On a late October Sunday in 1887, the bearded and bespectacled Reverend Hugh Price Hughes stepped up to the pulpit in London’s St. James Hall to give some of the first public remarks about the Methodist mission movement, a radical call to action for Christians to get involved personally in breaking the cycle of poverty in the city’s neighborhoods.
“In London at this moment, the poorer districts are growing poorer and poorer, and those who ought to mingle with the less privileged are several miles off,” he said to a crowd of about 2,000. “Alas that in this great London there should be so many thousands whose whole life is absorbed in a desperate attempt to keep their heads just above water.”
Hughes’s passion for putting Christ’s teachings into direct action—which he referred to as “social Christianity”—did not fall on deaf ears. The Welshman, along with his wife Katherine and other devout members of the congregation, took up the banner by founding the West London Mission, which provided care and support for the most vulnerable citizens of London: children, the homeless, the sick.
Now, more than a century later, that Mission continues its work, serving citizens who face many of same problems their forebears did—economic inequality, substance abuse, and personal trauma. Since the 1970s, the organization has run its day centre on Seymour Place, which assists about 100 homeless people per day, mostly men over the age of 25. Those clients—10 or more of whom are newly homeless—can use the centre to access critical services that most people take for granted: a hot breakfast, a shower, and medical care, as well as hair cuts, laundry facilities, and mail collection.
The organization also provides care homes for men with alcohol dependency, as well as support services for men re-entering society after a prison sentence, veterans, and those who need affordable mental health treatment. The centre’s staff also teaches financial resilience and computer skills that can help clients stay off the streets.
“In the majority of cases we see, a relationship breakdown has been part of that person’s journey into homelessness,” said Martha Awojobi, WLM corporate development officer. “Someone’s marriage has fallen apart, for example. We’ve seen a lot of older men whose partner has died—they’re a 65-year-old man who can’t make the mortgage and finds himself on the street.”
WLM helps fill in the gaps where public social services run short, but the organization faces the age-old problem of securing enough funds to accomplish its goals. Yet when Zendesk opened its nearby office in 2015, the Mission found a partner that shared the same commitment to fighting poverty, homelessness, and overcoming technical illiteracy.
In keeping with Hughes’ vision of direct action, Zendesk’s employees get personally involved in helping the centre, from delivering chicken every Thursday for hungry clients to donating clothing during times of harsh weather. During a particularly bitter stretch of weather recently, Zendesk stepped up to help. “Zendesk supported us with hats, scarves, basically helping us keep our service users alive,” Awojobi said.
With homelessness in London skyrocketing—roughly 40 percent of its citizens are just one paycheck away from the streets—it’s an issue that will remain a problem for the foreseeable future. But as Awojobi sees it, West London Mission has a responsibility to continue to empower people affected by homelessness, poverty, and trauma and support from the whole community is essential to make these positive transformations.
“Once you volunteer at our day centre, there’s no going back,” Awojobi said. “Homelessness looks just like me and you.”
How can you help? Visit West London Mission's website to learn more on getting involved.