The Manna homeless project highlights Islington’s rich/poor divide this Christmas

Volunteers hand out food at The Manna, a homeless project by St Stephen's Church, Canonbury

Volunteers hand out food at The Manna, a homeless project by St Stephen's Church, Canonbury - Credit: Archant

“I was talking to my friend about Christmas last night. He asked what I’m doing. I said I’ll probably go to Crisis.”

I’m speaking to a woman, who I’ll call Charlotte, at The Manna: a homeless service at St Stephen’s Church, Canonbury.

Spending Christmas Day at Crisis – another homeless centre – is dropped into our conversation as nonchalantly as I, a relatively well-off Cheshire boy, would say I’m visiting my mum and dad.

Charlotte continues: “People talk about Christmas but I have no family. I don’t bother with it.”

She is a regular at The Manna, which runs three two-hour sessions a week for homeless people (its definition includes those in social housing but who need support).

The Wednesday session I visit is the weekly “lunch and small groups”. As well as sandwiches, fruit and hot drinks, clients – as The Manna leadership calls them – can shower, do laundry (£1 with no exceptions: “no dosh, no wash”) and receive emotional support.

Today, they can also get involved with art, poetry and gardening.

Most Read

Gardener Ann-Marie Fairbrother, who has worked at The Manna for three years, says: “Quite often, people unfold their whole life stories in this garden. Sometimes, it’s really hard for me to even listen.

“Most of these people have had very difficult lives, but somehow gardening and working with nature seems to have a therapeutic effect.”

Rachel Smith, project worker at The Manna, says today’s session is quieter than usual.

With more homeless-focused events in the approach to Christmas, there’s about 50 people – it can be up to 150 on a normal day.

It’s a relaxed atmosphere. Some are tucking into their sandwiches, while others are engrossed with their paintbrushes.

But, as 24-year-old Rachel explains, it’s not always the case. “Because of the situations our people are in, there’s lots of different opinions and views. They are dealing with a lot of things in their lives, and the smallest things can trigger disagreements.

“We are trained in dealing with confrontation, restraint and diffusal. It’s about maintaining a culture of respect, and it is four weeks since we last had an incident.”

Based in leafy Canonbury, The Manna typifies Islington’s notorious divide of rich and poor.

And that’s not lost on Charlotte, nursing her cup of tea.

“I’ve got no money today, but that’s how it goes.

“It’s why places like this are good. I have to come to places like this to get food. I’ve been coming here a good while. I don’t even know how long.

“It’s really crazy, this life. Hopefully things will get better sooner rather than later. You just need to try and take it easy.”