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As the head of a homeless charity in London I am seeing more and more people driven into poverty

Government policies are putting the very fabric of our society at risk, argues Cathy Corcoran

By on Friday, 10 January 2014

Welfare reform and the cumulative impact of cuts have led to an increase in homelessness (Photo: PA)

Welfare reform and the cumulative impact of cuts have led to an increase in homelessness (Photo: PA)

Joseph Mitchell is sleeping rough. He had been made redundant from his job which came with accommodation and his life spiralled downwards very quickly. The fact that he had lost not only his livelihood but also his home in one go meant that he simply hadn’t had the chance to think about applying for jobs before he was sleeping on the streets. Yet as with everyone who comes through our doors, and working with the centre’s employment and housing advice teams he is determined to use everything he has – and we can offer – to get back into work and to get a roof over his head.

Joseph’s story is just one of many we heard over Christmas at the Cardinal Hume Centre, which was founded in 1986 by the Cardinal in response to what he witnessed every day: homeless people bedding down for the night outside Westminster Cathedral and families spending yet another night in bed and breakfast accommodation, utterly unsuitable for their children’s health and well-being. Much hard work has taken place since then and progress has been made in tackling, if not eradicating homelessness. Yet if Cardinal Hume were still alive today, I suggest he would be shocked and saddened to see a return to the same conditions.

Over the years, the centre has developed a wide range of on-site services on the premise that, as each human being is different and their needs are complex, so the response to need should be both to the uniqueness and the complexity. In addition to providing accommodation for homeless 16- to 21-year-olds, we concentrate on helping others, both families and individuals, to prevent them becoming homeless. Our services range from housing advice to employment support, from education and skills to family services. We do not provide solutions for people, but work with each person to find their own route forward.

There is an increasing amount of myth and misinformation around about the benefits system, its purpose and its usage, with stigmatisation and stereotyping accompanying it and a serious lack of real debate based on the facts. For example, more than two thirds of the people on benefits in our country are in work. They are not scroungers or skivers. Many of the people who come to the centre are working and have a home – at least for now. But the rising costs of food, clothes, rent and heating mean they are simply not earning enough to make ends meet, however hard they try. Many are also being offered “zero hours” contract which means they never know when they will get work – or rather, get paid – and cannot look for other work in the meantime.

Every day at the centre we see more and more people who are being pushed over the edge into poverty and then homelessness. Why? Because of the cumulative impact of cuts in services, welfare reform and the lack of a national agreement to a Living Wage. In London, of course, the situation is exacerbated by the dearth of affordable accommodation. Cuts to housing benefit were supposed to reduce rents. This is clearly not happening and there is evidence that some landlords are beginning to refuse to take tenants in receipt of housing benefit. The welfare system was established to provide a safety net for those in our society who are vulnerable for whatever reason. Increasingly, we witness the results of that safety net being removed. Alongside are the cuts in legal aid so that, although people have rights under the law, the wherewithal to appeal when those rights are eroded is not there. And just last weekend it was announced that the emergency fund for low income families is to be scrapped by the Government.

The ultimate irony is that none of this makes economic sense. Prevention is always less expensive than cure. More people being homeless will be a drain on the economy. A generation of children and young people living in poverty, including poverty of opportunity and of aspiration, will not contribute to a sounder economic future for this country. We are not only wiping out many of the gains made since the 1980s, we are also putting the very fabric of our society at risk.

What would make a difference? The root cause of the increase in homelessness today is poverty and we must name and acknowledge that if we are to make any progress at all. On the macro level, we need major continuous investment in building more affordable homes. We need to tackle the issue of more than a million empty homes in Britain. We need a firm commitment to introducing and policing a Living Wage, and we need the political courage and will to introduce a fair rent system. On the more local level, we need to ensure that there are more places like the Cardinal Hume Centre which offer the open, non-judgmental welcome and holistic support that our founder insisted upon.

There is a school of thought that says we should not pick up the pieces for the state.

I agree. But we must recognise there is a tangible and vital complementarity in the roles played by both the state and the voluntary sector. One without the other simply does not work in the best interests of everyone.

And perhaps of greatest importance, while responding to the need itself it is crucial that we add our voice – and that of the people we work with – to asking why there is need and why it is increasing so rapidly. As a faith-based organisation especially, we have to continue to ask: why?

As Bishop John Arnold said at the recent parliamentary reception for the Caritas Social Action Network, of which the Centre is a member: “We should judge the success of our society and our civilised living on measuring how we help those most in need, the most vulnerable in our society. Poverty is a challenge to the whole sense of justice, to the very fabric of our society … and among our tasks as witnesses to the love of Christ is that of giving a voice to the cry of the poor.”

It is Poverty and Homelessness Week from January 25 to February 2. This is organised by a coalition of churches and Church agencies to raise awareness of the forces at play behind poverty and homelessness (visit Housingjustice.org.uk).

I would encourage everyone to join in.

Cathy Corcoran OBE is chief executive of the Cardinal Hume Centre, which helps people gain the skills they need to overcome poverty and homelessness. For more information, visit Cardinalhumecentre.org.uk

  • http://www.catholicmomof10.co.uk/ Jackie Parkes

    : There is a school of thought that says we should not pick up the pieces for the state.

    I don’t agree with that school…

    Dorothy Day certainly wouldn’t have.

  • $28180339

    This is absolutely terrible that young people & young families are shoved into poverty, while elected officials are jockeying for positions of power. Equally as bad if not worse is the middle-aged person who was laid off many months ago & can not even land a job with less pay because of age & will be deemed useless in a few years.

    This world has the brain power & natural resources to prevent this unnecessary travesty. Those in power who casually forget their responsibilities towards their neighbor will have a lot to answer for when their time is up. May God have mercy on their souls!

  • http://www.catholicmomof10.co.uk/ Jackie Parkes

    “What we would like to do is change the world–make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute–the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words–we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.”
    ― Dorothy Day

  • AnthonyPatrick

    Not unless the Hagia Sophia is returned in exchange;-)

  • PaulF

    Neither do I. We should be demonstrating that the love of God is better than anything a godless state can offer. Catholics and other Christians can provide comfortable and well run emergency refuge for people when they run into trouble. We need to become much less reliant on an increasingly hostile state.

  • Me

    It’s a great shame that so many of the people who now profess to have the best of intentions, were silent when the Labour government were allowing out of work Brits to become overly reliant on the state and, as a result, lose any desire for the dignity that comes with work.

  • Tom_mcewen

    I worked in a Homeless shelter(a great job) for three years in America, people do not like to look at the homeless, just because in the back of their mind is the fact, with their saving rate, within weeks they too will be homeless. But the homeless wanted jobs and got them and kept them, saved money, we matched them dollar for dollar and gave them first and last for rent. There were people who fell off the drink or drug wagon and we put them out into the desert but fed them clothed them, gave them showers and then let them back in to try again. I found them to be just people, some funny, some sad, some with depression, some just ill, but most were there, not because of drink or drugs, but just people. Here in Czech it is different, in America ‘Get a Job’ is what the homeless say to each other. In Czech the government gives support which goes down the throat or into the arm and the Homeless are far, far worse, still without homes. The support does not help it is a downward spiral into a early grave.

    Our homeless shelter was religious, paid for by a group of Doctors and other good people and corporations. A shelter in another part of town was run with government money was more like a maxi-prison, with security guards, locked doors and run for the staff’s benefit.

  • Mitsy

    That started under Thatcherism actually…She closed down the pits and steel works, and put the workers on benefits, sold off council housing, without building anymore. Labour was just as tough on the unemployed. They gave us ATOS who tell people with terminal cancer they are fit to work and leave them destitute. They also began the culture of sanctions. For many benefits ate all they have. Many Brits have found themselves frozen out of employment. Nobody I know wants to go through the torture and indignity of dealing with the Job Centre or ATOS. Work would be infinately better but it is tough. The places where the jobs most plentiful are the most expensive to live it. So many who are employed still need government assistance to pay the rent. It is impossible for many working families to have more than two children, so preaching against contraception is pointless and unhelpful.

  • TieHard

    I wonder at the high salaries that these head of charities get

  • brendankiwi

    my God, the pits and steel works kept a few thousand employed but kept the general masses impoverished by forcing them t subsidize it. I laugh that Brits would be “frozen” but still able to have s e x. I cam to Britan 7 years ago and really startled by how much the state is into handouts, free housing, they’ll even look after your teeth and health and give your kids free lunches. Really there is nothing for the mum and dad to do but watch and admire and vote for the status quo because they forgot how to cook, earn and act responsiblt

  • $74497298

    “Government policies are putting the very fabric of our society at risk..”

    Yes, entirely true.
    Present government policies are destroying our society, of which it was once said (and by the head of government too!) there “is no such thing”.
    This is no longer said, but it is still strongly, and silently, believed by the political Right.

    The new government, that hopefully we will have in 16 months, might do well to consider an urgent “prefab” building programme – using the land kept undeveloped by housing companies awaiting its value to rise.