In the first of a series on Catholics working at the cutting edge of society, Murray White meets a member of a team helping homeless families out of the bed and breakfast trap
THE family members are Kurdish refugees. The husband arrived from Turkey a year ago with nothing he could call his own. His wife and children came to Britain three months ago with a similar lack of possessions.
While their asylum application is processed by the Home Office, they have been placed in a bed and breakfast hotel in London. But being one of 40,000 applications, there is no telling how long the process might take. The family faces the alienation of being alone in a strange country and culture, not speaking the language and trying to negotiate the maze of social security bureaucracy.
They are typical of the kind of family for whom Angela Conway unlocks the doors of the system as part of a homelessness team at Westminster Catholic Children's Society.
With her two fellow team members, Angela fits into a role that circles the rigid rules of councils while still being professionally useful. As Catholics, the team members are often seen a comforting distance away from authority.
Angela illustrates her point, continuing the story of the Kurdish family: "They were concerned when I was first introduced to them by an interpreter. Bu when they found ou I was to do with th church, it was, 'ah brilliant.' I was friendly face."
She has pointed out to the family the benefits they are entitled to, tried to find the children school places, and has put them in touch with Kurdish friendship groups who will help them see they are not alone in their predicament.
Around three quarters of the families in B&Bs contacted by the team are refugees. Besides Kurds, there are a wash of Ethiopean, Eritrean, Somalian and Romanian refugees in London's housing queue.
The Children's Society team was founded five years ago in response to the rapidly growing numbers of numbers of homeless families. Among these, were found a high proportion of single parents, and, increasingly, families who lost their homes through repossession.
They operate in a now well established list of B&Bs across north London, each visiting 15 families weekly, for as long as each case takes. Another of the team works with Irish travellers at a caravan site to the west of the capital.
Needy cases are brought to their attention by hotel managers, health visitors, schools, and cleaners. Once Angela and her colleagues have made contact with a family, they look for housing openings through the council.
Most are eventally moved out to temporary accommodation which has been privately leased. The danger is that this avenue is no nearer a permanent solution. Some end up back in the B&Bs.
It is wishful thinking to suggest that homeless families not actually on the streets are somehow less urgent cases. Angela relates that families especially children in the long term do suffer in the cramped and inadequate conditions of some B&Bs.
As she talks in her neatly organised office, the only hint of how the team alleviates those conditions in a material way are cardboard boxes strewn with clothes and neat piles of tinned food, which go to the most needy families. The food a one-off gift from a local Catholic school is welcome. Most living in B&Bs survive on takeaways, rarely having a good diet.
She visits one Ethiopian family living in a damp room little more than 12 feet across. There are two single beds, a cot, a sink and a wardrobe for a mother and her two children. The family have to keep their food in the room which would be stolen it' left in the kitchen. The mother has to carry her youngest child up and down to the kitchen which is on a different level while juggling pans and kettles.
"I have been writing to the local council for almost a year trying to get them rehoused, but keep being told they are waiting for something to come up," says Angela grimly.
Her philosophy. though, is not to be over-protective of the B&B dwellers. They need to build their confidence, she says, so they can stand up for their own rights.
Angela, 12 months with the team. has a background in social work. mainly in children's homes. This experience along with the seemingly infinite patience needed to cope with the Department of Social Security prevent her from getting frustrated about the scale of a homeless quagmire that could see 50,000 homeless families in the capital by 1995.
Long term, she believes, councils will need to build affordable permanent homes if the homelessness crisis is to end. "1 realise we are only a drop in the ocean, but to the 15 families I am working with, it is everything," she says.
"At the end of the day, the achievement of finding a family a home, and speaking up for somebody who is considered an underdog, gives me the motivation to keep going."