Proud of our past - and a warning from history 

By Jon Kuhrt, Chief Executive

This year, West London Mission is 130 years old.  I am so proud to work for an organization which has been serving homeless and marginalised people since 1887.  We have a heritage that continues to inspire us as we move forward and develop our work further.

As many of you will know, I greatly enjoy reading about the history of WLM.  Recently, I was clearing out some old paperwork at the West London Day Centre and I found some fascinating old newspaper clippings relating to homelessness. 

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One clipping particularly struck me. It was an editorial from The Sun in 1990. It starts:

IT’s time we stopped feeling guilty about the plight of dossers sleeping rough on our streets. 

Professional weepers claim there are 73,000 homeless in London alone.

Their cries of “shame” are loud enough to reach Buckingham Palace and suck Prince Edward into the cause.

It goes on:

The truth is, most dossers are on the streets through CHOICE.

Some are obviously not capable of looking after themselves. Those need all the care that our hospitals can provide.

But spare us this barrage of emotional blackmail from groups driven by POLITICAL motives.

There are far bigger causes to champion in this world.

Dramatic rise 

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Princess Diana visited both Hinde Street and the West London Day Centre.

It is interesting that 1990 was a time when the numbers of homeless people on the streets had dramatically risen. As the editorial states, it was becoming an increasingly high profile issue and drawing sympathetic noises from Royalty and others.  As many of you will know and remember, during the early 1990s, Princess Diana visited both Hinde Street and the West London Day Centre to acknowledge WLM’s work with homeless people (see picture).

Back in 1990, I had only just left school. I got a job as a cleaner which meant being on The Strand by 7.00am every morning. 

The extent of the rough sleeping that I saw was truly shocking. There were 3 or 4 people sleeping under almost every doorway and many of them very young.  Villiers Street, which runs down from The Strand to the Embankment, was like a homeless village with countless people huddled together under cardboard.  It had a massive impact on me.

Political pressure

Despite this, at the time Britain’s most popular paper, The Sun peddled harsh and judgmental views. Also many politicians seemed less than in touch with the reality. The Tory minister, Sir George Young reputedly said:

'The homeless?  Aren’t they the people you step over when you came out of the opera?'

But the situation was shocking enough to have a wider impact.  The sight of so many rough sleepers, many of them very young, huddled in the cold around Whitehall and Westminster did produce political pressure, which Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government could not ignore. The amount of rough sleepers did create policy change.

The Rough Sleeper’s Initiative was launched later in 1990 and allocated £350m over three years to reduce homelessness.  It was the subject of my dissertation at University when I studied Social Work and in 1993 I started work in a direct-access hostel for homeless young people that it helped fund.  In many ways it was the start of the ‘modern era’ in addressing homelessness – with a dedicated government initiative and targeted funding to set up new services aimed to reduce rough sleeping.

And of course, this is a period of time when the West London Mission was at the forefront of this work. WLM was pioneering approaches to working with rough sleepers through the work of West London Day Centre which had moved to its current location in Seymour Place in 1974.

In among the papers, I found many other newspapers clippings which reported on the controversy around the West London Day Centre’s move with local residents and the school complaining about ‘tramps and dossers’ ruining the area.

Warning from history

In one way, these newspaper clippings are illustrations of how things have improved.  

Recently, The Evening Standard (another paper which used to regularly called homeless people ‘dossers’) have run a high profile campaign to support one of my former employers, Centrepoint, who work with young homeless people. I don’t think there is any doubt that there is definitely improved understanding and more humane responses to homeless people.

But this editorial is also a warning from history.  It shows how recently people with chronic needs, affected by trauma and poverty were dismissed contemptuously by the UK’s most popular newspaper.

Over the years, I have heard countless stories from homeless people about being threatened, kicked and urinated on.  And it is spiteful views like the ones in this article which provide fuel, and some warped justification, for these kinds of inhumane behaviours.

Pride in our past

It is a heritage which we can continue today. The West London Mission represents the importance of the Christian faith being expressed in both practical, professional and political ways.  This is not going to be either easy or always popular – but in doing so we have been faithful to our calling.

So reading such judgmental articles makes me proud of our predecessors at WLM. Although dismissed as ‘professional weepers’ by Britain’s most popular newspaper, West London Mission DID stand up for the vulnerable and made their voice heard at a time when this issue was far less fashionable.  Let us continue to do so in the current politically turbulent times in which we live.

Jon Kuhrt, Chief Executive


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