The Manna Centre, located underneath what will be the tallest building in Europe, was founded by an Irish-born missionary Sister

The Manna Centre nestles in the shades of the Shard, which when completed will be the tallest building in Europe, and the modern Guy’s Hospital, in an obscure cul de sac, writes Dr Peter Doherty.

The centre is a remarkable refuge and support for those sleeping in doorways in this part of Southwark. It was founded by Nannette Ffrench, an Irish-born Sister, who had recently returned from working as a nursing Sister in Africa when she witnessed the tragic conditions of the homeless sleeping rough in this area. Her latter years in Africa were spent as a surgical theatre Sister in a hospital in what was then Rhodesia. The fighting had become extremely fierce and the hospital and its theatre were in the thick of it as it was the only source of help for both sides.

When peace came Nannette had reached retirement age and, in accordance with the conventions of her order, she was recalled to the mother house. She was enabled to renounce her religious vows and, in her own words, regarding her future “it was now up to God”.

She came to London and was fortunate to be offered temporary accommodation in an old school by the Archdiocese of Southwark. She slept on a floor on a mattress for the first six months until she was able to sort herself out in her new life. By now she had become painfully aware of the misery and utter hopelessness of this neglected section of our society littering the streets in a wealthy city. She approached the late Bishop George Henderson for the use of a property and, when he asked what she would do with it, replied by saying she did not exactly know at the moment but “would open the doors and see who God let in”.

That is exactly what happened. The archdiocese handed over the keys of an unused nursery school at 6 Melior Street which has now been developed as the current centre of operations. An old car number plate was found on which was printed “Manna Centre” and nailed to the wall claiming the building for the homeless. The title was adopted from the gift of bread from a local Italian baker in the early days: truly manna from heaven.

Initially, pots of tea and a wash-up was all that could be offered, until Nannette’s powers of persuasion provided greater facilities.

The Centre now serves breakfast and lunch to over 200 people seven days a week. It also offers shower and loo facilities for both men and women every day of the week. A clothing service provided by parishes in the archdiocese offers services twice weekly and is operated by volunteers.

An advice service, with specialised Eastern European advisers, in addition to general advisers, helps movements from homelessness and poverty to a more stable housing and independent living. Altogether 1,657 clients accessed services in the past year.

Of the 330 seeking help with accommodation and who had access to benefits in Britain 56 per cent were placed in accommodation.

Getting medical treatment without a fixed address is a major problem. Nurse practitioners hold surgeries twice a week and when necessary are able to refer clients for further medical help. In addition there is access to osteopaths, a chiropodist, an optician and a dentist.

All this would not have been possible without the financial support of supporters and sponsors. Running costs have increased to £32,000 a month and so more publicity is vitally needed to maintain and improve its facilities.

Crucially, without the financial support of the archdiocese providing the premises none of this would have been possible. The future is going to be difficult as it is for the whole country facing austerity measures. But the magnificent team, which has been in place for many years, is confident that there is always hope on the horizon. The area around Melior Street and Borough High Street may not be as available to visitors, or volunteers, as that of the Passage in Westminster, but they are always welcome.

Nannette is still extremely active and in recent years founded another charity African Mission which, as its name implies, is active on the African scene.