Caritas Westminster has assisted a group of parishes with the launch of a new refreshment station for the homeless in central London, located in front of the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Since the beginning of May, the project has been providing snacks, soft drinks, toiletries and other essential items for homeless people living in the capital during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Colette Joyce, Coordinator of the Justice and Peace Commission at the Diocese of Westminster, has been representing Caritas Westminster and supporting the churches involved in the refreshment hub project since Easter. Colette has also been in regular contact with Westminster City Council who are authorising the project. In addition to Colette’s support, the project has also benefited from the expertise of Elizabeth Wills, Caritas Westminster Development Worker. Elizabeth joined the volunteers at the start of the project to ensure that safe social distancing measures were put in place from the outset, in order to protect all volunteers and service users.
Colette Joyce, Justice and Peace Co-ordinator at the Diocese of Westminster, said: ‘Westminster Council Rough Sleeping Team have been working miracles to get rough sleepers housed and supported in hotels but they have had to turn to the faith groups to provide the majority of the assistance to those still on the streets.
‘We have mobilised volunteers and donors to give generously of their time and resources and we will continue to do so for as long as necessary, but this shouldn’t be happening. The Council staff need to be given more resources, including more accommodation, to get people off the streets and into places where they can isolate properly to protect themselves and others from disease transmission. The government should also be ensuring that new cases of homelessness are prevented or picked up and resolved immediately.
‘As we mark the 5th anniversary of Laudato Si’, the many street homeless still making their way to Trafalgar Square for something to eat and drink is a stark reminder that we need to address the huge inequalities in our own society if we are to heed “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”.
‘We can create a “new normal” if we seize the opportunity presented to us. Our volunteers have responded with alacrity and generosity but also shock that this was necessary at all. For Westminster Catholics, our response on the ground compels us also to engage in a new civic conversation about future measures of “success” in society.’
On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the project is managed by a team of volunteers led by Fr Anthony Doran, from the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street. The team includes volunteers from Holy Apostles in Pimlico, Holy Redeemer in Chelsea and Westminster Cathedral in Victoria. Pimlico parish has provided the use of its minibus to transport supplies and tables. The supplies handed out include hot and cold drinks, as well as cookies donated by the Dorchester Hotel. The Sikh charity Nishkam SWAT takes responsibility for running the station on Thursday and Friday.
Speaking about his experience leading the project, Fr Anthony Doran said:
‘On the first day we had 75 guests. On the Tuesday 85 people came. By the Wednesday there were 140. We think we can take up to 250 altogether.
‘These people need our support. With this lockdown, even most public toilets are closed. Homelessness in central London looks as though it is going to become a growing problem, but we will be here doing as much as we can for as long as we are needed.’
Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, Chair of the Diocese of Westminster’s Justice and Peace Commission and Parish Priest at Farm Street said:
‘Since the lockdown seven weeks ago this has been an emergency situation and remains so as the needs have escalated daily. We all need to be grateful for the incredible generosity of the volunteers from the Catholic Church and other faith groups.
‘The situation has brought the best out of ordinary Londoners who simply want to step in and help.’
‘As this crisis continues Trafalgar Square represents the paradox of the pandemic in our society: the witness of sacrificial service from our volunteers and the affront to justice which sees the poorest left in the gutter.
‘Catholic Social Teaching, often called the Church’s best kept secret, is fully on display every day in the otherwise deserted centre of London. But there is more we must do to live out our call as Church to work for a more just society. The hope must be to work still more closely with civic authorities to ensure we end rough sleeping altogether.’
Jen Copestake, a volunteer and shift leader for the project, said: ‘Volunteering has given me a completely different perspective on the pandemic. It is an opportunity to reflect God’s love to those we meet and each other, to offer friendship and love in a time of fear and anxiety.
‘The Catholic Church has a rich history of helping those in need, particularly during times of plague and illness. We offer friendship and a small bit of comfort to let our guests know they are not alone.’
The Trafalgar Square refreshment station is not the only homelessness project operated by Catholic churches during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the start of the lockdown, a number of churches in central London, including St Patrick’s in Soho, Farm Street and the French Church in Leicester Square, have been serving hundreds of breakfasts and evening meals, supported by food donations from Claridge’s and the Connaught Hotel. The refreshment station in Trafalgar Square offers homeless people somewhere to go during the daytime in between these two meals.
You can support the work of Caritas Westminster during the COVID-19 pandemic by donating to the Cardinal’s Appeal.