Ekklesia in Trafalgar Square

By Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, published in The Pastoral Review

Palm Sunday 2020. Normally for the Christian community a day of processions often in beautiful early spring sunshine, and with the joyous expectation of Holy Week. A day when our church would normally be full and we would be looking forward to the busiest week of the year. Not so in 2020. Churches under lockdown, the streets deserted, and a sombre eerie feel of anxiety about what was to come.

The start of the lockdown was, to say the least, such an unsettling time for our parishes. Priests with no people to meet, greet, serve. Parish communities scattered and finding a way to live out eucharistic faith at a time of communal fast. Like the first Christians after the first Easter Sunday locked in behind closed doors, finding ways to share their faith, pray together, and be a community of believers in a new way. The source and summit of that faith for us, the Mass, was celebrated together by clergy and faithful but with the barrier of a movie camera between us, even most poignantly and painfully on those days of the Easter Triduum when the entire parish community should be gathered as one.

And yet amidst all this trauma there was something else, altogether more tragic and desperate. Walking out into the deserted city it became clear there was another population who were being forgotten. As the Christian community prepared to celebrate Holy Week and Easter with what hope we could muster there was a huge number of homeless left on the streets of London. Here, it became clear, was the stark reality of central London under lockdown, beyond the threshold of our closed doors and not caught on anyone’s video camera. The usually teeming streets now a ghost town – shops, pubs, restaurants locked up and displaying stark notices along the lines of “closed until further notice on account of the pandemic” and, anticipating the worst, “no cash is held here”. All offices closed and no workers on the streets. And in the midst of this, in pockets around the city, the most desperate who, in the panic of the exodus had simply been left behind. This group had no family to lock down with, were without shelter as all the night shelters had closed, and without food as soup runs had had to stop for safety’s sake and there were no businesses or people to beg from. In addition no public toilets were open from King’s Cross Station to the north to Victoria in the south. A Council official I spoke to on the ‘phone described the scene on the Strand as Armageddon and a police officer advised anyone visiting there alone would be in great danger.

Amidst all this it was also clear that much was being done to address the issues by national and local government. March 29th, Palm Sunday for the Christian community, was the date by which all homeless left on the streets would be housed in hotels and bed and breakfasts. This was the “everyone in” policy which we might have heard referred to on the news. Very many homeless were indeed housed and this was one of the great achievements of this time. Many die-hard homeless in normal times refusing help, a substantial group of whom would have entrenched addiction and mental health issues, really flourished during this time as they were given the tender loving care they surely always needed. And yet, despite the partial, very partial, success, media can cloud reality, especially at a time of great panic when our psychology is programmed to survival and part of that is to believe things are better than they are. What we hear through the media, even if it is partly true and partly fake news, becomes the true narrative.

I think it is worth stopping to reflect on this phenomenon of twisted narrative if we are to begin to comprehend the homeless issue during COVID. Palm Sunday is a helpful connector. For the crowd on that first Palm Sunday are surely victim to this phenomenon of fake news. How else would their singing hosannas to their Messiah lead to “crucify him” within just five days? Governments and politicians have always been good at this and learnt how to present what is not quite true as the Gospel. There are surely many parts of the world today where that is true and in the Church indeed, one must add with shame, we have seen how the truth can be masked by power and we end up trusting the least trustworthy and most heinous. In the midst of this, recognising how we are all sinners not just personally but socially, as society, as Church, as the human race, we are called to a new integrity which is the greatest form of truth in an age of so much fake news. That is why I think Pope Francis is reminding us especially at this time we are called not just to contribute to society through what we do but we are called to take the reins and build a new future. This must be a future of justice which exposes the truth and builds a new society in which all in society are given the respect the human being deserves as made in God’s image, and especially those who are weakest, who are forgotten, who are left in the gutter and consigned to the abyss. It is for me why, as John Bird, the founder of The Big Issue, puts it, we are called not simply to give handouts but give a hand up.

If we are guided by such a vision, the response of the Catholic community along with other Christian denominations and faiths, and importantly working together with secular and governmental authorities and organisations, has the opportunity to be truly prophetic. For me this experience of helping to rescue the homeless, in the midst of a time of great crisis, a ‘kairos’ in the biblical sense, has turned our minds and hearts back to the raw demands of the Gospel. It has called us to begin to embrace the truth about ourselves and our identity as human beings made in God’s image who are part of wider society, and to embrace what the Church can be.

As soon as this crisis became evident our neighbouring parish St Patrick’s in Soho Square started feeding over 200 people a day. After a few weeks their resources were running low. Food was running out. Two large hotels in our parish stepped in straight away. While already housing and feeding NHS staff they volunteered to provide 200 meals twice a day for three months completely free. Our main managerial contact at the hotels is a Hindu but it was that common belief in what was just and true to our common calling which led him to make the offer. Soon we were using our knowledge of the local hospitality trade to work together with the authorities. In Soho Square there were significant antisocial behaviour complaints from neighbours, not surprisingly for a homeless population who had nowhere to go and where the nearest public toilets were two miles’ walk away. Westminster City Council asked us to help so we assembled a large team of volunteers from Farm Street and neighbouring Catholic parishes to service a new refreshments and pastoral care hub for the homeless in Trafalgar Square and this became the central mission of our parish and those parishes working with us for the time of the pandemic. The project has evolved into a homeless service under the name of Central London Catholic Churches as part of Westminster Diocesan Caritas.

Some have asked why the Church should be involved in this when it is really the job of the local authorities and national government? It is often framed as part of a larger question of why the Church should be involved in politics, or be involved in the real world, or have a mission. The answer relates to how we view our faith in Christ. For me the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius teach me to find Christ and my calling right in the heart of the now. This is simply the call of the Gospel. Christ is not to be found just within ourselves nor in our future hope but he is the hope of the world in the facts of everyday life. Our mission is in the present, in the midst of the battle between good and evil right now, under our noses as we are led to uncover the truth and discern what must be done to build that future now. This is a vital part of the role of the Church too who, as the Holy Father reminds us so often, simply would not exist if she did not have a mission in the heart of the world. So our mission to the homeless has been the only response the Church could give, taking account of the facts and knowing our calling as Church. And only the Church, acting as Church and not an NGO or any other organisation, could do this.

That mission has had various dimensions but I would highlight three of them. Firstly, and in common with so many secular homeless charities, we provide both material and pastoral care. This material help needs to be well discerned. The homeless need food and shelter but they also need advice on finding a job, so they need clothing and they need to be clean so need shower facilities. So, discerning the material need, our service has moved into a more personal holistic model.

The holistic model must involve one-to-one personal care. If we believe the essence of the Church’s work of charity is to respect the dignity of every human person, and especially the most vulnerable, our service of the weakest wants to develop a relationship with each individual. This human care is why the “everyone in” scheme was successful for those who were given the opportunity to stay in the hotels and B&Bs. In Trafalgar Square our wonderful team of volunteers would get to know the guests and there we touch that belief in the dignity of the human person in reality. We realise that this woman or man in the queue for food could have been me with just a few wrong turns. Everyone has a story. Relationships have broken down, finance has run out, jobs lost, mental health issues set in. And this is the person in front of us. This is Christ in front of us. And we are called to show that person how much they are loved, how much they are worth.

Secondly, again in common with many homeless services, we have a duty to work with the local authorities and to hold them to account. As Church we have the duty to advocate for these individuals individually and as society. Here the Church cannot but be involved in politics but must be aware that her role must never take on the role of party politics. Looking at the facts and advocating for a just future is very much the Church’s role as we represent our flock and take our place confidently in society. During the pandemic we got to know so many homeless still on the streets, heard their stories, and realised that the “everyone in” scheme was not for everyone. And after a certain time there was a risk that, unless there was pressure from those working with the homeless, “everyone in” would turn very quickly to “everyone out”. In addition we were meeting more and more new homeless, women and men in their 20s and 30s who had lost their jobs and were destitute.

We discovered that many on the streets, and many who were in danger of being evicted from temporary accommodation, at a time of great public health risk, had no recourse to public funds, often due to unsettled immigration status. It was our duty to show our support for them not just through handouts but by campaigning for a temporary reprieve for those in this category. This is not an issue to be used as a political football but is an issue of profound importance to the Christian who, at this extraordinary time of crisis, needs to put aside political views on benefit eligibility and immigration and show the human being in the midst of this the dignity they deserve.

Thirdly the Church has given something very distinctive to our service of the homeless at this time, as she does in all of our work in this sector. All that we have been doing is also a work of evangelisation through which all of us, volunteers and guests, grow in faith. 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 was having some rosary beads he had requested blessed. Then some more guests got interested in this and started talking with us about the rosary and about faith. 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.

It’s also been wonderful to see the great generosity of our volunteers. This is what they needed to do to practise their faith at this time. Many parishioners have found this a very traumatic time for all sorts of reasons. I have heard much too about how we have been “starved of the Eucharist”. For all the good the livestreaming has done it is not a substitute for being gathered physically as ‘ekklesia’, as Church. And yet our volunteers gathered five times a week in the heart of the city and lived the Eucharist in such a powerful way. This was not just where the Church found a place to do charitable work as something to do during the lockdown. No, Trafalgar Square was where the Church, the ‘ekklesia’, was, and where the multitude was fed, welcomed to the sheepfold and tended.

So what can we do going forward? I would suggest three concrete things. Firstly, we must pray for the homeless and all involved in this – local and national government, NGOs, the Church and other faith groups’ services.

Secondly, we must raise awareness and find accurate information about what’s going on amid fake news and fuzzy statistics.

Thirdly, we really must learn from this dreadful time. We need to keep advocating for this most vulnerable group of people, and we need to keep our message Gospel inspired, hopeful, and in robust dialogue with those who have tough decisions to make on the issues. In doing so we must never forget above all that those we serve are human beings made in God’s image who could very easily be you or me.

Fr Dominic Robinson SJ is Parish Priest, at Farm Street Church of the Immaculate Conception and Chair, Justice & Peace Commission, Diocese of Westminster. This article was first published in the Pastoral Review and is republished here with permission.


Farm Street Church – www.farmstreet.org.uk/

The Pastoral Review – www.thepastoralreview.org/

Housing and Homelessness Media Statement

Homeless Jesus, Farm Street Jesuit Church, Mayfair, London, UK

Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, Parish Priest of Farm Street and Chair of the Justice and Peace Commission said, “During the pandemic Central London Catholic Churches Homeless Services have worked with other faith groups, agencies, hospitality businesses and Westminster City Council to feed and provide showers, clothing and human care for some 300 homeless left on the streets of London.”

Colette Joyce, Co-ordinator of the Justice and Peace Commission, commented, “We are very concerned that, while there was a real success story at the beginning of lockdown with about 90% of homeless people given a temporary hotel place, as this crisis continues to unfold, we are witnessing more and more new destitute on the streets who are losing jobs, livelihoods and homes as a direct result of the pandemic. With night shelters closed, day centres and public services operating greatly reduced services, we are seeing the beginnings of a new underclass who, through no fault of their own, find themselves without a safety net in their hour of need.”

Fr Dominic added, “With the lifting of the ban on evictions from rented property, the end of the furlough scheme, and no move from national government on giving a reprieve to those with no recourse to public funds, the numbers of homeless on the streets and on the fragile line between just managing and destitution will get worse and worse.  It promises to be a huge humanitarian crisis on a grand scale.  Everybody wants to end rough sleeping forever – homeless agencies, faith groups, local authorities – and the united effort over the summer has shown we can work well together and find solutions.” 

Charities, such as Shelter, have taken steps this week to update their services with advice and guidance for those who now face eviction or have become newly homeless, but the support available is limited.

The Jesuit Refugee Service is calling attention, in particular, to the plight of thousands of people recently refused asylum who are now facing evictions from Home Office accommodation (as reported in The Guardian on 19/08/20). Evictions were paused in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Evictions recommence at the same time as the government is discussing fresh lockdown measures due to a rise in COVID-19 cases.

Sarah Teather, JRS UK’s director, said: “Manufactured homelessness should never be considered an acceptable tool of immigration enforcement, and it is deeply troubling that anyone should face renewed homelessness in the middle of a global pandemic.”

With the possibility of a second lockdown looming in some form, we continue to call for a temporary reprieve for the duration of the pandemic from the no recourse to public funds rules so that Councils, housing associations and charities can respond to all those who present as homeless. We further urge an immediate halt to the evictions of asylum seekers from hostels who have nowhere else to go. The ban on evictions of other tenants should be reinstated immediately in the event of any increase of pandemic measures. With Citizens UK, we ask those with the power to do so to provide these concessions and to avert a further crisis which will overwhelm all who want to help. 

Everyone in society deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and we need to put policies in place so that together we can ensure this. 

Statement from the Jesuit Refugee Service

Statement from Citizens UK

Campaigning for Affordable Housing in East London – the Olympic Legacy

“Many long-standing Catholic members of The East London Citizens Organisation (TELCO) feature in a new film released this week, marking the eighth anniversary of London hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Staff and pupils from St Antony’s Primary School, Newham, St Bonaventure’s School, Forest Gate and St Stephen’s Manor Park, [in the Diocese of Brentwood], are among those highlighting the broken promises made in 2005, and call on policymakers to honour the pledges they made and work with them for a new deal on the Olympic Park.”

Full article: Independent Catholic News

This powerful short film also addresses the roots of the ‘affordable’ housing crisis and looks at the change of mindset that will be required to prioritise houses as homes for people rather than sources of profit.

The awarding of the 2012 Games to London promised much for communities but has not yet delivered. Now that the Tokyo Games have been pushed forward to 2021, we have given another year to reflect on the legacy of our own Games and another opportunity to create a ‘new normal’ as we ‘build back better’ following our pandemic lockdown experience.

What lessons have we learnt?

Housing developing is resuming again around the Olympic site, as elsewhere in London and the rest of the UK, so there has never been time to campaign for the homes we truly need.

Catholic Union call for answers on homelessness with Justice & Peace and Catholic charities

We have partnered with the Catholic Union and front-line Catholic charities in London and around the country to appeal strongly to the government for support schemes to be made available to people with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) for the duration of the pandemic emergency.

The Catholic community stand ready to give charitable and voluntary assistance, wherever statutory services are provided, to enable people resolve their precarious life situations and return to self-sufficiency.

Homeless queue outside National Gallery
Homeless queue outside the National Gallery, London

The Catholic Union and other church groups in London have warned of a rough sleeping crisis, unless the Government acts soon.

Around 15,000 people across the country have been housed by local authorities since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. This has been made possible by extra funding from the Government to provide accommodation for rough sleepers in empty hotels and hostels as part of the “everyone in” scheme. This includes 1,400 people in London.

Many of the contracts between local authorities and accommodation providers are due to come to an end shortly, as hotels are allowed to reopen from 4 July. The Government has announced £85 million of new funding to secure alternative rooms for rough sleepers, such as student accommodation. But church groups are worried this has come too late for some people, and there is no extra help for the growing number of people still on the streets.

The Government has said it is committed to meeting the needs of rough sleepers to ensure “that as few people as possible return to the streets.”

Dame Louise Casey has been asked to lead a taskforce on providing long-term solutions to ending rough sleeping. But no timescale has been given for this work, and church groups are worried that time is running out to produce a plan.

In a letter to Dame Louise, the Catholic Union has called for all people currently given shelter by the “everyone in” scheme to be housed permanently. It also highlights the challenges faced by rough sleepers with no resource to public funds.

The letter was sent on behalf of the Justice and Peace Department of the Catholic Diocese of Westminster, who are working in conjunction with Caritas, the social action department of the Diocese of Westminster and the Jesuit Refugee Service UK.

Chair of Westminster Justice and Peace, Fr Dominic Robinson, commented: “During the lockdown the central London Catholic Churches have been working nonstop with local businesses and government to help the many rough sleepers still on our streets. Some funds are being promised to rehouse the homeless currently in hotels but now many more men and women who’ve lost jobs and become destitute are pouring onto our streets. This catastrophe is avoidable if there is a temporary reprieve for the growing number of destitute who have no recourse to public funds. If public funds are made available for this group of people left on the streets, we stand ready to work together for what we all want – a permanent and holistic solution to this affront to human dignity which sees those who have lost everything with nowhere to turn”.

Catholic Union Head of Public Affairs, James Somerville-Meikle, commented: “The new funding from the Government is a step in the right direction, but it has come late in the day. Many rough sleepers face being turned out of hotel and hostel rooms in the week ahead. Whilst the long-term commitment to end homelessness is welcome, we need an immediate plan for how to prevent a rough sleeping crisis. Church groups stand ready to be part of the solution and can help get support to some of the most vulnerable people in society – people that government services often struggle to reach.”

Read the full letter here:

Dame Louise Casey
Chair, Taskforce on Rough Sleeping

Dear Dame Louise

Re: Contribution of church groups to tackling rough sleeping

I’m writing to you on behalf of the Catholic Union and several church groups involved in helping the homeless in London.

They include a number of parishes and social action groups within the Catholic Diocese of Westminster – Caritas, and Justice and Peace – who have been working with the London Passage and the Jesuit Refugee Service UK.

Representatives from Caritas Westminster and Westminster Justice and Peace would welcome the opportunity to brief you on the work they are doing, the challenges they face, and the help they can provide, in finding a long-term solution to ending rough sleeping.

The Catholic Union is the leading representative group for lay Catholics in Britain. We seek to promote the views and interests of the 4.5 million Catholics in this country.

The Catholic Church has a rich history of helping those in need, particularly at times of crisis, including the homeless, and has been the principal provider of emergency food and pastoral care for the homeless during the lockdown as all the usual day and night shelters have been closed.

We welcome the work of your taskforce in looking at the causes of rough sleeping and producing recommendations to Government on ending homelessness. This work has clearly been given greater importance and urgency in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

The extra funding given to councils to support rough sleepers during this crisis has been a step in the right direction. The “everyone in” scheme has helped to get thousands of people off our streets and into secure accommodation. This has been a fantastic example of good co-operation between local and central government, charities and the private sector.

The Catholic Church, along with other volunteer groups, has played its part by helping local authorities get rough sleepers housed during this crisis and looking after those still on our streets with an enormous feeding programme through our parishes’ contact with large London hotels who have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on this operation.

However, there are concerns about what will happen when existing funding for the “everyone in” scheme comes to an end. The policies below would make a huge difference is tackling homelessness once and for all.

1. A guarantee that the Government will extend housing support for all those currently in hotels, to support their move to new homes where this cannot be provided by local authorities.

A temporary reprieve for all those with no recourse to public funds in relation to support available to help the homeless, this would be in line with existing discretion with regard to destitution (section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999). This should include those who have exhausted their rights or have no current legal status.

Access to free legal advice concerning the rights of individuals to seek and receive help if they are homeless.

We sincerely hope your taskforce will consider these points and make recommendations on them when you report to the Communities Secretary and Prime Minister.

Church groups stand ready to be part of the long-term solution and can help get support to some of the most vulnerable people in society – people that government services often struggle to reach.

The leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, recently commented: “In 2020 no person should be faced with the indignity of being compelled to sleep on the street or the dangers and challenges associated with doing so… Only by working together can we find just and permanent solutions for the people who are homeless. I hope and pray that the new momentum found during this crisis can be sustained and will be successful.”

The Catholic Union would be delighted to help arrange a meeting with you to discuss the contribution of church groups in London to tackling homelessness. A meeting need not take long, but it might help provide a useful insight at this crucial time for the work of your taskforce.

If this is of interest, I would be pleased to discuss details with your office.

Let’s use this moment to end rough sleeping once and for all in this country.

Nigel Parker

The Catholic Union of Great Britain Email: director@catholicunion.org.uk

Catholic Union of Great Britain