Social Justice

How iconic arts venue graced by Elton John and Amy Winehouse is helping homeless people

The Margins Project at the Union Chapel is providing people who are homeless and vulnerable with a meal twice a week, as well as training opportunities for marginalised people looking to boost their employability skills

union chapel

Amanuel Woldesus (right) and his team member at the Union Chapel's Margins project. Image: The Big Issue

The Union Chapel in Islington is used to welcoming big crowds of people. It has hosted some of the world’s most iconic performers: Amy Winehouse, Elton John, Nick Cave and Noel Gallagher to name a few. Tucked away at the back of the chapel, in the bright hours of the day, a different kind of crowd gathers.

Twice a week, on Monday and Wednesday mornings, frontline charity the Margins Project serves up meals to people facing homelessness and other critical living situations. More than 50 people have arrived before 12pm, just halfway through the drop-in session. 

Their kitchen sits alongside a bright open room, with chequered tablecloths laid out on the big square tables. People filter in, some chatting enthusiastically and others keeping quietly to themselves.

Iraj, the chef, working at the Margins Project. Image: Archie Powell

“Quite a lot of people here are homeless,” says Amanuel Woldesus, who runs the Margins Project. “Some are in really precarious housing situations. A lot of people have mental health conditions. 

“A lot are disabled. Others are experiencing gender discrimination and sexual discrimination. These are all areas we need expertise on. I wish that there could be a mental health worker here or nurses here. I’m sure you will have found people with some bruises here today.”

Lee Taylor has been coming to the Margins Project at the Union Chapel for a number of years. “This is where we eat. I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t been in for a while because I’m on a halfway thing at the moment and I’m doing well,” he says. “But I know where to get my food on a Monday. Things are tough.”

Taylor jokes that he is 28, but then he says to add an extra 20 years onto it. He looks across at the man sitting next to him and asks how long it’s been since they saw each other. About six months, they decide.

“I’ve done the homeless thing,” he says. “I went to the council, they put me on some outreach and into a hostel, I’ve done that. Temporary accommodation. As I said, I haven’t seen most of these people in six months. I’m still on that road but I’m ready to move on.”

Taylor received support from a range of local organisations including Islington Council, community advice services and food banks – alongside going to the Union Chapel a couple of times each week for a meal.

The Union Chapel is a beautiful space, which has seen acclaimed musicians and comics perform, as well as politicians and speakers. Alastair Campbell is due to speak at the Union Chapel that night. Image: James Bridle

“There’s good support if you need it,” Taylor says. “But at the same time, if you don’t seek it, they’re not going to be there, are they?”

He believes a key problem is that many people aren’t aware of the support out there. “I stumbled on a pathway,” he remarks about his journey to finding help. “If I knew about it, would it have been any different? It would have been, wouldn’t it? I would have found it quicker.

“If there was a signpost on a roundabout, we would read it. But you’re not going to find it on a signpost. You’ve got to ask for help. And don’t give up.”

The Margins Project had a housing and benefits advisor until the end of last year, and the team is looking actively to recruit his replacement now. Woldesus says they are always looking for more experts to come in and provide their support.

One man, an amputee, says that universal credit is “not enough to live on”. He is not claiming disability benefits and fears that he would have a long wait before getting help, so he has never tried.

Leon Rossi has been coming to the Union Chapel for about a month, as long as he’s been homeless. 

“It’s very hard,” Rossi, who is 45, says. “The council are doing what they can do at the moment on cut budgets. I’m limited on housing. There’s places further out but I’m from this area.”

He says he has been “all over” trying to keep out of the cold, including in King’s Cross station. “I’m fine,” he says. “This isn’t my first time. It’s a bit of a wait, just hoping something comes along.” 



The Margins Project has seen a surge in demand over the course of the cost of living crisis as people struggle to afford bills.

“Pre-pandemic, we were only seeing about 20 to 30 people,” Woldesus says. “Now we’ve seen about 50 people already and we’re only halfway through. The increase is over 100% or more. Especially last year with the cost of living crisis, we saw a dramatic change.”

Eric, 70, is thrilled about the prospect of having a shower. “I’m on the list for a shower today,” he says. “You get fed very well. And there are haircuts.”

He has just had to pay £3,500 to get a new roof on his 1980s home and is struggling to cope with bills. He remembers his parents telling him: “Don’t buy a place under Maggie Thatcher.”

A 91-year-old says she has recently had her power cut off at home. “My fridge has gone off,” she says. “I can’t use the microwave. I have nothing at home at all. I was exhausted. I had nothing to eat until 11 o’clock yesterday. The landlords aren’t angels, you know. 

“In the evening, I used to make Horlicks, but I can’t make it now. I can’t make coffee. I find it exhausting to come here on an empty stomach. I have to leave at 9:30 to get here on time [for 11am].”

People sitting together at the Margins Project to enjoy a meal. Image: Archie Powell

They only have a vegetarian chilli on offer today at the Margins Project (usually there would be a meat option too), which results in grumbling, but the chef isn’t here and there is no other option. 

Woldesus and the chef are the only full-time members of staff. The rest of the team are volunteers, except for those on its ‘supported employment programme’, which gives people who have experience of homelessness and crisis an opportunity to get back into work.

There are paid positions in their catering service, and the scheme focuses on improving wellbeing, building self-esteem and developing employability skills. Trainees gain a Level 2 Food Safety Award.

Trainees working to make a tasty meal at the Margins Project. Image: Amanuel Woldesus

It’s offering a vital service, but the Margins Project needs help to continue. The team is currently running a Winter Appeal to raise funds – £7 donated is enough to provide one person with a hot, nutritious meal, while £50 covers one day of training through the Support Employment Programme.

The Union Chapel is an iconic building, but it’s Grade 1-listed and the space where the Margins Project is based is Grade 2-listed. “Maintaining it is a nightmare,” Woldesus admits.

“We provide food for free, but someone has to pay for it and prepare it. People can help us by donating to us as an organisation – that means money, but also food, toiletries, jackets, sleeping bags and all that. When people go to the showers, I would want them to have clean underwear. People can help us by volunteering and they can help in terms of expert advice too.”

Still, the Margins Project is fortunate to be based at the Union Chapel. It’s a hub dedicated to the community, as well as a church and a space for artists to come perform – which helps generate a bit of income, but they are still struggling to offer all the services people need. 

People rely on charities like this to survive, but with the cost of living crisis meaning there’s so much demand for support services, it can never be enough.

“We need to build houses and we need to look at the welfare system,” Woldesus says. “Why do we make the welfare system so difficult for vulnerable people? If we are going to be a community or society that is civilised, we need to help the most vulnerable and not prejudge people before you meet them.”

Find out how to donate to the Margins Project here.

Response from Islington Council

An Islington Council spokesperson said: “We’re committed to eliminating rough sleeping and ensuring that everyone in Islington has a home which is decent, secure, and genuinely affordable.

“We have the lowest number of rough sleepers in central London and our outreach team works hard to help people sleeping rough to get into accommodation and get their lives back on track. We recognise the importance of building trusting relationships with the people we meet, in order to support them away from the streets.

“We work in partnership with all agencies trying to end homelessness in Islington, and have an excellent working relationship with The Margins Project at Union Chapel.

“We urge anyone needing help or sleeping rough to contact Streetlink 24 hours a day on 0300 500 0914 or at thestreetlink.org.uk, or they can visit our offices at 222 Upper Street from 9am to 5pm on weekdays for housing advice and assistance, or call us on 020 7527 2000.

“We also have a dedicated income maximisation team (IMAX) who can help people claim all the benefits they are entitled to, including disability benefits, available on 020 7527 8600 or by emailing claimit@islington.gov.uk.”

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