GREG WATTS checks out one of London's shelters for the homeless, The Passage, to see how the homeless fare
M C ISF.ORTUNE
can hit any of us at any time. When I talk to people here and listen to their stories, I find myself thinking that this could be me or one of my family," says Sister Bridie Dowd DC, director of The Passage.
Since it opened in St Vincent's Convent, around the corner from Westminster Cathedral, in 1980, The Passsage has become one of the largest providers of services for the homeless of central London.
Today, between 300 and 350 people come to its day centre, either for a hot meal, professional help, clothes or just companionship.
The lunchtime scene at the Passage is noisy and chaotic, with a constrant stream of bedraggled men, wearing illthing clothes and clutching bags expectantly, thronging the dining area. There is an undercurrent of aggression in the atmosphere. You could imagine a fight or two flaring up quite easily. Unsurprisingly in such an environment, there are few women around.
In 1990 an emergency night shelter was opened in the Westminster Conference Centre after Cardinal Hume expressed concern about the number of people spending the night in the cathedral piazza.
Today, a temporary building near the Tate Gallery provides 35 bed spaces. There are future plans to convert a building near Victoria station into a permanent night shelter.
"We are probably the busiest day centre for homeless people in London," said Sister Bridie. "We operate an open door policy. Generally people hear about us by word of mouth. We don't advertise locally."
THE PASSAGE provides services to homeless people over 25. The Cardinal Hume Centre, close by, serves homeless people under 25.
Homeless people are not just those huddled in shop doorways. If you live in a hostel, a squat, a bed and breakfast hotel, or are sleeping on a friend's floor, you are without a home.
People, it is said, used to think that London's streets were paved with gold. Today some of those arriving at Euston station are more likely to expect London's streets to be paved with heroin, crack or other such substances.
As you might expect, many of those using the facilities of The Passage have been caught in a spiral of drug and alcohol addiction, or are suffering from mental health problems. The closure of large care institutions and implementation of the Community Care Act has resulted in increased numbers of people wandering the streets. GPs, chiropodists, social workers, psychologists and psychiatric nurses visit the day centre, and a nurse is available five days a week.
But Sister Bridie claimed that not everyone who comes to The Passage fits the stereotype of the homeless person. "A large number of the people using our service have had families and jobs, in some cases very good ones. Redundancy has brought many people to us. The first thing we always offer is a welcome. Often when people come to the door they feel bad about themselves and have low self-esteem.
While much of the work at The Passage might be described as of the fire fighting variety, the staff aim to help people to recover their self-respect, grow in confidence and take the first steps of entering mainstream society.
An open learning room, equipped with computers, provides opportunities to learn new skills and update old ones, said manager Greg Mitten.
"When people start to use the keyboards they will often say 'I want to write a letter, but I don't know who to write to.' Then sometimes they will decide to write to a brother or sister. This can reopen lines to their family."
Last year more than 1,200 people were found temporary, medium-term or permanent accommodation by the housing and resettlement team, who also provide continuing support when required. One, Edwin Linton, tells his own story: "My life was not that good as a child, with beatings and abuse. I served in the regular Army. When I became an alcoholic this was the end of my Army life and I turned on society.
"I was told if I carried on like this I would die. So five years ago I found something to give me a new life. I took up art and have had exhibitions in Chelsea, The Derriramia, and St Martins. Now I am trying to change my approach to works of art by using beeswax on artists' paper.
"I will say that thanks to The Passage I live in their Night Shelter which I helped to paint and clean. I am just going to take a big step as I wait for my own flat. It is due any time now, all because I made an effort to stand up instead of running away."
AROUND 120 volunteers help out at The Passage each week, doing everything from sorting out the clothes that have been donated, serving meals, fund raising, or simply chatting with people.
They know now, if they didn't know before, that there is nothing romantic about working with the homeless.
Mr Mitten explained that many people have developed a drug or alcohol habit since being homeless. "Drug and alcohol addiction can frequently be the result of homelessness rather than the cause of it. If you are cold, frightened, and sleeping on the streets, then it is easy to resort to drugs or alcohol to block out the pain.
There is a worrying trend of people using both alcohol and drugs. Drugs are now more available on the streets and the price is generally low.
"We place a lot of emphasis on talking to people, not just about their problems but about life generally."
With the closure of the bull ring, an area near Waterloo, which had become a popular refuge for rough sleepers, The Passage will probably be busier than ever this winter.
"People often think of day centres for homeless people as soup kitchens, handing out food and clothes," said Mr Mitten. "We do this at The Passage but we also try to enable people to take control of and rebuild their lives."
Homelessness is no longer just a feature of London life. In cities and towns across Britain there are men and women whose lives, for various reasons, have come apart at the seams. It could happen to any one of us. We could be made redundant, lose our marriage, have our home repossessed, or be driven to the bottle or something else. Life is predictably unpredictable.
We need organisations like The Passage, especially at this time of the year. For they often do what we can't, or won't, do for those individuals without a home. The Passage is a restatement of the old adage: "There but for the grace of God go I."