Sleepless Nights
How St. Mungo’s is battling homelessness in the United Kingdom

By Richard Keever

It’s cold, dark and raining. Imagine that your hands are dirty, your pants are ripped and you’re wearing an old, beat-up jacket. You find a place to lie down in an alley across the street from a train station, but the only thing you have to cover yourself is a soaked newspaper. Such is the plight of many homeless people in the United Kingdom.

For hundreds of them, a charity known as St. Mungo’s offers an alternative — about 1,600 beds and meals every night all over the United Kingdom. In a city as big as London, with 7.1 million residents, the number of homeless is relatively small. The St. Mungo’s website claims that only about 265 people are homeless in London on a given night. Broadway, another London-based homelessness charity, reports about 3,500 “rough sleepers,” as they’re known in the United Kingdom, between April 2008 and March 2009. These low figures can be attributed to government support and the dozens of organizations that help the homeless.

St. Mungo’s began in 1969, when a Scot named Harry Stone began feeding the homeless who wandered the streets of Battersea, an inner-city district of South London. He and a group of volunteers bought soup and gave it to the homeless, provided companionship and helped as best they could. In an interview with The Guardian, Charles Fraser, St. Mungo’s current CEO, said that when the police began to investigate Harry Stone, he called himself St. Mungo because “a Christian saint’s name would stop police hassling workers on soup runs — they thought they were reverends.” St. Mungo is the patron saint of Stone’s hometown of Glasgow, Scotland.

Today, St. Mungo’s has a good track record. “Ninety percent of people we help are never homeless again,” says Katie Chowienczyk, 20. St. Mungo’s hires many of them for administrative positions, as janitors and as helpers in soup kitchens.

Chowienczyk raises funds for St. Mungo’s. She travels all around London, talking to people and asking them to donate money. One day she was at the Bond Street Tube stop in front of a Rolex watch store selling £4,000 watches. While others walked past in business suits or tailored dresses, she wore jeans, a T-shirt and a blue windbreaker that says “St. Mungo’s” on it.

St. Mungo’s provides counseling, housing locator services and programs for drug and alcohol abuse. According to Chowienczyk, “Seventy-five to eighty percent of homeless people have mental health issues. Drugs and alcohol problems result from being on the street.” These problems “can often be a form of self-medication,” says Judith Higgins, St. Mungo’s media manager.

As many as 200 volunteers serve St. Mungo’s by raising money, doing office work, serving food and cleaning the shelter. Funding comes from donations and government contracts.

St. Mungo’s has expanded its shelters throughout England and into Scotland and Wales. Since its humble beginnings in 1969, the charity has helped thousands of people escape a life on the streets.

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