue to squabble, the cost of living crisis continues with no end in sight.
“I would like to see things go back to normal as soon as possible,” says Mike, with a hopeful yet sad look in his eyes.
‘We’ve not got enough money for food’
Standing next to Mike in the busy St Nicholas Street, outside Marks and Spencer, is a frail elderly couple, each clutching blue carriers of food and a cup of tea each.
Understandably not wanting to give their names, the married couple from Mastrick, who appear to be in their eighties, look utterly forlorn and defeated as they explain that they simply haven’t got enough money to buy food.
“We’re struggling because of the cost of heating and electricity, it’s bad,” the elderly man says.
“We’ve not got enough money for food.”
The couple say they take the bus into the city centre every morning to access the vital support that Street Friends offer.
“Coming here every morning cheers us up – the volunteers are amazing.”
‘Angels on earth’
After dishing out bags of food, hot drinks and essential items such as sanitary towels and clothes, the volunteers, wearing high-vis vests, pack up and leave St Nicholas Street, walking with their trolleys along to Schoolhill, just outside the Kirk of St Nicholas graveyard.
Profusely thanking the volunteers for his bag of food is Steven Gray, 45, from Aberdeen.
Eloquently spoken, Steven calls the volunteers “angels on earth” as he bravely opens up about how the community group has helped him.
“I don’t need the support all the time like the guys on the street,” says Steven.
“I need support from time to time so I’ll take a small bag of something and get a cup of tea.”
No-one is turned away
Steven, who is currently unemployed but has a roof over his head, says that you don’t need to be homeless to be struggling.
“Street Friends is great because you don’t have to be homeless to be supported,” he says.
“They are doing good for everyone so when you struggle they are always there.”
So thankful of the support he has received from the kind volunteers that Steven was determined to give something back.
“I know it first hand how good the service is because I’ve volunteered with them before,” says Steven.
“Street Friends is a stepping stone or platform to get back into the swing of things.
“I had low self esteem but volunteering with them gave me some self worth.”
Although life is a struggle for Steven from time to time, Street Friends has given him hope.
“I’m not working at the moment so my money doesn’t go as far as I’d like it to go,” says Steven.
“I do have my own flat though.
“Street Friends are angels on earth – they do a great thing.”
Justin Ritchie – founder of Street Friends
It was through helping other people that lifted Justin Ritchie out of a black hole.
Suffering from crippling anxiety and alcohol addiction, Justin says he knew his life had hit rock bottom.
“I’ve had mental health issues and alcohol issues,” says Justin, 41, who works as a porter at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.
“About 15 years ago I had a little nervous breakdown – I had anxiety and depression and was off my work for a long time.
“But what made me feel better was speaking to people in the same situation as me suffering from mental health problems.
“Alcohol was also a pretty big part of my life but I’ve been in recovery for a while now and I just take it day by day.”
It was while walking through Aberdeen city centre and talking to people living on the street that made Justin realise that he wasn’t suffering alone.
Stirring something deep inside him, on a whim Justin decided to buy seven boxes of fish and chips to give out to the homeless.
“The first person I banged into was a young woman in need so I handed her a fish supper,” says Justin, who lives in Aberdeen but is originally from Fraserburgh.
“I then gave out the rest to folk on the street.
“I then started to fill a pink suitcase full of homemade sandwiches, crisps, biscuits, blankets and juice and handed them out to people before and after work.
“I just thought Aberdeen didn’t have anything like this so I just wanted to help.”
Inspired by Justin’s selfless work, he soon built up a trusty band of volunteers and Street Friends was born.
Now based over two floors above Cafe Nero – the company kindly let the group use the empty floors in its Union Street building to store their donations – the community group has grown into a lifeline.
“I just did that off my back in 2017 and Street Friends grew from there through word of mouth.
“If we didn’t have the volunteers it simply wouldn’t be possible – it’s the volunteers that make it.”
Over the last few months, demand for the support this little independent group offers has soared.
“When we started off, we were seeing about five people a day but now we’re seeing 72 people,” says Justin.
“Recently we supported a guy who used to work offshore and now he has nothing and is living off benefits in a council property – it’s just so hard for a lot of people just now.
“We see a lot of different people every day and everyone has a story.
“We don’t have a magic wand but if we can help them in some way, even just signposting them to a service, then that’s what it’s all about.”
Justin says it can be heartbreaking to hear people’s stories.
“It can be sad sometimes as you just think I wish there was more support out there,” says Justin.
“Sometimes you see kids and families coming to us and it’s heartbreaking.
“Aberdeen has the most foodbanks in the whole of Scotland so that really says it all.”
Street Friends now has 45 volunteers, but with demand rising the group are under no illusion at the uphill task ahead.
“Sometimes we can run out of food so we have to go back and get some more,” says Justin.
“We’ve got 45 volunteers registered now, anyone can volunteer.”
Albert Annand, volunteer
When a young man told him that his single worldly possession was the kettle that he uses to make the Pot Noodles he receives from an emergency food parcel, Albert Annand’s heart shattered into a million pieces.
“It was quite emotional and it makes you appreciate yourself and your life and things you’ve got,” says Albert.
Retired from his job as an electrical technician, the 69-year-old from Aberdeen, who is married and has two grown-up children, decided to put all his energy into helping those who have slipped through what is fast becoming an ever widening net.
“When I retired I needed something to keep me going for a while,” says Albert.
“So I started volunteering with C-Fine, it’s part of Fairshare.
“We were delivering food bags to people in community centres and churches.”
‘We don’t ask questions’
It wasn’t long before Albert came across Street Friends and decided to volunteer.
“Years ago, like most people, I would walk past homeless people in the street, but once you hear some of their stories and why they’re there, it’s heartbreaking,” says Albert.
“We’re non-judgemental, we treat everyone the same.
“We don’t ask questions, if someone asks for a cup of tea we’ll give them it.”
From Marks and Spencer and Morrisons to Baguette Express and the fashion shop Fat Face, Albert says the support they receive from local businesses and the community is truly heartwarming.
And looking to the future, Albert and the volunteers are hoping to achieve charity status so they can support even more people.
“Our aim is to expand.
“At the minute we’re not actually a charity, we’re an outreach group, so we’re in the process of trying to get charity status so we can approach big companies and get donations.”
Volunteering from 8am in the morning through to the afternoon, three days a week, Albert hears many heartbreaking stories that stick with him.
“Everyone has a story and most of them don’t want to be there, it’s not through choice,” says Albert.