Text: Sister Ellen Flynn at 'A Night Under the Stars'

 Sr Ellen Flynn, DC, gave the following address at the Night Under The Stars gala fundraiser in Westminster Central Hall, last Thursday. About two weeks ago the clocks went back an hour. Nights grow dark early. It's cold and damp. Winter is upon us. Last night seventy-four people slept rough on the streets of Victoria. All around us people huddle into warm clothes going about their business. Christmas lights and decorations are appearing. The bustle of the festive season is beginning. And yet, in the borough of Westminster, 220 people are preparing to sleep on the street, 74 of them in Victoria. Many more are in emergency shelter. Christmas brings with it a dark loneliness for those cut off from friends and family. I am concerned at the growing public perception that homelessness is a thing of the past, that the people we see now on the streets are there by choice, that rough sleeping is over and that there are no more vulnerable people left. It is true that, in other parts of the country, rough sleeping has been considerably reduced, but it is clearly not the case in Central London. It is also true that some people use the streets of London for begging, drinking and perpetrating crime, making vulnerable rough sleepers so much more vulnerable. With all this in mind, and with the words of Sir Roger's poem echoing in us, our commitment to those who are homeless and vulnerable in London has never been more necessary. The location of The Passage in Victoria is as essential as it has ever been. Homelessness itself is a complex field. People become homeless remarkably easily and for a myriad of reasons. They come to Central London thinking that it will be better here. They come to The Passage seeking solace, practical assistance and compassion. We try to provide resources which inspire, encourage and challenge each person to pick up their lives again, make responsible choices, heal their inner homelessness and the intense feeling of lost hope. Each person arrives with their own issues, vulnerabilities, gifts and personalities. This year we have taken more steps to ensure that each of our 250 day visitors, 53 residents of Passage House and 16 tenants of Montfort House are cared for through personal listening and individual planning. Our most fundamental value is the respect and dignity we hold for each other. We spend time getting to know the person. People are persons not problems to solve. We hope our health services, housing advice, training and employment, accommodation, chaplaincy, primary care and assessment services all surround and embrace the needs of each person in a holistic and integrated pattern of rehabilitation. At this very moment our outreach team is out on these very streets that surround us, building trust, bringing hope, calling people by name: people who are used to being nameless, ignored and unknown. Recently I visited a project, not in this country, where 1,000 homeless people were warehoused in an old mental asylum building. The staff were unskilled, with a high presence of security personnel who put them through a metal detector and finger printed them each time they went in and out. There were good intentions but in this system people were numbers, not persons. They did have dormitory bed, a sheet, a towel, a pillow and a blanket, no more and no less, - and no-one knew who they were. I cried when I left - and I prayed that no-one coming to The Passage would ever experience from us the depersonalisation, inhumanity and lack of dignity that pierced through me in that place. This was not care, it was containment. Back in our own country, I worry about the appalling images, perceptions, biases and stigmas, underlined by Alan Partridge tonight, that our own society places on homelessness. Rough sleepers, in particular, are often talked about and presented in a way that renders them different, other than us, a race apart, marginalized. The term homelessness itself is depersonalised and being a catchall, hides the realities of what people suffer. How many of you this year have touched suffering - in your lives or those close to you? I have a niece, aged 17, using drugs - where will that end? If you think of it you may know someone who at any moment might become homeless: - someone who has mental illness. - someone who is lonely or alienated from family and friends, or suffering significant loss through bereavement. - someone who finds themselves suddenly and unexpectedly unemployed or financially ruined. These are issues that are hidden in the term homelessness. These are the issues that can cause it. The Passage must work harder to find flexible ways to serve homeless people and innovative ways to prevent it happening. We have ambitions and expensive plans for the future - and we continue to rely on your support. It is you and people like you that make a real difference Last evening at 5pm there was a frisson of excitement at the central office of The Passage. The programme for 'A Night Under the Stars' had arrived. As I looked through it I was warmed by all the good will messages, from Her Majesty The Queen to Her Grace the Duchess of Norfolk, and onwards through all our corporate sponsors for this year. I add to these all of you here present, onstage and off stage. You will see that one of our sponsors depicts a row of cut out people holding hands, some held high, with the caption " pulling together" Tonight I believe we are here to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in our concern for homeless people and shoulder-to-shoulder with them in their struggle for a better life. For being prepared to do that, I thank you - on their behalf and behalf of all of us who live and work at The Passage. Someday, somehow, somewhere - there will be a place.

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