In reading the Pope’s new social encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, in the light of the social injustices rawly exposed to us by the pandemic, it’s starting to dawn on me how much needs to change in our society to ensure the God-intended dignity for all. However the eager response of so many in the Church is also giving me hope. There is hope that we can change for the better, if we all work together.
Drawing on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Pope Francis reminds us:
‘The world exists for everyone, because all of us were born with the same dignity. Differences of colour, religion, talent, place of birth or residence, and so many others, cannot be used to justify the privileges of some over the rights of all. As a community, we have an obligation to ensure that every person lives with dignity and has sufficient opportunities for his or her integral development.’ (Fratelli Tutti 118)
Long before the pandemic, the Diocese of Westminster and its parishes have responded to give dignity to the homeless, whether that be central charities such as The Passage, the Cardinal Hume Centre and Providence Row, those that have emerged from parishes like SanKTus, Help for Southall Street Homeless, Ashford Place Homeless Charity and Feed Up Warm Up, or all those parishes that have provided sanctuary as part of a Winter Night Shelter Circuit or food relief through meals and food parcels.
The pandemic has hampered the way in which we can provide support, by forcing homeless centres and night shelters to close However, it has also led to new innovations, new relationships and possibilities, such as the government’s Everyone In policy of inviting every homeless person into hotel accommodation during the first lockdown. Through this many found stability and security for the first time in years.
What has been really impressive is the coordinated approach of parish volunteers, wider faith communities, charities and local authorities as they work together to ensure a unified approach to homelessness.
Some of our parishes have been the most responsive to often changing requirements throughout the pandemic. For example, the Central London Catholic Churches group formed to provide cold drinks in Trafalgar Square in the hot summer months and transitioned to a shower provision when the homeless day centres closed in the second lockdown. The volunteers are now providing an indoor, sit down meal on a ticketed basis as well as counselling and art therapy to combat the growing mental health situation.
Faith groups across the Diocese have met together regularly to plan their activities – agreeing where and when they work, developing safety precautions and creating rotas so that they join together seamlessly to provide a holistic service that complements that provided by the government.
Tragically the flow of homeless onto the streets across Hertfordshire and London is growing faster than the street support teams can find accommodation. Fifty to sixty newly homeless are being registered in Westminster every week, and it is a number that is likely to increase over the coming months
Just as Lent gives us an opportunity to pause in our lives to reflect on our spiritual journey, Caritas Westminster is encouraging parishes and projects to pause, even amidst the crisis, and reflect on the dignity of those we walk alongside. We are looking towards sustainable solutions to help people out of poverty and considering how to prevent more people being made homeless. We are working with the Mayday Trust to encourage the use of a strengths-based approach, where time is taken to listen deeply to those experiencing homelessness, to understand their dreams and aspirations so that they can live their lives to the full.
On Thursday 25th February, we held the first Diocese of Westminster Quarterly Homeless Network Meeting. More than 50 of us gathered together, to learn from each other, share ideas and concerns and to design a more coordinated approach to preventing homelessness across the diocese.
Large changes are needed, but the pandemic has shown that we are stronger if we can work on this together. In his book Let us Dream, Pope Francis says ‘If, faced with the challenge, not just of the pandemic, but of all the ills that afflict us at this time, we can act as a single people, life and society will change for the better.’ (p103)
Meriel Woodward is the Deputy Director of Caritas Westminster
- To report a new person who is rough sleeping, visit www.streetlink.org.uk and provide a clear location of where the outreach team can find them.