At dawn on Easter Tuesday, while most of the world was still sleeping, Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I paid a visit to the Whitechapel Mission which has been caring for the homeless and needy since 1876. The original building, constructed as the “Working Lads Institute” in 1885, still stands next to Whitechapel Underground Station, but these days the Mission operates from a seventies brick and concrete edifice east of the Royal London Hospital.
Whitechapel Rd was desolate at that hour but inside the Mission we encountered a warm community and were touched by the generous welcome we received there. Many of these people had been out on the street all night, yet they immediately included us within the particular camaraderie which exists among those who share comparable experiences of life and attend the day centre here regularly. Between six and eleven each morning, the door is open. Breakfast is served, showers are available, clothes are distributed, there is the opportunity to make phone calls and collect mail, and to seek the necessary advice which could lead to life off the street.
Our guide was Tony Miller, Director of the Mission, who has lived, worked and brought up his family in this building for the last thirty-five years. Charismatic and remarkably fresh-faced for one who opens up his door to the capital’s homeless every day of the year, he explained that if the temperature drops below freezing they offer a refuge for those sleeping rough. In the winter before last, Tony had around one hundred and fifty people sleeping upon every available inch of floor space and, while the other staff were off-duty, he sat watch through the long hours of the night. As a consequence, he contracted a rare and virulent strain of Tuberculosis from which he has only just recovered.
Yet Tony’s passion for the Whitechapel Mission remains undimmed by this grim interlude. “I lost five stone and I still want to make a difference! They started this Mission in 1876 because they were angry that, in their day, there were people without homes and here we are today in 2014 and the problem is still with us,” he declared, filling with emotion, before distinguishing for me some of the strains of humanity who stream through his door daily. There are those who were once living in care – many have mental health problems and around a third grew up in orphanages. There are those who are have no skills and cannot support themselves. There are the angry ones who feel let down and maybe lost their homes – these, Tony says, are the easiest to help. Around a sixth are ex-servicemen without education or skills, and around a third are mentally ill. “The ones that get me the most are those young people who leave the care system without education or prospects and end up on the street within twelve months,” he confided. Last year, the Mission supported one hundred and thirty-four people off the street and into flats, and two hundred people into hostel accommodation.
“Most people want reconnection, but they can live on the streets for twenty years after a row,” Tony assured me, “So, if we can ring up mum and they can say ‘sorry,’ then we’ll happily sub them for a bus ticket home if it means one less person on the street.” As we walked through the cafeteria, diners came up to welcome and engage us in multiple extended conversations, telling their stories and trusting Colin O’Brien to take their pictures.
“These people have validated my life – giving me a purpose and a job, and that makes me guilty because, from other people’s suffering, I live,“ Tony revealed in regret, “It’s a disgrace that this place is still here and it’s still needed, it should have been closed down years ago.”
Tony Miller, resident Director of the Whitechapel Mission for the past thirty-five years
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien