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Hosting refugees

Coventry Peace House is a housing co-op, a shelter, a base for community projects in Coventry, and a centre for campaigning. Coventry Peace House came out of the peace camp at Alvis Tanksin Coventry, when Penny and others wanted to start a community focused on nonviolence.

Ideally, members of the housing co-op (which is a member of the Radical Routes network) work part-time, so that they can pay their share of the rent and also have time to contribute to CPH work. The group chose Coventry because “that was where the violence was”, says Penny, meaning Alvis Tanks. The group found a row of cheap, run-down houses, which they now know were cheap because they flood!

Why refugees?

The CPH work with refugees was not part of the original plan, but unfolded over time. “In 1998-99 Kosovan and Afghan refugees started coming and I've always done both practical and campaigning work,” says Penny, “campaigning against the wars that create refugees and against the asylum system,” and also offering direct help, because “one keeps the other going.”

”We also visited the Liverpool Catholic Worker, which at that time was hosting Timorese refugees and campaigning against BAE and the occupation of East Timor.

”The night shelter opened in 2004, and offers accommodation, welcome and a meal to 11 to 12 people a night. The food is provided by a local Sikh Gurdwara: apparently they are always good places to go if you need food!

Guests are a mixture of long-and short-term. The longest a person has stayed is just over a year, although there is also one resident in the house who was once a guest at the shelter.

A lot of referrals come from BIDS (Bail and Immigration Detainees Support groups) as well as increasingly from solicitors and even the police and Detention Centres.

There is one large room which is used as a conference room in the day time. At night it becomes the shelter. It is divided into four with partitions, so that there is a separate women's room.

It opens each and every night at 8.30pm and closes at 8.00am.

Penny says, “The night shelter is a last resort, simply better than being on the streets” or in a detention centre. “The guests sleep on the floor in these crowded conditions, so there are inevitably some conflicts. We have had fights and had to bar people, but we have never had to turn anyone away. We have only had one real problem, with a man who was a `stereotypical criminal'.

”The numbers appear to be self levelling: people leave and go elsewhere when the crowded conditions get too much for them. Many are referred when they need a bail address to get away from a detention centre, and move on quickly. “It's about valuing people who might not have been valued elsewhere.”

Best times

“One of our best moments was when one of our guests got so excited that we were having an art exhibition - and then found his own artwork on the walls!

”Another time we took part in the `National Day to Defend Asylum Rights'. A lot of people were amazed at all the deportations to Congo at the time. We walked to the Solihull Immigration Reporting Centre, which is such a sinister place, and one of our guests was so chuffed that people were prepared to do that - to demonstrate on their side. I think that's part of the point of a demo - to show refugees that people do support them.”

How we do it

The night shelter is run by a rota of volunteers, with two volunteers on each night. Each volunteer does one night a month. Most of the volunteers are Warwick University students from other countries.

There are several vicars and social work-type professionals. The users like the variety and positive energy the volunteers bring, and many volunteers have been doing it for years.

Penny provides the continuity: “I'm in the house most nights, and am always available on the end of a phone if the volunteers need me. It only works because I live here - it wouldn't work if I lived half a mile down the road.” And all the other things...

”We have mixed-use planning permission, because the community lives upstairs and the projects are downstairs. We've just started our fourth project, `Delicious and Nutritious' as a catering social enterprise.

”The work is done mainly by volunteers who otherwise can't access work or money (that is, refugees) and they can get travel and other expenses paid this way. It's also about spreading vegetarian food.

”We also have the Cycle Centre which repairs and recycles bikes. And finally `World Wise' which is a development and peace education centre which also works with excluded young people.”

Penny radiates enthusiasm, relaxed energy and optimism. After raising a family, starting a refugee advice project and then Coventry Peace House and all its projects, something is clearly giving her the energy to not just keep going but to flourish.

Lots of people supported the work and still do, and Penny has the sense that “what we do here is on behalf of lots of people because it matters to them and they have put a lot into it”. Penny also says, “We're aware of the power dynamics, of middle-class white volunteers and black users or guests. It' s quite challenging and some people are more sensitive to it than others. Some volunteers stop because they don't like it. It reminds me sometimes of white slave masters and black slaves.”

But she says, “I think this a really cutting-edge work, bordering on illegality, and the volunteers quite like being a part of it. We meet such amazing people - the people who use this shelter.

”It's a sanctuary for me as well as others. At the night shelter you find you meet people who share your views which are so much at odds with the views out there in the wider world.”

Roots of London hospitality

Turning to the Catholic Worker, I am involved with Dorothy Day House which is part of the London Catholic Worker, which came together (initially without a property) in 2000.

This followed the “Jubilee Ploughshares 2000” action where I and Susan van der Hijden of the Amsterdam Catholic Worker decommissioned a nuclear convoy vehicle.

The Catholic Worker group initially supported us while we were in prison. Our aim was always to start a house of hospitality.

Offering accommodation to refugees was in many ways an obvious choice. All the other Catholic Worker (CW) houses in Europe (Amsterdam, Cologne, Liverpool, Glasgow, Oxford, and now Bruges) take in refugees.

On the continent they talk about sans papiers, in the UK it is “destitute refugees”.

Most CW houses in the United States take in homeless people, but there's far less homelessness here and more provision. On the other hand, destitute refugees are not provided for at all, apart from by their own communities, as they are not able to claim Housing Benefit or NASS (National Asylum Seekers Support) which all other housing and hostels depend on.

Also, as compared with, say, living with “domestic” homeless people, this seemed much more sustainable and possible to combine with a significant level of our own resistance activism.

Our overall vision is of a faith based community of hospitality and resistance.

Most of us were inspired by our visits and contacts with the Liverpool CW. We are committed to being in London because it is one of the three centres of global power, economic, political and military, along with Tokyo and New York/Washington DC.

We believe this city needs a witness to a different set of values and this power needs resisting.

Our house

We were able to start a house when a number of factors came together. First, we were offered a substantial donation which could run such a project for a couple of years. Secondly, the Passionists, the religious order I belong to, agreed to mission me for five years to live and work full time with the CW. Third, Steve Barnes said he wanted to live in a community of hospitality and resistance!

Since then, the CW Farmhouse near Rickmansworth has also taken in three destitute refugees as guests. We started a year ago, temporarily in a rented council flat in the Isle of Dogs that the Passionists had previously used.

Like the Coventry Peace House, we were bordering on illegality because we were overcrowded with an average of five of us living in a three bedroom flat. We now have a bigger house near Dalston, five bedrooms with nine beds. Even an overcrowded house is better than the streets, and a secure bed is better than “sofa surfing”.

Currently we've got two spare beds because Zelda from the CW group is moving in soon and possibly another CW member or a volunteer later this year.

We have had up to ten people here for a week when we had two volunteers staying and a short term guest waiting to move to the CW farmhouse. I'm the only CW member living here right now, but Steve is still involved with our work for four days a week.


Our house guests have been referred mainly by other refugee projects in London, such as the Migrant Resource Centre in Pimlico, the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Refugee And Migrant Project(RAMP) in Newham and the Hackney Refugee and Migrant Support Group.

We have also had referrals from the Passage Day Centre for homeless people who meet refugees on the streets in central London and one or two other informal connections. About half our guests have been short-term and about half long-term.

We provide basic food supplies in the house, most of which is donated, for example we get a weekly pickup from Fresh and Wild and another from a farmers' market. Although we don't buy any meat, occasionally we get it in the donations and guests buy some if they have any money.

At the moment we don't really have a rota for cleaning, or any system to organise the cooking: sometime a meal is cooked for everyone in the house, other times people cook for themselves, or just cook more than they need and leave it for others, as every one more or less has different timetables. But it seems to work out okay.

We have had our arguments and personality clashes, as well as problems caused by lack of mutually understood languages, but overall we get on well like some kind of multinational family.

Because the house is also the main base for the London CW, we have quite a lot of visitors, both daytime and overnight, and our house guests seem to take it in their stride and are very welcoming.

It seems - and Penny agreed with me - that whatever are the vices and virtues of our society, we are pretty inhospitable and protective of our private space, and we can learn a lot from our guests from other parts of the world in this regard.

I'm not a father!

At times, especially with the young men (I was 40 recently), it can feel a bit like being a parent (which I'm not!) - switch the lights off, separate the recycling, clean up and clear up after you and put things back where you found them, only use the washing machine when you've got a full load! And above all-the phone. We don't have a payphone, but we do have a landline. So we had to get a call barring feature, since we had a #400 phone bill one month. Currently we have a flat rate deal for UK landlines so everyone can call them, but mobile, overseas and premium rate calls require a code.

On the other hand, with the women who have stayed here, it can feel like having a mother in the house. One of the male guests said a while back “the kitchen belongs to women” and the women present agreed! I had to point out at that point that if that was the case, the men should do what the women told them in the kitchen, which was a point of conflict at the time.

Most of our guests have been African, and most of them church going. For me it has been a blessing to occasionally pray with them, but also a trial - especially for Steve who is not a Christian - to have all-day Premier Christian Radio going in the background. Still, it could be Radio 3 or hip-hop, and the latter would definitely be worse.

We also run a Sunday afternoon soup kitchen and have just started a community cafe, through which we hope to be able to offer cheap, and some free, meals to destitute refugees as well as other local people who struggle to cope. Two of our current guests have been helping us in the cafe, and two others have helped to leaflet the area for the cafe.

I think one of the best moments for me has been my recent 40th birthday, when the guests organised a party for me, and bought a cake with candles and a present - a new mobile phone, as I've been constantly frustrated with the previous one (even though I never wanted one in the first place).

Other hospitality projects

Chris Gwyntopher, in East London, has also initiated the restart of a project called Spare Room. Penny says that such projects have always had a hard time finding hosts. I know Gilbert Markus had a fairly good one going in Glasgow which he called Hospitallers when the Glasgow Catholic Worker was still going (I think it's gone now).

Penny said she always hoped that churches would be good contexts where it could work, with perhaps three families or households joining together to support a refugee, so that they would not feel they are stuck with a person forever. But she says it hasn't happened yet, although I do know that there are about seven boroughs in London where churches have got together to take turns offering free and basic night shelter accommodation, mainly to local people, in their church halls during the winter. (Contact Unleash for more information.)

The politics

To me this is a political act as much as an act of “charity”. The borderline between the so-called “First World” and “Third World” are the new and real class barriers. Which side do we want to be on? If I come from a position of relative and/or absolute privilege, it is very difficult to enter the world of the undocumented migrant or the destitute refugee seeking to find a way to survive, or just to find a way here into fortress Europe across the battlements and invisible barbed wire.

It is all too easy to be comfortable behind the safety net of employment and health and social security systems. I believe that, for me at least, it is vital to enter into the "community of destiny" of those that we would keep outside, if I am to play a real role in the process of liberation and repentance.

And for me, that is in the end simply about remaining and becoming human.

Coventry Peace House, 311 Stoney Stanton Road, Coventry, CV6 5DS. Phone: 024 7666 3031.

The London Catholic Worker has two community houses:

Dorothy Day House, 16 De Beauvoir Road, De Beauvoir Town, London N1 5SU. Phone Martin: 07726 997638.

Catholic Worker Farm: Lynsters Farm, Old Uxbridge Road, West Hyde, Hertfordshire WD3 9XJ. Phone Scott: 07983 477819.

See also http://www.paxchristi.org.uk/


Martin Newell is a Passionist priest and founder member of the London Catholic Worker.