About two weeks ago the clocks went back an hour. Nights grow dark early. It’s cold and damp. Winter is upon us. Last night seventy-four people slept rough on the streets of Victoria. All around us people huddle into warm clothes going about their business. Christmas lights and decorations are appearing. The bustle of the festive season is beginning. And yet, in the borough of Westminster, 220 people are preparing to sleep on the street, 74 of them in Victoria. Many more are in emergency shelter. Christmas brings with it a dark loneliness for those cut off from friends and family. I am concerned at the growing public perception that homelessness is a thing of the past, that the people we see now on the streets are there by choice, that rough sleeping is over and that there are no more vulnerable people left. It is true that, in other parts of the country, rough sleeping has been considerably reduced, but it is clearly not the case in Central London. It is also true that some people use the streets of London for begging, drinking and perpetrating crime, making vulnerable rough sleepers so much more vulnerable. With all this in mind, and with the words of Sir Roger’s poem echoing in us, our commitment to those who are homeless and vulnerable in London has never been more necessary. The location of The Passage in Victoria is as essential as it has ever been. Homelessness itself is a complex field. People become homeless remarkably easily and for a myriad of reasons. They come to Central London thinking that it will be better here. They come to The Passage seeking solace, practical assistance and compassion. We try to provide resources which inspire, encourage and challenge each person to pick up their lives again, make responsible choices, heal their inner homelessness and the intense feeling of lost hope. Each person arrives with their own issues, vulnerabilities, gifts and personalities. This year we have taken more steps to ensure that each of our 250 day visitors, 53 residents of Passage House and 16 tenants of Montfort House are cared for through personal listening and individual planning. Our most fundamental value is the respect and dignity we hold for each other. We spend time getting to know the person. People are persons not problems to solve. We hope our health services, housing advice, training and employment, accommodation, chaplaincy, primary care and assessment services all surround and embrace the needs of each person in a holistic and integrated pattern of rehabilitation. At this very moment our outreach team is out on these very streets that surround us, building trust, bringing hope, calling people by name: people who are used to being nameless, ignored and unknown. Recently I visited a project, not in this country, where 1,000 homeless people were warehoused in an old mental asylum building. The staff were unskilled, with a high presence of security personnel who put them through a metal detector and finger printed them each time they went in and out. There were good intentions but in this system people were numbers, not persons. They did have dormitory bed, a sheet, a towel, a pillow and a blanket, no more and no less, – and no-one knew who they were. I cried when I left – and I prayed that no-one coming to The Passage would ever experience from us the depersonalisation, inhumanity and lack of dignity that pierced through me in that place. This was not care, it was containment. Back in our own country, I worry about the appalling images, perceptions, biases and stigmas, underlined by Alan Partridge tonight, that our own society places on homelessness. Rough sleepers, in particular, are often talked about and presented in a way that renders them different, other than us, a race apart, marginalized. The term homelessness itself is depersonalised and being a catchall, hides the realities of what people suffer. How many of you this year have touched suffering – in your lives or those close to you? I have a niece, aged 17, using drugs – where will that end? If you think of it you may know someone who at any moment might become homeless: – someone who has mental illness. – someone who is lonely or alienated from family and friends, or suffering significant loss through bereavement. – someone who finds themselves suddenly and unexpectedly unemployed or financially ruined. These are issues that are hidden in the term homelessness. These are the issues that can cause it. The Passage must work harder to find flexible ways to serve homeless people and innovative ways to prevent it happening. We have ambitions and expensive plans for the future – and we continue to rely on your support. It is you and people like you that make a real difference Last evening at 5pm there was a frisson of excitement at the central office of The Passage. The programme for ‘A Night Under the Stars’ had arrived. As I looked through it I was warmed by all the good will messages, from Her Majesty The Queen to Her Grace the Duchess of Norfolk, and onwards through all our corporate sponsors for this year. I add to these all of you here present, onstage and off stage. You will see that one of our sponsors depicts a row of cut out people holding hands, some held high, with the caption ” pulling together” Tonight I believe we are here to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in our concern for homeless people and shoulder-to-shoulder with them in their struggle for a better life. For being prepared to do that, I thank you – on their behalf and behalf of all of us who live and work at The Passage. Someday, somehow, somewhere – there will be a place.
“Every human being has star quality.. stardom is about our ability to fulfill our dreams – to reach our potential.”
“As you walk out of here, you may pass up to sixty people preparing to sleep on the street tonight.”
“Anthony Dufort is an old student of Cardinal Hume. He was taught by him at Ampleforth. We are hoping to find a sponsor to place his sculpture in a public place where the Cardinal would have walked.”
Read the rest here
Good King Wenceslas
MY KIND OF CAROL
Sr Ellen Flynn – 11 November 2006
I first arrived at The Passage as director in September, 2000. There was much to learn. By December I found myself, for the first time, representing The Passage at a local carol service at St Peter’s, Eaton Square. It was an event of the SW1 Club, a group of local businesses, the proceeds of which were being donated to The Passage. I was very nervous.
Halfway through the service, just ahead of my address, we sang Good King Wenceslas. It was a carol I normally found a bit dreary but on this occasion I suddenly took courage. It was indeed a dark and bitterly cold night. There was a rough sleeper whom we knew well out on the church porch. His name was Kevin. I had stopped to greet him on the way in, to ask if he would come inside for the service. He declined.
As the words of the carol sang out I had a sudden insight. For the first time ever the text of that carol became startlingly poignant. Wenceslas brought food and warmth, dignity and care to the poor man in the only ways he knew how. He enlisted his servant to help – and when the servant’s strength waned, he bade him walk in his footsteps, to use his own warmth and strength to continue. What a wonderful message.
Ever since, the text of this carol has been special to me, although the music is poor. Maybe there’s a point even in that. It’s in the poor that strength is often found and in the unremarkable that love finds endurance. I knew the truth of the Christmas message and recognised in Wenceslas the face of Christ, the new-born king. And I found my place as the servant, walking in the warm and inspiring footsteps of the king.
The night after that carol service Kevin came into Passage House for Christmas – and never went back to rough sleeping.
I urge on you the last lines of this carol this Christmas:
…ye who now will bless the poor, shall find yourselves a blessing.
Sr Ellen Flynn is director of The Passage, London’s largest voluntary sector day centre for homeless and vulnerable people.