By MICHAEL DUGGAN, who spent a night with St. Mungo's Community Trust workers on their soup run for London's "dossers"
St. Mungo's Community Trust was founded in 1969 to help London's "dossers," the homeless men and women who find themselves on the streets, and the trust now manages 19 houses and two night shelters whieli provide for well over 1,000 people, many of whom suffer from problems of drugs or drink.
Yet despite this rapid growth the community is still bestknown for the activity with which it started: the "soup run" — a nightly 4+-hour tour of London haunts to keep up contact with the dossers and supply them with soup and bread.
In October, 1973, .volunteers counted 1,415 dossers sleeping on the streets, But Nick Fogg, St. Mungo's publicity officer, says that the true figure is probably twice that. He partly blames the decline of riverside industries and the removal of large markets for diminished work opportunities in the city centre.
It was Mr. Fogg who invited me to accompany St. Mango's volunteers on the soup run. And so. at II p.m. on a Tuesday night, I found myself in Victoria, at the door of St. Anne's Church, formerly chapel of ease to Westminster Cathedral but now used as a night shelter by the Trust.
I rang the doorbell, a face appeared behind the grill, and soon I was walking through the gloomy nave. where men watched television or talked at plastic
topped tables. Up in the sanctuary, on rusty stoves, gas jets hissed beneath huge pots of mulligatawny soup — a gift from Heinz — watched over by Fr. John Kirby, a Battersea curate and co-founder of the St. Mango Trust.
As we waited for the soup to heat Er, Kirby talked about St. Mungo's and about the 70 volunteers — from Swedish sociology students to nuns — who man the centres. Then, with the clock ticking towards midnight, we 'carried yellow soup containers out of the church and, after a quick test of the two-way radio in an upstairs office, squeezed into the back of an ex-ambulance, to start the run.
Inside the dark van I counted five others: Fr. Kirby and his father, John Kirby; Kevin Murray, a medical student with black moustaches, who drives; and two women volunteers — Marian Cox. a young mother who lives in South London, and Hilary, from North America. Marian explained to me that this was her second night on the soup run. "All those men saying 'See you next week' — and you feel you should be there."
Soon the ambulance was heading throu_gh deserted streets towards the Houses of Parliament. Then we crossed the Thames, chugged past Waterloo station and eame to the first halt, beneath a railway arch: Buckley Street.
As the rear doors opened we saw 11 men waiting. John ladled soup into plastic cups and they drank gratefully, exchanging few words.
Up in Waterloo Station, beneath the fluorescent lights, mail bag trollies sped back and forth, a vacuum cleaner whirred. Fr. Kirby, on the lookout for further dossers, told how he came to found the St. Mungo Trust.
As chaplain at Rochester Borstal, in Kent, he grew concerned at the number of boys who ended up "skippering" — roaming the streets because they had no home to go to. He met Jim Horne, who shared his concern, and together they started the soup run.
Now the Battersea priest finds it .hard not to spend one night a week out on the streets. "If I don't come out on a Tuesday I don't sleep at all."
The number of men sleeping outdoors has dropped since St. Mungo's opened a former Marmite factory in Vauxhall, South London, as a night shelter. And Fr. Kirby was evidently pleased to see So few on the benches of the concourse at Waterloo. "The less I find the happier 1 am."
Back at the ambulance two policemen walked up to a group of men who had been drinking cider and methylated spirits, and muttered a vague warning to one of them, whom they suspected of minor theft. He waved a fist in reply, shouting drunkenly: "Never 'trouble trouble till trouble -troubles you." Waterloo, I am told. is the worst place on the whole soup run for drink.
00.48 a.m. Time to leave for our second stop: Temple Gardens on the embankment.
Temple Gardens, a badlysheltered circle of benches round a plot of earth, has a very different atmosphere to Waterloo. Here a score of men lie beneath coats or sheets of cardboard. One has his legs in a sack and his head in a box labelled: "Grapefruit. Produce of Cyprus."
Mr. John Kirby. who stood with an enamel jug in his hand, found this the most surprising spot of all when he first came out with St. Mungo's. "Seeing them sleeping like this, in boxes and all that. People like where we live wouldn't know this was going on unless you told them."
During the tourist season it is even worse. "In summer you can't move. They're literally sleeping on top of one another," tiLtys Fr. Kirby.
Most of the men sleeping rough come from Scotland or Ireland, and many are Catholic. A few weeks ago Fr. Kirby said a solemn requiem Mass for one who was about to he given a pauper's funeral — "One of these £30 straight-into-thecrem-after-closing-hours jobs."• 1.35 a.m. The temperature is dropping and large raindrops begin to fall. We hurry through the gardens past a statue of John Stuart Mill and leave for our third destination: the Strand Palace Hotel. The scene here, about 100 yards behind the Strand itself, is reminiscent of 19th century engravings. By the light of gas lamps a dozen men sit huddled up to the hot air grilles of the hotel boiler room.
The girls talk to a man in his early 30s who appears to be on drugs. Through the plate-glass doors of the hotel is a glimpse of beige tahle lamps and empty whisky bottles.
2.18 ads. On to Covent Garden, a notorious drug centre. Below the elegant por
tico of St. Paul's church — built by Inigo Jones in 1633 — 30 men and a sprinkling of women gather round a fire in a dustbin.
At the market across the road porters load and unload lettuce. bananas and tomatoes for prompt delivery to the shops. Young people find this work a useful source of temporary income in the summer months.
Fr. Kirby buys us sausage sandwiches from an all-night coffee stall and a ao Irishman in a gses n knitted hat who has been given soup, asks if t:lere is a sandwich for h..,. Conscious of our own needs we say there is not.
One hazard of a dosser's life is the risk of being sprayed by water carts, especially at warmer times of the year. So a municipal truck which draws up at the kerb takes on an unusually threatening appearance. as if it were a riot control weapon.
3.23 a.m. Charing Cross underground station — major assembly point for the dossers and last stop on the soup run.
In the shelter of Hungerford Bridge two rows of sleepers lie wrapped in blankets. coats, cardboard and an occasional brightly-coloured sleeping bag. With the arrival of the soup there is a stirring in the ranks and one or two men dust themselves down. I count 66 people lying on the pavement and 15 round the soup urn.
An elderly woman with few teeth asks Fr. Kirby for a hostel 'sed and he contacts headquarters over the radio transmitter to make arrangements. Most of the dossers at Charing Cross seem to be resigned to the life.
At the end of the row of blankets sits a young man who seems to be neither on drink nor drugs. Rumour has it that his bride was killed two days before the wedding.
The chimes Of Big Ben reverberate along the embankment at 3.45 and a plump rat scurries over the pavement, diving behind a telephone box.
By the wall the two Mango girls arc chatting about. the problem of sewing on buttons with a distinguished grey-haired Irishman in his 50.s. The Irishman says that he learnt to sew during his eight years in the army.
Gradually, the low-key conversations draw to a close and at 4.28 after last-minute cups of soup for two latecomers, we climb aboard the ambulance and close the rear doors for the last journey of all: hack to St. Anne's Church. Fr. Kirby informs HQ of . our approach:, "Mungo one, Mango control. Over."
Then we move into the warmth or the church past pews of sleeping men and up the wooden stairs to tea, toast and the Writing or reports. The nightly soup run, which brings food and comfort to hundreds of homeless men and women, is over once again, and Fr. Kirby has a seven o'clock Mass to think of.
The St. Mungo network' of houses, which range from intensive care communities to bedsitter accommodation, offer men on the streets a chance to recover their self-respect, where this is necessary. and to find a permanent job. Some end up working full-time for the trusts alongside youog people who spend a year with St. Mungo's in return for lodging and pocket. money.
There are now strong hopes that the disused Charing Cross Hospital will be offered to the trust, which could then close the draughty Marmite factory and provide a better class of night shelter. But whatever the future may hold, to the men who go "skippering" along the Strand and the embankment, St. Mungo's will always mean one thing: a cup of soup and a few moments of friendship in the darkest hours of the night.