homes of the homeless


The Pinch of Poverty (detail) by Thomas Benjamin Kennington, oil on canvas, 1891
© Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

We tend to imagine the Victorian home as a family affair, a place of stability and a retreat from the outside world. But for huge numbers of Londoners the reality was very different. Tens of thousands made their homes in lodgings and lodging houses, renting a room or a bed in a building shared with strangers. Countless others could not afford to rent and were forced to turn to the workhouse and to shelters or slept rough in whatever shelter they could find.

This exhibition tells the story of this ‘other’ London, exploring the places the poor inhabited and bringing them to life through paintings, photographs, and objects, as well as through personal stories and reports.

Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London

Tuesday 24 March – Sunday 12 July 2015. Admission £5 / £3 concessions.

what i’m left with following the twenty-fourth and twenty-seventh of december

Over Christmas I was at the shelter, working with those who are without a home and/or lonely and isolated.  There were many at the shelter, I’d say mostly 95% of them male and the rest single females.  There were two couples.  And many four-legged friends all about, tails wagging, obediently following the one they love and protect with fierce loyalty.

It was my first voluntary experience with this particular organisation and I would say it was probably one of the best I have worked with.  They were superbly organised and overflowing with kindness, abundance of wholesome and tasty food to eat and take-away if needed, clothing, shower and laundry facilities, food bank,  mental health support, medical team and even a chiropodist! Most importantly there were beds for those who needed them for the night.  The overnight team of volunteers looked after those sleeping and prepared breakfast and packed lunches for the next day.

I worked with the clothing team, being the “runner” which basically meant I had to collect two guests at a time, brought them upstairs where the clothing was neatly laid out, helped them to select what they needed, packed their stuff and then took them back downstairs once they had all they needed.  The clothes were all clean in excellent condition and some brand new.  There were  shoes and socks available too.  We even had doggie treats and clothing which went down a treat!

These are some of the precious fragments of my experience; what I’m left with following the twenty-fourth and twenty-seventh of December (names have been changed to protect their true identity):

Jonny and his friendly dog, Lucky, who according to Jonny, is “very popular”

And a Russian gentleman who isn’t so hungry nowadays and forces himself to eat for the sake of. He misses the time he used to cook for ten others and eat as a group. “The food just melts in your mouth”, he says. He misses the time he had with them. “It’s not the same anymore”.

Mary who wanted a coat but had to think about the practicality and laundry. “Need to keep it simple so no high maintenance coats”.

The man who felt claustrophobic like he was in prison with guards watching him as he selected his clothes. “I just wanted to get what I needed and get out of there”.

Yezad a gentleman, polite, almost painfully polite, and who kept calling me “Miss”.  Had he been inside I wondered? I remember him later, smoking outside, and backed up close to the wall later as I walked past him acknowledging me with another “Miss”…He was happy to have clean clothes to wear after his shower in the morning.

The food cottage pie and vegetables.

Chicken curry and chickpeas. The aroma of food cooking, the warmth of the entire room – almost too warm at times!

Apple crumble and custard.

The couple who took many bags of clothing.  She was pregnant.  They seemed very close.

A friendly old chap, who was a regular at the shelter over the years, carrying his comforts with him in a carrier bag.  I warmed to him for some reason. Meena, who needed my elbow to hold on to as she couldn’t see very well as we went up the stairs.  She was happy with her soft peach blanket and many warm fleeces.