The Manna Society: Down and Out in the Borough of Southwark

I found the Manna Homeless Centre along a narrow open passage with red brick on either side. It led almost immediately into a large canteen, with 50-100 people sat around. I was met with a familiar feeling of discomfort. This discomfort was not caused by the stigmatisation of homelessness; it was warm inside, everyone was relaxed, eating and chatting, seemingly familiar with one another. The atmosphere inside was mellow and welcoming. Rather – as I found out a little later on – it was the fact that the building provided by the diocese used to be a school, complete with high ceilings, that scent of disinfectant and old fashioned wooden chairs.

I was quickly led up several flights of stairs and into the office of Paddy Boyle who has been working at the Manna Homeless Centre in Southwark for over 30 years. He told me about the progression of the centre, the changes in London and the effects of gentrification.

I was training to be a priest with the Columban Fathers who were a missionary order and they are very strong with option for the poor. I knew I didn’t want to be a priest but I did want to continue working with the poor. I was in Korea at the time, and on my way back to Ireland I stopped off in London in December 1985. I came back in ’86 and have been here ever since. I met my wife in Korea and she cooks here.

What are the origins of the centre?

The centre was started in 1982 by Nanette French who was a Catholic sister at the time. Similarly, she was an Irish woman who had been in Africa and Zimbabwe at the time of the civil war. She was stressed out and came back to London for a break, only to be shocked by the homelessness and poverty in such a wealthy city. She went to the Roman Catholic diocese of Southwark and asked for a building. When they asked what it was for she responded by saying ‘God will provide’.

They originally gave her a building 50 yards away. It was an old secondary school which was quite run down because it hadn’t been used for a number of years. She opened up the doors and homeless guys started coming in. At that stage there was a number of hostels in the area. She had no business plans, no money. She got free bread from Ticino Bakery on Bermondsey Street. When I came, 4 years later, we would go up that street with a shopping trolley and they would give us leftover bread. It started off very simple. The food for the day was a roll and cup of soup, so it’s grown over the years.

Are the homeless people made aware of the religious roots of the centre?

They aren’t aware of the religious element. It is a Christian organisation, some people work here because of their religious motivation. As long as you share the philosophy of acceptance of people that’s fine. We don’t set out to change people’s lives or get them off the street, or to get them to stop drinking. It’s a fruitless exercise. They have to come to that decision by themselves. We will facilitate this as best we can. We live in a wealthy society and we can well afford to provide, it’s a basic human right. Everybody is entitled to food, showers, clothing. The Catholic Church has been really good to us. But it’s not just Christians who should be concerned for the poor, everybody has a conscience.

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You say that you don’t try to change people’s lives, only to provide and support them. Saying this, do you still feel that you have supported people significantly with turning their lives around?

There was one guy who was a down and out drinker, drunk all of the time, 7 days a week. He used our services regularly, but he turned his own life around and has moved to Peckham. At some point in his life he decided that it was a dead end and I still keep in touch with him. That was about 5 years ago now. We’re a place for others to come when they’re in need. You should never give up on anybody, people can change.

How has the centre developed over the years?

Now we are open from half 8 to half 1. Food is still a big draw. Pret a Manger are very good to us because they give us sandwiches in the morning. We do a breakfast and a main dinner which is different each day. That is what most people come for and we serve around 150 people a day. Beyond that we provide other services.

There are 3 male showers and 1 female shower because we’ve always seen a lot more men, at least 90%. This is representative of the homeless population on the street, women will only end up there as a last resort, understandably because it’s really dangerous for women on the street. In our old place we opened a room specifically for women but it didn’t take off.

Clothes Store Manna Centre by Tricia de Courcy Ling-42

Do you receive much support from the surrounding community and local government?

We are mostly dependent on the charity of people, we don’t get huge amounts of government money. Southwark Council gives us about 9% of our funds. We are heavily dependent on donated food stuffs and all the toiletries and towels for the showers are donated as well. In the last 2 months we have resettled around 300 people. We provide medical care 5 days a week and a variety of other services, from a chiropodist to access to computers. We tried to provide classes for numeracy and literary, however we struggled to get interest from the guys.

It’s grown organically. It’s good that our supporters have kept pace with our needs. Like with any charity you can’t be complacent. The only guaranteed funding is from Southwark council and that’s only guaranteed from year to year. If the central government cuts local government’s budget then they may stop. They have funded us for 7-10 years. The rest comes from individuals, churches, companies.

How has homelessness changed over the years in your experience?

Numbers wise, it hasn’t improved. The big difference is with the expansion of Europe. At the very beginning we were heavily dominated by the Irish and the Scots. There was one Russian guy called Alex. Now a 1/3 of the guys coming in are Eastern Europeans which is the biggest change. What’s different for them is that British people are entitled for benefits and hostels, however this is a lot more difficult for Eastern Europeans. Squatting has also become a lot more difficult for people.

The gentrification of London is a big topic and has been for quite a while. What do you think about the relationship between London, how it is changing, and how this may affect the homeless?

George Orwell wrote Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933. In fact, I think he stayed in a hostel just around the corner. If you came to see us 30 years ago, there were 24 hostels and there was a good possibility we could get you a hostel on the day. There’s much less of a chance now because there’s much fewer hostels. Now, because of funding, everybody has to have a connection with the borough. It’s much more restrictive with accommodation than it was previously.

Even reasonably well-to-do people are struggling to live in London now because of the price of housing. The problem will have to be addressed for sure. London needs ordinary people, it needs waiters, it needs nurses, it needs people to sweep the street. That has got worse in the last 10-20 years. But when Labour were in power they didn’t seem to address the issue either. For ordinary working people it’s much more of a struggle than it was. Because of this, the road out of homelessness has become more difficult.

As Paddy said, the centre is heavily dependent upon the charity of other people. To learn more about donating, click here

Interview by Alex Howlett

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