At The Whitechapel Mission At Christmas
Today I recall a visit to the Whitechapel Mission with my friend the late photographer Colin O’Brien
Before dawn one Christmas Eve, Photographer Colin O’Brien & I ventured out in a rainstorm to visit our friends down at the Whitechapel Mission – established in 1876, which opens every day of the year to offer breakfasts, showers, clothes and access to mail and telephones, for those who are homeless or in need.
Many of those who go there are too scared to sleep rough but walk or ride public transport all night, arriving in Whitechapel at six in the morning when the Mission opens. We found the atmosphere subdued on Christmas Eve on account of the rain and the season. People were weary and shaken up by the traumatic experience of the night, and overcome with relief to be safe in the warm and dry. Feeling the soothing effect of a hot shower and breakfast, they sat immobile and withdrawn. For those shut out from family and social events which are the focus of festivities for the rest of us, and facing the onset of winter temperatures, this is the toughest time of the year.
Unlike most other hostels and day centres, Whitechapel Mission does not shut during Christmas. Tony Miller, who has run the Mission and lived and brought up his family in this building over the last thirty-five years, had summoned his three grown-up children out of bed at five that morning to cover in the kitchen when the day’s volunteers failed to show. Although his staff take a break over Christmas which means he and his wife Sue and their family have to pick up the slack, it is a moment in the year that Tony relishes. “40% of our successful reconnections happen at Christmas,” he explained enthusiastically, passionate to seize the opportunity to get people off the street, “If I can persuade someone to make the Christmas phone call home …”
Tony estimates there are around three thousand people living rough in London, whom he accounts as follows – approximately 15% Eastern Europeans, 15% Africans and 5% from the rest of the world, another 15% are ex-army while 30%, the largest proportion, are people who grew up in care and have never been able to establish a secure life for themselves.
Among those I spoke with on Christmas Eve were those who had homes but were dispossessed in other ways. There were several vulnerable people who lived alone and had no family, and were grateful for a place where they could come for breakfast and speak with others. Here in the Mission, I recognised a collective sense of refuge from the challenges of existence and the rigours of the weather outside, and it engendered a tacit human solidarity. “This is going to be the best Christmas of my life,” Andrew, an energetic skinny guy who I met for the first time that morning, assured me, “because it’s my first one free of drugs.” We shook hands and agreed this was something to celebrate.
Tony took Colin & me upstairs to show us the pile of non-perishable food donations that the Mission had received and explained that on Christmas Day each visitor would be given a gift of a pair of socks, a woollen hat, a scarf and pair of gloves, with a bar of chocolate wrapped inside. Tony told me that on Christmas Day he and his family always have a meal together, but his wife Sue also invites a dozen waifs and strays – so I asked him how he felt about the lack of privacy. “My kids were born here,” he replied with a shrug and a smile and an astonishing generosity of spirit, “after thirty years, I don’t have a problem with it.”
Photographs copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien
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