Mary’s story

Mary volunteered with St Mungo’s 47 years ago. In this long read, Mary shares her memories of St Mungo’s in the early 1970s…

It was sometime in 1971 that I came across an ad in Time Out asking for volunteers willing to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week with destitute men.

I had recently returned from a summer project working with Catholic and Protestant teenagers in Northern Ireland, and was looking for something a bit out of the ordinary to be involved with for the next while. For some reason, this ad piqued my interest, and I wanted at least to find out more about it.

I called the number listed in the ad, and a couple of days later, found myself in an interview with two men in a small room at the top of a house somewhere south of the Thames – Jim and Tony. Jim was obviously the man in charge, and did most of the talking. He was an intense and unsmiling man, who fixed me with a challenging stare as he laid out what they were looking for, making it clear that the ‘job’ on offer was no picnic.

Our role

What they were wanting were volunteers to be live-in custodians in houses around London that were providing accommodation for men who had been sleeping rough on the streets. Our job was to take care of the house and the people in it in whatever ways were needed and appropriate. While in the house, there would be no ‘off’ time; we would need to be available to engage with the men both individually and collectively, as well as to deal with any situations or emergencies that arose. We were to provide a supportive environment, treating the men with respect, making no particular demands of them, while also supporting them to find their feet and engage with the world.

Other people would handle getting people back into the system, signed up for Social Security, engaging with job centres, looking for more permanent accommodation. We just needed to take care of the houses and the people in them.

Once or twice a week we would also be expected to go out on the nightly soup run, not only offering food to people on the streets, but also connecting with them, finding out their stories, offering support and the possibility to come in to one of the St Mungo houses.

In the end, it turned out that it wasn’t quite 24 hours a day seven days a week. We could if we wished get one day off a week, to be negotiated with the other house custodian.

Houses and support

By the time I got involved, Jim and his team had badgered the Greater London Council to give them a few houses – some of them in areas scheduled for demolition – in various parts of London, places where they could bring people off the streets and help them rebuild their lives and get back on their feet again.

They had also persuaded several supermarkets to donate bread and vegetables that were just out of date, and had also somehow managed to acquire a van. Every evening vast quantities of soup were made from the vegetables, and from around 11pm a soup run would go round various locations where homeless people tended to congregate. It was from the contacts made during the soup run that people were offered the opportunity to come into one of the houses.

The first house I was in – two days after that interview with Jim and Tony – was in St Stephens Gardens, close to the Portobello Road Market. The house itself – and indeed much of the street – was fairly rundown, and several houses on the street were unoccupied or squatted. The house opposite us was a refuge for destitute women, run by nuns connected with Mother Theresa. One day Mother Theresa came to visit this house, and for a while the street was filled with media people taking photos of the tiny woman in front of the door at the top of the steps up from the street.

The St Stephens Gardens house was where the soup was made every evening in a kitchen in the basement. It was also the first place that the men coming off the streets would be housed in. Although we kept it clean and relatively comfortable, it was deliberately kept not too clean and tidy, because for some people who had been homeless for a long time, it was overwhelming and disorienting to adjust to life indoors. One of Jim’s strictures was that we were to make no particular demands on the men, but to be open to encouraging them to rebuild their connections with life and the world in their own timing. So there were no requirements for them to help around the house in any way.

Helping people settle

Initially, many of the men in this house drifted a bit aimlessly through the day, watching tv, not very connected with one another, making tea and toast as they needed it, and occasionally frying up something in the kitchen. As they became more settled, they engaged more with one another and with us as house custodians, sometimes helping a bit with tidying up in the kitchen.

Other St Mungo’s workers came in most days to work with people individually, supporting them to access medical care, social security, housing and employment as necessary and wanted, and accompanying them to the relevant agencies and organisations.

I remember doing a lot of cleaning in this house – the toilet particularly needed constant attention, and each morning the open fire in the lounge needed cleaning and re-setting. I don’t remember doing much cooking, although I must have done some, as I remember shopping for food in the Portobello Road market, and certainly there were hot meals of sorts available, though not necessarily at a particular time, and not in a particular place. Mostly people ate on their laps in the TV room. I do remember presiding over endless cups of tea and slices of toast.

Re-engaging with life

As the men became more settled, they were moved from this first house on to others. Some moved very quickly, almost immediately, particularly if they had been on the streets for only a short time. Others were there much longer. Re-engaging with life off the streets could take a considerable time.

I remember one man, Les, had been living outside since the war. It had taken a long time for the soup run volunteers to persuade him to try coming indoors, but finally he had done it. He shuffled around the house, seldom making eye contact, and spent most of his time sitting in the living room, watching tv. He hardly communicated, often just with nods or shakes of his head. We discovered he liked tea, and he would drink this if it was brought to him. He would also eat some of the food, again if it was brought to him. After some weeks, I was astonished one day to have him walk in when I was in the kitchen, and ask to make some tea. It felt a major breakthrough! After that he would often make his own tea, gradually becoming more communicative. That is when we learnt he had been out on the streets for years.

Stories and jokes

A few of the men were more boisterous and outgoing, full of stories and observations and jokes. “Brummy John” from Birmingham was always starting up conversations with people, coming into kitchen, sitting with people on the steps leading up to the front door, walking with me to the market, telling stories about his life in Birmingham and his experiences living on the streets. He was interested in almost everything that was going on, and had a constant flow of comments and observations to make, often fairly irreverent and outrageous, including about the other residents. Although I knew it was a good move for him, I was sorry to see him move on to another house.

The turnover in the St Stephens Gardens house was high. The other houses were more settled. I spent some time in a house in Vauxhall, in a cleaner and tidier residential area. The men in this house were longer-term residents. They took more care of themselves, were mostly more connected with and communicative with each other, took themselves out during the day – though most of them were not working – and tended to help out around the house. As they were supported into work and other accommodation, some moved on, but the turnover was much lower than in St Stephens Gardens. And a few of them felt settled in this house for good. One of these was a gentle man with china-blue eyes who hardly spoke, although he was always gracefully appreciative for whatever came his way. He had a sense of wonder about life, and seemed to live in a different world, often gazing into the distance, and then noticing and appreciating the details of what was around – the movement of clouds in the sky, the hopping of a bird on the pavement, a mother and child talking and laughing together as they passed the house.

I walked with him sometimes to a nearby park, where he liked to sit on a bench, watch the world, and feed the birds. I remember one day we watched an autumn leaf as it slowly drifted down in the sunlight from the tree overhead and landed on my hand, like a blessing. He gave a slow and delighted smile, as if it was the most magical thing in the world, and indeed, at that moment, it was. Later I was in a house in Kilburn – actually, two houses, which had been adapted so that they were essentially one unit, with a door between them. All the men there were working. And for most of them it was important that the place look and feel good, so there was quite a lot of support for this. A former cat burglar called Jim was particularly meticulous, and he organised and set up various systems (like where things should go in the kitchen and bathrooms; who should do the washing up and when, as well as other suggested rotas), not all of which were followed by the other residents. He was already an established resident when I moved into the house, and I was grateful for his induction and initial organising of me.

In this house, different men would cook the meals from time to time and we would often all eat together in the evenings and on Sundays. I remember Jim regaling us with tales of his cat burgling days, of which he was quite proud. He was also proud to have it behind him and to now have a regular job that he seemed to enjoy.

There must have been a no alcohol or drugs rule, as I don’t remember any evidence of either in the houses I was in. In fact, I do remember Tony coming by one evening to the St Stephens Gardens house when one of the residents came home drunk and disruptive, picking fights with the other people in the house. The other house custodian and I hadn’t been able to quieten him. Somehow we had managed to get hold of Tony, who came by and threw the man out of the house. He was back a few days later, assuring us he was committed to staying sober, and for the rest of the time I was in that house he kept to that commitment.

A number of the men connected with St Mungo’s were former offenders, and from time to time some of them would find themselves back in prison, usually for some fairly minor offence, usually theft. St Mungo’s workers kept track of them, and picked them up when they came out of prison and brought them to one of the houses so they had a base from which to start again. While the men were in prison, St Mungo’s kept an ongoing connection with them. There were regular group sessions in Pentonville, and I remember going to a few of them; we all sat in a circle and people shared how things were going for them, and what they were aiming for when they got out. There was also a lot of joking and banter. I was a smoker in those days, and it was in one of those group sessions that I was taught how to roll cigarettes.

Engaging with people

The soup run was an important part of our work.

It wasn’t just about getting food to people; it was also a way of engaging with people, making human contact, building relationships, checking up on how some of the regulars were doing and what they needed, opening opportunities for people to get off the streets and into accommodation.

There were five or six locations the soup run stopped each night. I don’t remember all of them, but one that stands out was Covent Garden market, still at that point a fruit and vegetable and flower market, a hive of activity in the early hours as people prepared for the next morning’s trading. Other places were close to where people slept out, one by a park on the Embankment where all the benches were occupied every night, and another under some bridges near Charing Cross, which every evening became almost a dormitory of people on cardboard sleeping mats. Still another was by the side of the Savoy hotel, where people gathered for warmth around the hot air vents from the hotel.

One evening at this last location a man was hunched down close to one of the vents. He didn’t respond or move when the van arrived, or when other people gathered around for soup and bread, so after a while I went over and crouched down next to him to make contact and find out how he was. He was wrapped in a large coat and had a woollen cap pulled down almost right over his eyes. He didn’t respond at first, but when he did look up and speak, I realised it was Tony. He was checking on us. He let me know he was pleased that I had reached out to him and not just hung out near the van, and told me to go back to the van and not to tell the others that he was there.

Very occasionally after that I would notice Tony or one of the other more senior St Mungo’s workers moving amongst the people at the different locations, looking like the rest of the homeless men, usually on the fringes of the group. They were monitoring how we were reaching out to and interacting with people, and were probably there more often than just the times we noticed them.

This monitoring also extended to the work in the houses, with Jim and Tony turning up unannounced and unexpectedly to check on what we were doing and what was going on, talking to the men about how things were going and how we were engaging with them, checking the rooms and activities, making sure we were meeting the standards they wanted.

It became time for me to go

From late summer, over the winter and into the spring. I don’t remember if there was a particular reason why I left. I do know there were other things coming up in the summer of 1972. I think at some point it just became time to go, just as it had been time to join all those months earlier. There was a fairly high turnover amongst us workers and volunteers, both in and out of St Mungo’s and between the different houses. I told Jim and Tony I was coming to the end of my time with them, let the men in the Kilburn house know I would be leaving, and three weeks later took my backpack with my few belongings back to some friends’ bedsit in Earls Court, where I had the occasional use of an extra mattress.

A few months after I had left St Mungo’s, I was at a movie with friends one evening. As we came out of the theatre, I noticed someone who looked familiar huddled in a doorway. It was Brummy John, back on the streets. His former ebullience was gone. I wasn’t able to find out exactly what had happened. Perhaps he had been back in prison for a while; perhaps he had gone back on the booze. In any event, something had occurred and for some reason he hadn’t re-engaged with St Mungo’s; he was hesitant about this, and seemed to feel they wouldn’t want to be involved with him again. I told him to go back, to give himself another chance; said that of course they would take him in again. He said he would. I hope he did.

47 years later Mary’s niece, Frances, works for St Mungo’s as our Campaigns Manager, campaigning for an end to homelessness. Find out how you can support St Mungo’s campaigns by signing up to be a campaigner.

Our 50 year history is filled with some extraordinary people. To mark our anniversary, we will be profiling 50 Lives throughout 2019 – a snapshot of those who have played their part in our story. You can read the stories on our website at www.mungos.org/50-lives.