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Whitechapel Mission: homeless shelter doubles capacity since covid-19 pandemic

Independently funded local homeless shelter, Whitechapel Mission, doubles in size since covid-19 pandemic

The Whitechapel Mission is a homeless shelter on Whitechapel Road near the Royal London Hospital and Whitechapel Underground station. It has seen a surge in rough sleepers and homeless people since the pandemic, but this has been matched by high numbers of volunteers and donations.

When Tony Miller took the helm back in 1981, the Whitechapel Mission had funding issues and struggled to open its doors two days a week. He lived on-site and only managed to pay himself £40 a week. 

Now the Whitechapel Mission provides 24-hour support to homeless people, seven days a week. Seeing how underfunded public services were under Margaret Thatcher, Miller turned it into an independent charity funded entirely by its donors. 

That means, unlike other charities, it doesn’t have to compete for government funding and grants, so it hasn’t felt the ongoing effects of austerity and underfunded council budgets.

The results of this funding model have been impressive. When the covid-19 pandemic struck in 2020, the shelter was assisting 150 people a day, seven days a week. 

The shelter then became the only homeless centre in London to stay open during the pandemic.

News spread and 150 daily visitors turned into 600, the kitchen stayed open all day, and a team of nine full-time employees turned into 17 full-time workers. In Miller’s words, the shelter was ‘holy sh*t busy’.

With other homeless centres reopening since the pandemic, pressure on the Whitechapel Mission relaxed, but the shelter has still doubled in capacity. It now welcomes 350 guests a day and has retained its 17 full-time workers. 

The Whitechapel Mission offers wide-ranging support non-judgmentally to all. 

In the case that a rough sleeper arrives outside of office hours, staff will ask them to return in the morning and offer them an ‘emergency pack’ in the meantime: a large over-the-shoulder gym bag stuffed with a sleeping bag, hat, gloves, long johns, a hairbrush, hygiene wipes, and other valuable items to survive the night. 

In the morning, guests can arrive at 5.45 am to use the bathrooms, drink a mug of tea or coffee, take a hot shower, or eat breakfast (full English is on offer). 

Advice workers are on site from 8 am, organising detoxes, rehabs, temporary housing, and applications for any necessary documents. From 9 am, guests can receive advice on budgeting, numeracy, literacy, computer skills, and CV writing. 

In 2022, 38 visitors found employment, 52 were referred to treatment, and 1923 were offered advice.

But in reality, no achievement is concrete. Even housing isn’t the end of the story. What really lifts people out of a cycle of homelessness is purpose, value and strong relationships. 

All three of these things are difficult not just to achieve but to maintain. That’s why the shelter welcomes lots of repeat guests. 

Sometimes the shelter itself can offer these foundations; three members of the staff used to be homeless themselves. But, with one-third of guests coming from the care system and one-fifth in and out of prison, it’s clear that real change must come from beyond the building’s walls.

The positive news is that the volunteering schedule is currently so full that companies looking to book volunteer days for their employees need to book four months in advance. ‘You can get Glastonbury tickets easier than you can book volunteering days at the Whitechapel Mission’, Miller jokes.

If you’re unable to grab a volunteering slot, you can donate money online or give gifts. Visit this list, updated daily, to see the clothing, toiletries and food most urgently required: Whitechapel.org.uk/giftlist. 

Since the Whitechapel Mission spends no money at all on fundraising, 100 per cent of your donation will go directly to providing its services.

If you liked this you may like to read about Maria Dickin who founded the PDSA.

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