Last week, I attended Community Information Session on Social Housing run by Hackney Council.

Organised by Sustainable Advice in Hackney, the session covered the council’s new lettings policy, who is and who is not eligible to be offered social housing, the criteria residents need to meet, the checks the council makes on applicants and how the council decides who has priority for social housing. The session was, naturally, specific to the borough of Hackney but also was designed to cover social housing applications in general.

Nathaniel Mathews, Senior Housing Solicitor at the Hackney Community Law Centre, gave a summary of the recent developments in the new Lettings Policy of May 2014 and then John Isted, Projects and Legislation Team Leader and Asma Bhol, Medical Assessment Team Leader, both from London Borough of Hackney, talked about their work in social housing.

John led us through the system of allocation that the council uses: dividing people into Emergency, Urgent, Priority, Homeless, General and Reserve bands. Currently Hackney council has 10,297 households waiting to move and 1500 properties on its books. The ways of assessing priority is, as described by Nathaniel, “like a game of chess”, a complex system of points and scores.

Of course, with so many people and so few properties, those with higher need than others should be prioritised. But this has to happen critically, carefully, without misrepresentation.

However it was some of the language used by council representatives to describe applicants that, I feel, signalled a shift backwards towards that Victorian type of language of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.

At the event, the description “intentionally homeless”, the warning “we’re watching those types of people” and the observation “those types of people are creeping through” clouded the legitimate assessment work taking place.

I spoke to the Cardinal Hume Centre, a member of CSAN on this issue of language. The Centre provides housing support for homeless young people: “here at the Cardinal Hume Centre, we believe that one of the most difficult issues faced by our clients who are homeless or in danger of becoming so, is the lack of clear and objective information about their housing rights and options as well as the rapidly changing benefits landscape. We are also finding that more and more people are coming to us depressed and disheartened from being treated as a number, as a unit, as a statistic but rarely as a human being.”

Authorities need to speak with professionalism and with accuracy. We’ve got to ensure that the language used – however off-the-cuff or generalised – does not end up adding further to a discourse that targets, scapegoats and misunderstands.

Author: Clare Skelton

Last week I was shopping in a small shop, the express store of a very well-known national supermarket. This shop is the closest to the CSAN office and I’ve come to know the faces of the security man, the lady on the check-out.

On this occasion, I was served by a young guy who, responding to my enquiry as to how his day was going, replied “tired, man, I’m so tired”. He looked it too, the skin beneath his eyes blotched and transparent.

We joked if it was down to a late night and he laughed: “I wish! I’ve been working all hours” and he went on to explain that he worked forty hours a week in the supermarket, three nights a week delivery-driving from 10pm until 2am and Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights flyering on the streets to promote a nightclub. “I’m nineteen”, he said to me, “I need the money”.

I walked away from the shop with my purchases, trying to work out how much sleep a week that young man was getting, whether he was able to explore interests and passions in his spare time, if he had a family or other people dependent on him that he needed to support. What if one of those jobs fell through, or if his hours were to be cut?

I spoke to Paul Callaghan, Contracts Manager at St. Antony’s Centre of Church and Industry in Manchester. The Centre supports men and women in and out of work through partnership with employers, community agencies, parishes and chaplaincy groups.
I asked Paul whether the experiences of the young man were reflective of a wider trend. He replied that those young people he works with who are in work consider themselves lucky: “they are adopting the kind of approach that if they are out of work at all, they’ll fall back into a cycle. They see friends or family stuck in long-term employment, or maybe they have been themselves, so people who are in work are striving to be in continual employment.”
“The past three of four years have seen a level of insecurity that people feel they need to maximise potential income. But we need to ask, if you’re working three jobs and cumulatively you’re working sixty, seventy hours a week, and that’s still not enough what are you being paid?”

We discussed how latest government reports and media articles state that unemployment is on the decrease – but that if this young man is to be an example of a modern kind of employment that would be feeding into these statistics. Yet this could hardly be considered as a positive type of work that gives any sort of dignity.
What sort of working life do you have if you wake up not knowing whether you’re going to have to work a twelve-hour shift or whether you get no hours at all? “This lack of cohesion”, said Paul, “is really disruptive; everybody needs a structure and the fabric of normality in working life”. I thought back to my desk, my to-do list, the familiarity of the CSAN team around me, the responsibility I have in my role.

“People are scrabbling around for any scrap of work to generate some kind of income because there is no stability or guarantee that will lay a solid foundation” Paul continued.
And what about quality of life both now and in the future? Surely, being forced to work three jobs for little money will affect confidence and self-esteem in the long-term? Paul agreed: “it does end up scarring people. This is one of the many hidden costs of austerity – we can all tighten the purse strings to some degree, but what you can’t stop is the cumulative impact of that emotional wear and tear on health and a sense of belonging.”

Author: Clare Skelton

Yesterday, Phoebe, Becky and Clare met at the beautiful Lumen URC situated just south of Euston and Kings Cross. Away from the busy streets and rushing traffic, the Church felt like a quiet haven. We were there to attend the Jesuit Refugee Service photography exhibition, entitled ‘Come and See’ and displayed in the church’s gallery and cafe space.

The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) worked with not-for-profit organisation Fotosynthesis to produce and curate work by a group from JRS. Over a 12 week period, nine participants from different countries were guided through practical workshops to record, display and share their lives and experiences in London through photography.

Around the walls of the peaceful gallery were images from Sebastian, Helen, Momodu, Osman, J and Soledad. We were especially moved by Sebastian’s photograph of his open hands; the text he had written to accompany his image read “hands are important. They do everything for you. Fingerprints are a way to identify people and to control borders”. It was interesting to reconsider how even small and normal things are imbued with greater importance and significance when one is transitory. Similarly, a photograph of the iconic London ‘Mind the Gap’ logo was accompanied with the words “when I see this sign it has a deep meaning to me. I can’t go anywhere. I connect it with my life because of the situation I am experiencing”. We also found ourselves discussing the deeper implications of the phrase “my papers” for someone navigating complex asylum processes.

Afterwards, we met with Kate from JRS for a coffee and to discuss the exhibition. Kate explained that the workshops involved basic camera skills, a visit to a gallery to see how images are curated as well as street work in Wapping (around the Hurtado Centre where JRS are based), the City and around the participants’ own lives.

Kate added “JRS never try to speak on behalf of people, we do when they are unable to; but not here”. It was inspiring that these images that were not the typical ‘portraits of a refugee’ as I’ve seen so often in galleries and glossy Sunday supplements. This project instead is about giving ownership to the participants: about being a photographer, not the photographed, the creator and not the controlled.

Maybe we’ll never look at the Mind the Gap sign or pass through Border Control in quite the same way.

Last weekend CSAN and the Archdiocese of Southwark hosted an enormously successful Caritas Roadshow, the event was hosted in St Peter’s Catholic Church Woolwich. The bright and sunny morning brought with it over 100 people from across the Archdiocese and among these individuals parishioners, projects and clergy were all represented. The day focused on Pope Francis’s call to be a Church for the poor and how we can respond to this call through social action and social justice. The day opened with the brilliant Woolwich Gospel Choir followed by Archbishop Peter Smith who welcomed everyone and gave an introduction on why we were there and our mission as Catholics. The tone of the day was then set by Bishop Pat Lynch who gave a clear picture of the Archdiocese and of the most pressing issues being faced.

Led by Fr Shaju the day continued with Clare Skelton (CSAN) who spoke about Caritas, its work and its role, and went on to remind us of the challenging picture of poverty in the UK today, with a particular focus on the area covered by Southwark diocese. We then went on to explore the bustling Marketplace which was displaying the great work that the Catholic community is doing and energising people to get involved. This time gave the perfect opportunity for meeting and sharing.

The afternoon continued with a series of inspiring talks and presentations. Sr Chris Rose a Missionary of Charity explained her work with homeless people both in the ‘Gift of Love’ homeless shelter and through a Soup Run taking food to people living on the streets. This was followed by David Huse who explained his role in the designing and running the Mayor of London 2012 volunteer programme in support of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, he then energised and inspired us all by talking about a new concept of a ‘charity cafe’ to help young people gain skills. Mossy Lyons then took to the floor and briefly explained that the Kairos Community Trust helps homeless men and women with drug and alcohol problems. Mossy then introduced Dominic who had been through the Kairos service and now works for them. Dominic then shared his story and really brought home to everyone how vital the work Kairos does is and inspired people to get involved.

Having been invigorated by all the speakers everyone moved into two different workshops; Parish Mission in Practise- Being a Welcoming Parish led by St Anthony of Padua Pastoral team or St Vincent de Paul Society, this was followed by everyone attending another workshop; Nightstop- Youth Homelessness led by Depaul UK Nightstop or Housing Justice led by Housing Justice. The day ended with a commissioning prayer from Bishop Pat Lynch.

A big thank you to everyone who helped plan and organise the event, it really was a true celebration of the social action taking place. As one delegate commented “I found it very informative and it is encouraging to be aware of the great amount of work being done for the disadvantaged and vulnerable. A well worth-while initiative.”

Last night CSAN was invited to attend the launch of Apostleship of the Sea’s Maritime Emergency Fund, held – rather fittingly – on board the HQS Wellington on the banks of the Thames.

Apostleship of the Sea works in over 250 ports around the world and last year visited more than 10,000 vessels to offer welfare support to the crew, who spend their lives far from family, friends and home communities.

Father Bruno Ciceri, of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, described Apostleship of the Sea last night as “not just a seaport dot, but part of an international network”. He went on to break down the logo of the charity, describing the anchor as representing security, the lifebelt to denote help – “we throw the lifesaver and people catch it” – and the heart showing love and compassion.

The Maritime Emergency Fund will provide Apostleship of the Sea with the ability to respond to a crisis situation with financial support within 24-hours. A stranded boat or delays in payment (often for months at an end) have huge impacts on families thousands of miles away at home: medical bills, school fees and groceries all need to be paid for. The funds, administered by the port chaplain and authorised by the National Director, are often in the tens or hundreds of pounds rather than the thousands.

Sister Marian, port chaplain at Felixstowe, Harwich and Ipswich, described a recent incident where a crew were running out of food, fresh water and had been without pay for three months. Whilst union and business discussions took place in the background, Sister Marian and Apostleship of the Sea were able to secure funds to purchase vegetables, bread, safety gloves as well as internet access and phone cards so the crew could contact home. “They’re only small things” she said, “but they make such a difference”.

Last week for the first time I went on a visit to a young offenders institute; I was really unsure of what to expect, realising that most of the images I had seen of prisons were from TV programmes or films. Upon arrival, the security process felt very familiar, as if I was in an airport flying off on holiday. This thought disappeared as I was escorted through rabbit warren corridors, stopping frequently to have doors unlocked then locked behind me.

Instead of touring around the prison, it had been arranged that I could take part in a Chaplaincy session with the prisoners. As the prisoners started to arrive in dribs and drabs I was taken aback at the lack of uniform and that they did not mirror the images so frequently displayed in the media.

Once I started chatting to the group of prisoners, I very quickly felt comfortable and almost forgot that I was in a prison. There were reminders, of course; a prison guard popped his head around the door but sitting in the Chapel there was a feeling of mutual respect, both for each other and for the sacred space.

After chatting to the group for a while I was struck by the familiarity of what we were discussing: the grumblings about the food that is heard in all institutions, the concern about future studies and careers, the struggles of practising a faith. I could have been having the same conversation on a bus, in a school or at a party.

During the many and varied conversations I had during the afternoon I realised that there did not appear to be a typical prisoner; the group openly disagreed with each other on issues and whilst some seemed to have resigned themselves to never going to university or getting a good job, others had hopes and ambitions of what they would accomplish.

As the prisoners were escorted back to their cells in pairs I found myself ardently hoping that if I came back in a couple of years I would not see the same faces before me.

I am so grateful that I got the opportunity to try to understand the realities of being in prison, I have come away questioning perceptions and representations that I had been led to believe.

On Monday, Patrick and Clare attended a day-long Theological Enquiry into Foodbanks seminar at St. Katherine’s Foundation run by London Churches and the Contextual Theology Centre.

Over 45 participants from a wide variety of church traditions across London attended the seminar, the purpose of which was to explore two key themes: how foodbanks represent challenge and opportunity and what churches are learning through foodbanks about justice, empowerment and advocacy.

Speakers included Steven Saxby and Stephen Sichel from the London Churches core research team, Jon May from Queen University, Mike Leader from the Greenwich Food Bank and responses came from Alison Gelder, Chief Executive of Housing Justice and Clare Watkins of Heythrop College.

After lunch (and chance to enjoy lively conversation in the beautiful sunshine), we continued with a public conversation, using learning from the earlier sessions to feed into the London Churches ‘common voice’ on foodbanks.

Key takeaways from the day:

1). One of the largest challenge we need to overcome when establishing why people are using foodbanks is to overcome a language of judgement: ‘dependency’, ‘deserving’, ‘undeserving’, ‘normal’ and ‘expected’ clientele using foodbanks (Jon May from Queen Mary University)

2). The Church is being encouraged into a new era of its life: social action is no longer in the background and it is forcing the Church to step up with practical activity to engage with modern life and modern challenges

3). Considering the pastoral cycle of see > judge > act, the way we are working and running foodbanks seems to have created a new journey of act > listen > reflect > act again: modifying our response subject to requirement and feedback (Alison Gelder from Housing Justice)

4). “Some charitable organisations speak with the tone of ‘breaking bread and eating with each other’ but there is a danger of getting too self-congratulatory. We are engaged in food distribution to people living in poverty – we cannot be romantic about this.” (participant from Newham)

5). We agreed that a unified voice that says the same thing will be very difficult to achieve with such diverse groups – so we shouldn’t strive to find a one, rigid message.

There is the hope that a “common voice” of the many different groups across London will be established, which will be used to help inform and influence decision-makers.

 

Last Wednesday evening I was walking down Caledonian Road with my boyfriend; it was my birthday night and we were going to a new restaurant. I was trying to guess where we were going, intrigued as to where we could be headed in this city where it seems like every week is marked with the opening of a new place to eat, drink and make merry.

As we headed over the brow of the hill, down past Pentonville Prison, four or five guys left the entrance of the prison ahead of us.

They had clear plastic bags over their shoulders with their belongings visible inside, walking free from the imposing white walls alongside the busy road.

One guy went straight over the road to a cornershop whilst the others walked on. One of them peeled off to the Overground, another down a side-street towards an estate. Each time one left, there was a subtle handshake, a bump of fists, a pat on the shoulder.

It made me think of that school song I used to sing in primary school about green bottles sitting on a wall and I found myself inadvertently counting the guys off until it was just one man left making his way down the road ahead of us.

Eventually, it was my boyfriend and I who peeled off to the restaurant, leaving him to continue his walk south down Cally Road in the direction of Kings Cross.

The thing that stayed in my mind for days later was that not one of those men had been met. Not one had had a wife or child or brother or parent to meet him. Not one had gone to a phone box to call someone, not one had been hugged at the gates.

Back in the CSAN office a few days later, I spoke to Monica, Parish and Supporter Relations Officer at the Prison Advice & Care Trust (Pact).

She told me that it is incredibly common for a prisoner to walk out of the prison gate with no-one to welcome them. The step from prisoner to ex-offender takes place at the moment an individual passes to ‘the other side of the gate’. What we think must feel like an incredible sense of freedom, can most often be an overwhelming and lonely experience.

The initial 12-hours after release are critical as it is in this time period that an ex-offender must find somewhere safe to stay the night. Longer-term, many will face challenges within employment, addiction, reforging family connections, ‘going straight’ and ‘staying clean’. Within two years of leaving prison, three in five of prisoners will be reconvicted.

It is for these reasons that Pact set up the Basic Caring Communities programme, known as BaCC. Four volunteers form a support group for one prisoner, meeting him on the day of his release and supporting him in the following months as he finds his feet.

That very brief experience last week reminded me that each and every day prisoners across the country are released, knowing that they won’t be met with a hug at the gates, knowing that the next few hours, weeks and months are critical in turning their lives around.

Find out more about Pact’s Basic Caring Communities here.

Author: Clare Skelton

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