Fr. Dominic Robinson, pastor of Farm Street Church in Mayfair, told CNA the newly homeless would require government support in order to survive the crisis.
“It’s going to be a long haul. I think that they’re going to need a lot of help. They are going to need charitable help from faith groups, including the Church. They’re also going to need local authorities and national government to be on their side,” he said.
Robinson explained that many of those on the streets were unable to receive public funds because their immigration status was unclear. Some of the new homeless are from the 30 countries within the European Economic Area, but many come from outside Europe.
He said: “There are a large number of newly homeless on the streets who have lost jobs, especially in places like the hospitality sector, who fall into a category of ‘no recourse to public funds.’ This is largely because of their unsettled status. Their status as a refugee hasn’t been verified yet.”
“And so they fall into this limbo. They lose their jobs, then they lose their home and they have no access to benefits.”
When the government imposed a lockdown in March to curtail the spread of the coronavirus, around 15,000 homeless people were placed in hotels. Around 4,000-6,000 of them were categorized as having “no recourse to public funds,” which meant that they were not normally eligible for housing support.
Robinson said: “We’ve been advocating that the government give a temporary reprieve on ‘no recourse to public funds’ because we’re seeing a large number who would be barred from benefits and who’ve been on the streets of London — and I’m sure other places up and down the country — at the time of a great public health risk. That’s not acceptable.”
In a July 3 interview with the BBC’s Newsnight program, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster also urged the government to continue providing assistance to those who are formally barred from receiving public funds.
He said: “Well of course some people are here without proper paperwork. Of course they are. We know that. That’s been a fact of life in this country for many, many years.”
“But at this point we should be prepared to put all those things to one side and deal with the person in front of us. This is a human being whose life is full of trauma. They are here. We need to respond to that humanity in front of us, recognizing the innate dignity of each person and not simply consign them into an abyss.”
Robinson has served London’s homeless population throughout the crisis. When lockdown was imposed in March, the local authority, Westminster City Council, asked him to offer refreshments to the needy in Trafalgar Square, while the nearby parish of St. Patrick’s, Soho Square, provided food to more than 200 people a day.
“So at Farm Street we got together a team of local parishes — Westminster Cathedral, Holy Apostles, Pimlico, Holy Redeemer, Chelsea — and worked with Caritas Westminster to set up a project which five days a week served up to 200 homeless at its peak,” he said.
“The refreshments were provided from people’s donations — people were very, very generous — and from local hotels, such as No 45 Park Lane at the Dorchester. We were working with the Connaught Hotel and Claridge’s, within Farm Street parish, to provide the food for the St. Patrick’s, Soho Square, service.”
The Jesuit priest said volunteers noticed that many people seeking refreshments were newly homeless.
“What we were seeing was that a lot of people who were working for hospitality agencies — restaurants, pubs, hotels — were losing their jobs. So it seems to be an effect of the pandemic that there is now this even more serious crisis of many people who’ve lost their jobs who’ve become destitute — many of whom are homeless, some who are not homeless but have very little to live on — and so need a good deal of help.”
Robinson said he had experienced “a real mixture of emotions” while serving the homeless during the lockdown.
“It’s been wonderful to see the great generosity of our volunteers. It’s great to see the Church playing such an important role of serving those who are most vulnerable at this time,” he noted.
“It also breaks your heart — as it has done for a lot of our volunteers — to see young men and women in their 20s and 30s who have lost jobs, who have broken relationships, who’ve lost their way in society during this dreadful crisis.”
He continued: “There was one day when we had a large queue in Trafalgar Square. Because the volunteers had built up a very good relationship with the regular guests, they were chatting quite freely, getting to know them. And a guest had asked for some rosary beads and he was being given them. Then a whole group of guests came and also asked if they could have rosary beads.”
“So you realized there was that connection being made between the Church and the Catholic faith and this charitable work. That was really quite inspiring to experience.”
As the lockdown eases, the volunteers have moved from Trafalgar Square to a new base.
“We’ve been asked to set up a service in Warwick Street at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Gregory, the ordinariate church,” Robinson said.
“There, we’re providing showers for the homeless, and some help with IT, so that people can be helped to apply for jobs, and we’re just building that up at the moment. And we’re getting a steady stream of homeless, many of whom, again, are newly homeless.”
Robinson suggested three ways in which Catholics can help the new homeless.
“Obviously at this time, when so many people are not able to go out very much, maybe have more time on their hands, it’s to pray — to pray for the homeless and to pray for the work which is going on for them and with them,” he said.
“It’s to raise awareness as well — the second thing — to find accurate information about what’s going on. Because there’s a lot of fake news around. There’s a lot of fuzzy information, but to actually find out what’s really going on with the homeless on the street and to realize that it’s a much more serious state of affairs than some people might have us to believe.”
“And the third thing would be charity. We’re looking for more volunteers at Warwick Street. But also funds. While we need to hold local authorities to account in providing funds, we also do still need funds to continue to provide these services. So it’s prayer, more information, real information, and charitable action.”
Robinson said many of the newly homeless would struggle to get off the streets and return to employment.
“We need to keep advocating for them, for this most vulnerable group of people, and we need to keep them also hopeful, I think, through our presence in looking after them,” he said.