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At The Whitechapel Mission

April 28, 2014
by the gentle author

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

Click here to learn more about The Whitechapel Mission

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14 Responses leave one →
  1. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    April 28, 2014

    When I left school and first started working for my late father in his business over 40 yrs ago, one of the first thing’s he ever “drummed” into me was “NEVER ASSUME ANYTHING”, and never have I seen a more fitting article by which to attach that sentiment than this posting on the Whitechapel Mission, I recognize, and know a good few of the face’s in this picture gallery and behind almost every one of them is a story that belies their external appearance, even a brief conversation with virtually any of these people would reveal a whole spectrum of injustice, hardship, ill fortune and in many case’s just down right “bad luck” being the backdrop to the unfortunate circumstances that most of these people find themselves, so when next the physical appearance of these character’s attracts your attention I cannot think of a better example by which to remind you of the sentiment, “NEVER ASSUME ANYTHING”.

  2. Herry Lawford permalink
    April 28, 2014

    What an incredible chap!

  3. April 28, 2014

    Well done Mr Miller.
    Is there a thing, or things readers can do which you would find helpful?

  4. April 28, 2014

    Tony Miller and his team do a wonderful job looking after these people and giving them a ‘home’ where they can relax for a few hours each day. Valerie

  5. April 28, 2014

    Heart-rending. Please ask Tony how I can send him a donation.
    Thanks.
    Melvyn Brooks Karkur, Israel

  6. April 28, 2014

    Believe it or not: those missions become more and more necessary in Germany too! “Thanks” to the filthy capitalism and the damned Euro…! — (Keep the British Pound as long as possible!!)

    Men like Tony Miller do an very important work nowadays!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  7. Sheila Fahy permalink
    April 28, 2014

    I am a trustee at the Whitechapel Mission and echo the sentiments of the Gentle Author’s beautiful article as well as the comments of the readers. Yes, yes, yes there is so much you can do to help Tony and his team give the homeless the dignity and sustanance that they deserve and need. Here is the link to the website https://www.whitechapel.org.uk/ Just £10 provides a meal for 20 people. And although the Mission desperately needs donations of money, it also needs donations of clothes as well as volunteers. Visit the website to see how you can make a difference to the people in the photos and many more like them.

    Heartfelt thanks
    Sheila Fahy

  8. April 28, 2014

    I’m very humbled by reading this article. There will always be people out on the streets no matter what government or what century we live in. People have many reasons for living away from home whether it be mental illness, addiction or family rows etc but one thing we should all do, and that is to help them in any way we can. I’m always conscious of homeless people everyday because I see them mainly in town and then I see so many greedy people worrying about what kind of cars they drive or the size of their houses they live in. I just want everyone to stop and think about their selfish lifestyle and look at these people and re-evaluate themselves. Thank you for the article, Gentle Author.

  9. Sonia Murray permalink
    April 28, 2014

    There but for the grace of God go all of us! It is tragic to see anyone, particularly old ladies, in this predicament. Thank you, Tony Miller and your team, for all that you are doing to help.

    I looked at the website, but did not see a way to donate unless one has a bank account in England. I live in the U.S. Is there a way to donate by Visa or PayPal? Please let me know.

    Thanks,
    Sonia Murray
    happyman70@cableone.net

  10. Elli Pyne permalink
    April 28, 2014

    Thank you Gentle Author for this very moving article.

    May God bless Tony Miller, his family, the staff and all who have cause to rely on the Whitechapel Mission.

    There but for the grace of God go I.

  11. Moy Peralta permalink
    April 29, 2014

    Perhaps if we amended our compassion to include anger even more might be done.

  12. April 29, 2014

    Well done Mr Miller! As a ‘newbie’ [just 30 years as opposed to your 35!] I salute your stoicism and drive. I also applaud Moyra Peralta – maybe it is about time ‘nice’ people put aside their sensibilities and respectability and instead got angry. We’ve tried being polite, and look where it got us. And we do have an election or two in the offing…

    John Tempest
    Director
    The Bradford Soup Run

  13. Barbara permalink
    May 1, 2014

    Well done the Whitechapel Mission, it certainly has a long history of doing good works and not just for the homeless. I attended the Sunday School at the mission more than fifty years ago when it was situated on the Whitechapel Road. The Rector was Mr Clipson and he was followed by a Mr Murray. I remember the seaside trips organized to Walton-on-Naze and Christmas parties where every child went home with a bundle of presents. Many families had very, very little and the mission worked tirelessly to help. I have the utmost respect for all that they have done and continue to do .

  14. Sambal permalink
    May 1, 2014

    Great photos, stoic people and a great institution! Keep up the good work!

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