The Cardinal Hume Centre is situated in Westminster, just around the corner from Whitehall and down the road from Parliament.
The powerful and wealthy share the same streets with the homeless, drug users, the undocumented and unemployed. The problem is that the powerful and priveliged seem oblivious to those around them who struggle to get by on a daily basis.
This sanitation process between the two groups was nowhere more in evidence than at the recent general election when the issue of poverty rarely came up in a contest that at times came to resemble a series of the X-factor.
This is in a country where more than one million children live in overcrowded accommodation, drug addiction is on the increase and 500,000 plus undocumented workers struggle by in the twilight zone. All of these people can be found on the streets around the Palace of Westminster and many finish up at the Cardinal Hume Centre (CHC).
The Irish descended chief executive of CHC Cathy Corcoran is appalled at what she has seen. “I am genuinely ashamed, at the depths of poverty in this country,” said Corcoran. “When a mother does not know where the money is coming from to feed her children, it is the same poverty as is seen overseas. When we did a survey of people coming here, it was shocking the number caught up in that situation.”
The CHC comprises a 32 bedroom hostel for 16 to 21 year olds and an eight bed hostel for people in recovery from substance misuse. There is a one year limit on staying in the hostels, with the emphasis on moving people to live independently and get employment. There are english classes, IT training , adult literacy, parenting and life skills, immigration and employment advice plus work experience available.
The family centre is where women can bring their young children, then attend other classes in the building. The drop in primary healthcare service has a GP and psychiatrist available. It offers general counselling and alcohol/drug counselling and treatment. The CHC also runs a mentoring system.
The problems faced are numerous and varied. Nian Baban attends the family centre most days with her three year old. She also has a nine and seven year old and lives in a one bedroom flat with her husband. The family have been living in the flat for 11 years and have been seeking to get larger accommodation. Baban explains how difficult it is for her and three children to all sleep in one 10 x 6 ft room. Her husband sleeps on the sofa. “We are nearly divorced, our relationship has suffered due to these conditions. I have depression,” said Baban, who is one of 2.3 million people living in overcrowded conditions in the UK, according to the National Housing Federation. 3,000 households in Westminster are living in temporary accommodation.
The drug culture that it is so easy to get caught up in can destroy lives as the story of Kerry Norridge proves. Brought up in a stable family in Oxford, Norridge fell into the drug culture during his teenage years. By the age of 20 he was addicted to heroine. “I found I couldn’t hold down a job or sustain relationships,” said Norridge. “I became parasitic with girl friends. They provided somewhere to live, food and a mother figure. I did driving jobs, worked on building sites, they never held my attention for long.”
In the end in his late 20s he left his partner and cut off from his family in order not to cause anymore hurt. He then did various jobs, like selling the Big Issue, just to pay for the drugs. “I was running away, never dealing with the issue. It got dark and lonely and I felt very isolated,” said Norridge, who admits to reaching an all time low when he thought he was about to die in “a sad lonely way.”
A fellow hostel dweller encouraged him to go to Narcotics Anonymous and it was from here that the long road to recovery began. He applied to Westminster Substance Misuse team who then put him into detox and rehabilitation. He came to the CHC. “This was a fantastic move for me, they are positively focused at getting people into a meaningful life,” said Norridge, who while living in the hostel learned basic things like washing his clothes, housekeeping and budgeting. He is now living independently in a flat in north London and is on a drama course to become an actor. “At Easter my parents came down. I made food, we went sight seeing, it was beautiful,” said Kerry, who is keen to stress that if the right type of help is offered people in his situation can get out of the underclass and start building a life.
The CHC sees a lot of undocumented workers around the area, working in the twilight zone, often exploited. One policy that would help this group is a regularisation (or amnesty).
Amina Shor came to the UK from Lebanon in 2003. She is struggling to bring up three children, having split from her husband. She has learned English and wants to contribute. “I am on income support but want to get out to do something for the future. After August I am going to apply for citizenship,” said Shor.
It must now be hoped that with the election over, that members of the government can find their way down the road to CHC and others dealing with the symptoms of poverty in our society. It is no good for those who hold power to occupy the same pavement space as the poor and conduct a dialogue of the deaf. Real change can only happen if the two sides come together genuinely committed to finding solutions.