True Stories: Heart and home: Helping others can be an eye-opener

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The Independent Online
My wife and I live in a mansion flat in a quiet street just a few yards away from the precincts of Westminster Cathedral. Across the road is a convent, discreet and self-effacing and not

obviously playing much part in our lives. For a number of years we have been aware of somewhat dishevelled characters, mostly men, shuffling downstairs to the convent basement, presumably to get some sort of charit-able handout, a sandwich, perhaps, and a cup of tea.

The reality is somewhat different. If the other residents of our quiet, respectable street knew what was really happening, there would be a public outcry. For in the convent is one of the most remarkable phenomena I have ever come across.

In fact, The Passage, as it is euphemistically called, serves more than 400 'clients' a day, and has just celebrated its 20th anniversary.

It is run by the Catholic Sisters of St Vincent, aided by some paid professional help, and a number of volunteers. It is a friendly and humane environment, where the homeless can be sure of something to eat and drink at modest expense (there is a credit system for those who haven't anything), and avail themselves of washing facilities; social, medical and psychiatric help, and most important of all, a helping hand to seek an alternative to life on the streets of Westminster. Its success rate is extraordinarily high.

What of the people who run it? They are mainly Irish nuns, with a great sense of fun concealing utter pragmatism and absolutely no prose-lytising. Where else would you find nuns doing karaoke at one of the many parties for their volunteers?

The volunteers are a mixed bunch, of all ages and backgrounds, some not far advanced in social status from the clients themselves. What I find remarkable is that there are lots of young people, with a genuine desire to help.

A few years ago the nuns decided to start a night shelter as well. To begin with this was in a church hall in Ashley Gardens, just behind the Cathedral. The accommodation offered nothing more than a mattress on the floor, a washroom, and something for supper and breakfast.

About 40 or so people could be accommodated each night. When my wife and I first volunteered to help in the night shelter, I was frankly nervous; I had never had any dealings with humanity at this level, although I had certainly been aware of our clients on the streets.

The work was easy enough - serving cups of teas and sandwiches, laying out the mattresses, mopping up next morning so the hall could return to its usual function - but to begin with I found it emotionally exhausting. It was like being is some monstrous Stanley Spencer painting, hauling bedding around and cleaning up.

But after a few times, something changed. My wife and I became part of the act, and we discovered we had many new friends, not only in the night shelter but everytime we walked up and down the street.

Two things have struck me, indeed shocked me, during the past couple of years. First was the inhumanity of the residents opposite the church hall, who complained vociferously that our clients congregated in their street before opening time, at 10.45pm. The night shelter has since moved, to slightly more salubrious surroundings in a less sensitive area.

The second is a plan submitted by West-minster Council, to placate the residents, to turn the precinct in front of the Cathedral on Victoria Street into a sort of St Mark's Square.

They reason that if we gentrify the piazza, there won't be anywhere for the homeless to sleep out - and there are plenty of them. Where they are expected to go is an open question, but presumably out of sight, out of mind.

The money for this expensive scheme could much more profitably be used to provide free toilets (and perhaps a shower or two) in the vicinity.

But I am afraid when it comes to the homeless, many of the residents in our area would back Mr Major. I would rather back Sister Bridie and her volunteers. What our clients want is hope, charity - and love. And, surprisingly enough, that is precisely what they give in return.