THE HOMELESS, like the poor, seem always with us. And that situation doesn't look like changing. If anything, the position in London is worsening: the number of private houses and flats available is still declining and local authorities, struggling with insufficient resources, are unable to make up the deficit.
Providence Row Night Refuge exists to alleviate that problem. It was set up in 1860 by a remarkable Catholic priest, Mgr Daniel Gilbert. His description of the misery he encountered then still rings true today: "There are men and women crouching on doorsteps, or in cellars, or under carts and waggons because they are friendless and penniless and cannot pay for their lodgings."
The refuge is set in Gilpin Street, in East London. It is run by the Sisters of Mercy, of whom seven work full-time in the refuge and another 15 give part-time assistance. There are also several other full-time staff.
Homelessness knows no barriers of race, class or creed. People from all backgrounds come to the refuge seeking help. There they find two night shelters with accommodation for 33 men and 45 women, a longer-term shelter for up to 12 men, and nine family units. People stay for periods ranging from one night to several months. In addition there arc three. hostels with 60 places for people working in London — students, teachers and business girls who come from all over the world. They pay a subsidised "rent" of £13.50 a week, which includes everything.
Finally, Providence Row also has a Housing Association, which owns 12 houses in Aylward Street serving more permanent accommodation needs.
A glance at some examples of cases handled at the Refuge indicates the kind of problems dealt with there.
Mrs A was a 55-year-old woman admitted in an appalling condition. Her four grown-up children were all professionally trained but did not seem to care, She had been drinking heavily after the death of her husband. After three months' rehabilitation and care she became re-established in social life with a flat and a suitable job. Mr and Mrs B were a young couple who arrived in London with £20. They spent some nights living rough before a local agency directed them to Providence Row.
Three days later, 6+ months pregnant and highly disturbed, Mrs B went into a coma. With the help of hospital treatment and a social worker's persistence, they too found a flat.
Miss C had to give up nursing studies because she was pregnant. At the time she was referred to the refuge, she was considering an abortion. Now she and her thriving child are housed and she has resumed her studies.
Mr D suffered from a very nervous temperament and a particularly irritating skin condition. This caused a fellow tenant to force him to leave. He spent nine months at the hostel before being accommodated in a GLC flat.
Not all cases, of course are such obvious "success stories", But the work of Providence Row is not only concerned with "cure". Proper care is as important a part of their ministry.
Catherine McAuley, the foundress of the Order of the Sisters of Mercy, was a person who believed passionately in the power of women for the betterment of society.
Her favourite maxim was one which accurately reflects the outlook of the sisters to this day: There are things which the poor prize more highly than gold, though they cost the donor nothing. Among these are the kind word, the gentle compassionate look and the patient listening to their sorrow and pain."
Providence Row provides a refuge and a shelter for people who are often desperate. To those with nothing else to hope for, it brings alive again the Gospel words: "I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in."