Central London Catholic Churches (CLCC) is a consortium of volunteers that came together in April 2020 to provide refreshments to homeless people during the pandemic. Originally operating out of a van in Trafalgar Square, it has now transformed itself into a very popular twice-weekly lunch service based at Farm Street church and catering to over 100 homeless guests a week. In addition to enjoying limitless tea and coffee and top-quality lunches sourced from local suppliers, guests can participate in job fairs to learn about employment opportunities, be referred to other services, join in scripture study groups and even get a haircut, all without leaving the Farm Street premises.
What has made all of this possible is the team of around 50 committed volunteers. They range in age from 20 to 85 and include students, doctors, lawyers, housewives, those in religious life and retired people. What is very striking is how well everyone gets on together and how much we share a sense of common purpose. The happy atmosphere created by the volunteers is one of the reasons that guests speak so highly of the service and keep returning to it.
It is hugely rewarding for us to work with what is one of the nicest teams of volunteers that we have ever encountered and we want to put on record how much we appreciate everything you do.
Thank you to our volunteers.
Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, Ade Owusu-Ansah and Linda McHugh
There has been a dramatic increase in homelessness in England in the past year. At the same time, latest data shows there has been a huge rise in the number of empty properties. Campaign group Action on Empty Homes estimate that the proportion of long-term empty homes – vacant for six months or more – hit a record 248,633 in 2022, over 11,000 more than the previous year.
In London, some 34,327 properties are described as “long-term vacant”, meaning that they had not been lived in for more than six months and were “substantially unfurnished”, as of March 31, 2022.
Between April and September 2022, 5,712 people were sleeping rough in London, a 21% increase compared to previous year – Shelter reports.
The number of individuals sleeping rough across the country is 74% higher than it was in 2010, when the data started being collected. These figures are likely to be an underestimate of rough sleeping, as people spending the night in less visible locations like parks and buses are often missed.
During the ‘Everyone In’ scheme during the Covid pandemic, nearly all rough sleepers in towns and cities across the country were brought from the cold and housed in hotels and hostels. But very few were offered permanent accommodation. Once the pandemic ended, people were forced back on the streets.
While the number of single people sleeping rough continues to grow, many more families are also struggling to find accommodation. The government’s latest statutory homelessness figures, which show the number of households who approached their local council between July and September 2022 and were found to be homeless or at risk of homelessness within the next eight weeks, reveal:
– 72,320 households in England became homeless or were at imminent risk of becoming homeless – a 4% annual rise on the same period last year.
– In the same period, 25,570 families with children faced homelessness – an 8% annual rise on the same period last year. Many of these families will end up in unstable and poor-quality temporary accommodation, including hostels and B&Bs.
Fr Dominic Robinson, SJ, Parish Priest at Farm Street Church, Mayfair, and Chair of Westminster Diocese Justice and Peace Commission, told ICN: “These staggering statistics are not just extremely worrying but should be a wake-up call to those who can make a difference to work with charitable agencies and faith groups more closely to address the housing crisis in the capital.
“Our volunteers are seeing every day how the issue of ‘homelessness’ is not just more serious than ever but more complex than traditional rough sleeping and we need to realise that.
“Appalling housing conditions, sofa surfing, living on and off of night buses is a daily reality and it is getting worse. Surely this outrageous revelation of the amount of empty property in London represents an opportunity to do something about this.
“But it is not the only solution of course. Affordable housing, community integration and above all treating those in desperate need more humanely must be at the heart of policy decisions both locally and nationally.”
Homeless campaigners have expressed concern at the government’s proposal to replace the archaic Vagrancy Act, with legislation that could punish homeless people even more. Under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, it is a crime to sleep in a doorway or beg. Currently anyone convicted under the law faces a fine of up to £1,000 and a two-year criminal record. People who can’t afford to pay fines are often sent to prison.
Although the government pledged to scrap the Act in 2021, since then more than 1,000 homeless people have been arrested for sleeping rough or begging. On 26 March this year, the government unveiled their new ‘anti social behaviour plan’ – but rather than offer support to homeless people – it consists of a raft of proposals to replace the Vagrancy Act with new powers for local authorities and the police to move, or issue more fines, to homeless people “causing nuisance.”
Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, Chair of Westminster Diocese Justice and Peace Commission told ICN: “The government’s proposals to replace the archaic Vagrancy Act with yet more punitive measures against those forced by abject poverty to sleep rough or in temporary and substandard accommodation is an affront to civilised society.
“This policy will exacerbate the vicious circle the poor find themselves in. The ever increasing destitute currently being helped to regain their dignity through so many charitable services which provide shelter, food and other basic necessities, are now being demonised as criminals and so driven still further onto the forgotten margins of society.
“The dignity of every human person, and especially those desperately trying to survive in an increasingly cruel world, should surely be the starting point for trying to eradicate rough sleeping.
“We all want to solve this problem and make our streets safe too but charities, faith groups and government need to work much more closely together on this. Arrests, fines and moving people on will not help this. Those working in the sector, including the large number of faith groups, know the homeless situation is far more complex than knee-jerk solutions will resolve. Rather this will only contribute to the hostile environment towards anyone on the peripheries of our fake notion of civilised society”.
Matt Downie, chief executive of Crisis homeless charity commented: “We must not find ourselves in a situation where we finally abolish one destructive law only for it to be replaced with another.”
Instead, he called on the government to build genuinely affordable homes, invest in proper support services and ensure that housing benefit covers people’s rents to end homelessness.
In a statement echoing this, Caritas Westminster said: “As we approach the Coronation of King Charles III, we urge the authorities to work closely with homeless services to ensure that those experiencing street homelessness are not simply asked to move on, as part of a ‘clean-up’, but are instead provided with longer term support to help them to move off the streets, like we experienced during the ‘everyone -in’ campaign in the pandemic.
“80% of people currently sleeping rough have complex health and social needs due to difficulties in their past, often caused through no fault of their own. Some may have resorted to alcohol and drugs in order to supress the cold, the pain and the worry. Addictions and past traumas cannot be addressed purely by the provision of accommodation. There is an urgent need for mental health and addiction support, and most importantly lots of time and patience. These are complex responses, that require specialist intervention from commissioned homeless services. Church communities can provide food, welcome and befriending support alongside these partners, and advocate for social change.
“At Caritas Westminster, we support parishes to reach out and support those most in need in our communities. We encourage Catholics to look to those who are street homeless without judgement, but with love and kindness; to be present for them and to listen to them. We have previously asked ‘Should we give money to beggars’, see our response here
We also encourage Catholic parishes and schools to consider the hidden homeless, such as families and young people living in temporary accommodation; in hostels, sofa surfing and in B&Bs. News reports this week have highlighted how many children are living in overcrowded accommodation, not able to sleep properly due to sharing beds with other family members and with no space to do their homework.
Friendships formed through strong Church or School communities can provide a social safety net for people going through tough times, helping to prevent homelessness. Elizabeth Wills, the Caritas Westminster lead for homelessness in the Diocese of Westminster, has been listening to those affected as part of a project with the Cardinal Hume Centre and Justlife in conjunction with local services. She speaks to young families living in crowded accommodation, with inappropriate sleeping arrangements. She has met families with several young and older children sharing mattresses on the floor, without carpets, often in rooms with little ventilation, rising damp and mould that leads to respiratory conditions. Others live in unsafe streets, and with broken doors, windows and appliances that never get fixed, despite frequent complaints. She is helping those affected to advocate for change.
As the country comes together to celebrate the Coronation of our new monarch, so we can come together to demand that those in authority do more to ensure everyone has a decent home.”
A Service of Commemoration for people who have been homeless who have died in the past year, will take place this Thursday, 10 November 2022 at 11.00am at St Martin-in-the Fields, Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 4JH
The Choir with No Name, Streetwise Opera and the Gavin Bryars Ensemble will be performing.
The Service will be followed by refreshments in St Martin’s Hall to which all are welcome.
Revd Richard Carter writes: “Please check your journey plans as there is TFL tube disruption on Thursday. We are hoping as many of you can come as possible by bus, rail bike and foot. All our choirs are still hoping to be with us. We look forward to seeing you at the service and the reception afterwards.”
The Upper Room and Caritas Westminster are delighted to be working in partnership to deliver a new FREE online programme for volunteers in outreach projects interested to become Dignified Work Champions. Called ‘Stepping Stones’, it will enable participants to learn how to address issues surrounding employability among people experiencing homelessness or hardship, and to take the lessons back to their parishes, schools and communities.
The Upper Room has been working with people experiencing homelessness and other disadvantaged groups in West London for over 30 years. They will be working with volunteers to share their knowledge and experience to enable practical and meaningful interactions with beneficiaries. This will include common simple fixes, understanding the benefits system and Universal Credit, CV preparation and interview practice, establishing where you can access funding for training and vocational qualifications among a number of other topics. Throughout the course there will be peer support sessions to consolidate any learning and understand better what works in the real world.
Sessions will be delivered online each month over a period of 12 months and will include the chance to feedback and ask questions, and to lean on the experience of The Upper Room’s caseworkers.
The course will start on Monday16th May 2022 – 10am -12noon.
Last week it was revealed that nearly 100,000 households in England are homeless and living in temporary accommodation. This includes more than 120,000 children.
Temporary accommodation is extremely insecure, often cramped, and poor quality. It’s also far from ‘temporary’ – with some families living in it for over a decade. And its very expensive – with most rents being paid to private landlords.
Hannah Rich, Senior Research Officer with Shelter writes: “Instead of spending billions on such poor-quality accommodation, which can be incredibly damaging to children, it’s clear what we should be doing. We should be investing in genuinely affordable, decent, permanent and well-regulated social housing.
This would help to truly level up the life chances for families right across the country. Not least as the growing cost of living crisis adds fuel to our housing emergency.
Temporary accommodation is the name given to the accommodation that is offered to people who seek help from their council because they are homeless. Councils have a legal duty to accommodate most homeless families until a suitable settled home is offered.
More than a quarter (27%) of these households are accommodated outside the local authority area they previously lived in because councils can’t find suitable accommodation locally. This can lead to long, tiring journeys to school and work and families becoming isolated from support networks. The number of households living in temporary accommodation is now approaching levels last seen in the mid-2000s. In the last 10 years alone it has increased by 96%.
As well as being insecure and unsuitable, temporary accommodation is also hugely costly. New figures show that councils in England spent £1.45 billion on the provision of temporary accommodation between April 2020 and March 2021.2 This cost is covered in part by housing benefit and people having to top up their rent.
The cost of providing temporary accommodation has increased by 18% in the last year alone and more than doubled (increased by 157%) in the last 10 years. This means that the cost of temporary accommodation has increased at a greater rate than the number of people living in temporary accommodation.
Of course, housing costs are likely to increase over time. However, this disproportionate increase in the cost of temporary accommodation can be explained, at least in part, by the lucrative market that has emerged in the last few years.
Our recent Cashing In report showed that councils procure most of their temporary accommodation from for-profit private providers, who are often unregulated. This hasn’t changed.
The majority of the £1.45 billion goes to private providers of temporary accommodation. At least £1.16 billion (80%) was spent on accommodation leased by councils and social landlords from private letting agents, landlords or companies. And this doesn’t even include temporary accommodation provided directly by private landlords.
More than a third (38%) of this money was spent on emergency homeless B&Bs – considered some of the least suitable places for families and children to live. Councils in England spent £444 million on this type of accommodation between April 2020 and March 2021.
Almost a fifth (18%) of the total spent on private providers was spent on nightly paid, privately managed accommodation. The amount spent on this type of temporary accommodation has increased by 64% in the last year alone.
This increase reflects a shift from longer-term leasing of private sector accommodation to the charging of expensive nightly rates. The use of this type of accommodation now accounts for a quarter of all temporary accommodation.”
Fr Dominic Robinson, Chair of Westminster Diocese Justice and Peace and Parish Priest at Farm Street Church which offers food and support to homeless people with Central London Catholic Churches (CLCC) commented: “At our service at Farm Street we are seeing more and more guests living in substandard temporary accommodation. This is not a solution to the growing homelessness problem. Our experience tells us we need to come together and develop a holistic approach ….. learning the lessons of the pandemic and building on the good work that has been done already.”
The Prince of Wales’ recent visit to the ‘Metamorphosis’ Icon Exhibition at Farm Street Church was a particularly memorable occasion for those involved with the community homeless service based there. After seeing the exhibition and meeting artist Dr Irina Bradley, with her family, priests and parishioners, he particularly requested to meet them.
Formed at the beginning of the first Covid lockdown in March 2020, Central London Catholic Churches (CLCC) is a group of volunteers from several London churches responding to a need to serve and provide for the homeless. They began operating as a hub in Trafalgar Square, but are now based in Arrupe Hall next to the church – providing a cooked lunch for the homeless on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Yasko Kurahachi, president of Farm Street’s St Vincent de Paul Society, (who has earned Mayfair Times award for her work with the homeless) was one of the people who met the Prince. She told ICN: “He was charming. Very approachable. I told him about our soup run on Monday night. He wanted to know where we start and finish – many details. He was really concerned about what we do.”
Volunteer Ade said: “He was really interested in our work. I told him we provide a warm safe environment for people . Prince Charles wanted to know how many guests we have. There are up to 50 each time. I explained that we’re here Wednesdays and Saturdays. At 11.30 we serve tea and coffee. Between 12-2 there’s a hot meal. We also have a Christmas dinner.”
The meals served in Arrupe are provided by neighbouring Mayfair restaurants – and guests say, are of very good quality.
Nick who is a guest and helps organise the project said: “We had a general chat to begin with. I told him I was ex Navy reserve and that we had actually met before at the Centenary parade of the Royal Navy Reserve. He was taking the salute and we met afterwards. Prince Charles said he wanted to thank us all for our service to the country.
Nick said: “He’s very friendly, interested and easy to talk with. He really cares about the welfare of people who have served in the armed forces. I told him about another of our guests here who is actually a former Army medic. When you leave the armed forces it can very difficult. There are so many barriers to getting help. So much bureaucracy. If you lose your home it can be very difficult to get back on course.”
Next month, a panel discussion entitled: Homelessness and the Pandemic: What have we learnt? – hosted by Diocese Of Westminster Justice & Peace and Caritas, will take place at Farm Street Church. Speakers will be CLCC guests, Mick Clarke, CEO at The Passage; Jon Kuhrt, from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government; Parish priest Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, from CLCC and Liz Wills from Caritas Westminster.
Light refreshments will be served. There is need to book. Donations to homeless services welcome.
The event takes place on Monday, 28 March, from 6.45-8.15pm, at Farm Street Church, 114 Mount St, London W1K 3AH. It will also be livestreamed at: www.farmstreet.org.uk