Sunday, 28 January 2007

Homelessness Sunday

Any visitor to London, and indeed to Westminster Cathedral, will not fail to be aware of the problem of homelessness. Particularly around Victoria, with its Railway and Coach stations, the problem has been acute for many years. The Piazza in front of the Cathedral, and the streets around, often play host to those who are on the fringes of society: I went out yesterday afternoon to see who was around, and found a group in the street just by the Cathedral. On the left of the picture, a group of six young men were already bedding in.

In years gone by, the issue was difficult enough, but usually revolved around drink. London will always attract those from other parts of the country who are seeking a better life, or who have to leave their former lives - but arriving without money or accommodation, they slip all too easily into a life of drink and drug dependency. Young adults are particularly at risk here.

The situation worsened considerably when eight new countries joined the European Union in 2004, with the right to travel within the EU to work (but not to receive benefits). For the last few years, 2,000 people per week have been arriving at Victoria Coach Station, near the Cathedral - many of them making their way to the Cathedral environs to seek help. That help is provided by The Passage, the charity founded over 25 years ago by Cardinal Hume, and run by the Daughters of Charity, to serve the homeless and marginalised in our area.

From small beginnings, the Passage is now one of the best known and largest Centres in London, aiming to provide resources which encourage, inspire and challenge homeless people to transform their lives. Its services include primary care (daily food), hostel accommodation, street work at night contacting rough sleepers and bringing them indoors, and helath, employment and training services.

On this Homelessness Sunday, it is important to remember that each person who comes to the Passage has a name, a history, an identity and often a lost profession. Homelessness strips people of all of this and leaves them rootless, anonymous and more alone than many of us can ever imagine. Marginalisation sets in and itself becomes a terrible identity that causes further rejection by society.

The Passage, situated in the Vincentian Convent in Carlisle Place next to the Cathedral (left) does not itself try to become a home for people but it does provide support for each person to engage in a process which can rebuild their lives and their homes. The services it offers encourage and challenge homeless people with complex needs to look after their health, to engage in training and employment, to seek options for accommodation and above all to recover their sense of self worth. The Passage's residential projects provide stepping stones away from homelessness.

Today, the redoubtable Director of the Passage, Sr Ellen Flynn (left) will speak at Masses in the Cathedral, and we will hold a financial appeal towards helping with its £3.5 million annual running costs. It is a chance for us at Westminster Cathedral to renew our commitment to those who are homeless and vulnerable. I am pround that our parish supports The Passage in many ways, and includes everyone in its worship, so that we can be, at least in some ways, a home for these most vulnerable people.

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