‘We are in the eye of the storm’

Since 2004 Sister Ellen Flynn has been on the front line as eastern Europeans arrive full of hope in the UK only to have their prospects dashed. She spoke to Simeon Brody

Sister Ellen Flynn (pictured), chief executive of London’s biggest day centre for homeless adults, looks close to tears as she recalls the turmoil that began on 1 May, 2004.

It was then that the Passage day centre opened its doors in Victoria to find a queue of people stretching down the street.

They were from the European Union’s A8 accession countries and had arrived in London after Britain opened its borders to jobseekers from the enlarged EU.

With the centre so close to the terminal that receives coaches from eastern Europe, the Passage was an early port of call for those who ran into difficulties on arrival.

On that first day of EU enlargement, the centre had to deal with about 100 more people than it was used to, primarily economic migrants from Poland.

Although the number tailed off during 2004, it has increased since, says Flynn. At one point last year, A8 nationals formed nearly half its ­client group. Although many remained on the streets for only a few days before moving on, they were soon replaced by new arrivals.

Flynn says the centre’s mission was being undermined because its existing client group of vulnerable homeless people with multiple needs became reluctant to visit the centre because they felt “swamped by fit and healthy jobseekers”.

But the new group were also homeless, and not entitled to any government assistance until they had been working for 12 months. Unlike in the cases of other groups, the centre had nowhere else to send them.

Flynn says: “There’s absolutely nothing for the economic migrant and it was obviously the government’s intention that there shouldn’t be. So we felt stuck. It was painful and I still feel emotional about it.”

Since she was 18, Flynn has been a Daughter of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, a community of women in the Roman Catholic church dedicated to alleviating poverty. She knew nothing about homelessness when she was appointed to head the Passage seven years ago.

Now, the Passage manages the arrival into the capital of large numbers of people. Close to the Houses of Parliament and counting Westminster Council as one of its major partners, Flynn admits: “We are in the eye of the storm the whole time in lots of ways.”

Its location means the Passage has weathered the storm created by the events of 2004. In January it decided that its mission remained to provide for particularly vulnerable people of whatever nationality. The more able jobseekers have been diverted to new afternoon sessions, where they receive limited help, but most will not be referred into its day centre services.

Meanwhile, the Passage has been lobbying the government to make A8 nationals a priority at Jobcentre Plus, work with A8 governments to ensure migrants are better prepared and – with up to 35 A8 nationals sleeping rough in Westminster each night – provide a basic safety net of shelter and food.

But Flynn says her calls have been ignored. She says there are signs that some A8 nationals fall prey to bad employment practices, find themselves on the streets and have become part of the Passage’s more vulnerable client group. “This government has been enormously successful in reducing rough sleeping and has spent a lot on it,” she says. “But if this latest trend ­continues we will end up again with a large rough sleeping population and expenditure will be even higher in a few years. This social exclusion is being created in front of us.”

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  Simeon Brody

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