On Saturday 3 October 2015, Canterbury Quaker Meeting held a Day of Action in Support of Equality, Homeless People and Refugees. The first event of the day was a silent vigil on the High Street in Canterbury.
This was Canterbury Meeting’s second silent vigil in support of economic equality. Organised to take place during Quaker Week 2015, although sadly not badged as a Quaker Week event, the vigil was one of many public events held by Quakers throughout the UK to highlight social inequality.
There were eighteen Friends (sixteen from Canterbury and two from Folkestone) in attendance for all or part of the hour-long vigil. We had hoped that we would be joined by people from other churches, but sadly no-one arrived. We used posters supplied by Friends House as placards. The decorative Quakers for Peace banner (made by Janet Cook) served to emphasise our Quaker identity.
Our presence attracted some attention from shoppers and passers-by. One person came to stand with us for a while, and expressed an interest in attending a Quaker Meeting for Worship.
After a week of intensely bright weather, it was disappointing that Saturday should be draped with low cloud. However, it stayed dry and there was little wind: for October, the weather could have been considerably more autumnal.
The vigil was, once again, held at a central location in Canterbury city centre: at the junction between the High Street and Guildhall Street (Debenhams Corner). In contrast to the vigil that took place in March 2015, the police took no notice of us on this occasion. Neither was there a requirement to alert the City Council that the event would be taking place. The Salvation Army marching band often occupies the junction on a Sunday morning. Instead our vigil was ‘serenaded’ throughout by a busker playing an electronically-amplified cello. Although not ideal for a silent vigil, his choice of music was distinctly to be preferred over the jaunty piano accordion music being blasted out further along the high street.
At an earlier stage of planning it had been hoped that a street collection could be made in support of Catching Lives, the local charity that supports homeless people. However, the City Council regulations regarding street collections are discouragingly burdensome for a one-off event. David Clarke had negotiated in advance with the manager of Costa Coffee about the potential use of their outdoor chairs for some of the physically less-robust vigilers. The duty manager was also informed on the day regarding what was about to take place, and he was very pleasant and relaxed about the event.
After the vigil, we retired to the Quaker Meeting House for hot drinks and home-made soup. It was generally agreed that the vigil had been a success.
The second event was a series of talks and discussion regarding homelessness in Canterbury and refugees in Kent. Twelve Friends were present, along with the three invited speakers:
- Mark Cowland, Catching Lives, a Canterbury charity that supports homeless people;
- Kate Adams, Kent Refugee Help, a Whitstable-based charity that provides support to refugees and migrants held indefinitely in UK prisons and detention centres
- Richard Warren, Kent Refugee Action Network, an East Kent charity that supports unaccompanied young asylum-seekers and refugees; and also University of Kent Law Clinic where his work involves giving legal help and advice to young asylum-seekers and refugees
The brief of the speakers was to outline the work of their respective organisation, the problems they face, and what they need to consider going forwards. They were informed that those present would not already have in-depth knowledge about their organisation, and were asked to make the discussion suitable for all. They were also invited to answer three questions:
- “Were you to wake one morning to find that [organisation] had folded overnight, in what ways would their current service users, as well as the people of Canterbury/Kent, be worse off?”
- “Were you to wake one morning to find that a small miracle had just occurred and [organisation] were suddenly in a much stronger position, what is it that changed overnight?”
- “What more can we do to help?”
Rough sleeping is the most visible aspect of homelessness. Local authorities are required to carry out either an annual count of the number of homeless people, or to make an estimate. This information is published annually (see Rough Sleeping Statistics England – Autumn 2014 Official Statistics, published by The Department for Communities and Local Government). In 2014, at any one time, there were 2,744 rough sleepers in England. This figure is a momentary snapshot, and although a substantial number of people sleep rough for more than two years, many more sleep rough for shorter periods of time not captured by the snapshot. Of equal significance is that, whilst the number of rough sleepers had been in decline over many years, the number has been steadily rising for the past five or so years. The definition of rough sleeping excludes people sleeping in hostels and shelters, campsites, itinerant people and people who are squatting, people who sleep on the floors or settees of friends, multiple families sharing overcrowded accommodation, a list of exclusions that starts to expose the real extent of homelessness in the UK. Mark told us that Canterbury has the eighth highest number of rough sleepers in the UK.
Homeless people find their way to Catching Lives by a number of routes, not least of which is word of mouth: people living on the street tend to share information about available support. There are also referrals by the police, by social services and by GPs.
There is no typical profile of a rough sleeper, for there are men and women, young, middle-aged and older, white British and people of other ethnic backgrounds, people with little education and people with many qualifications. Therefore, to help each person, their individual needs must be addressed. Many people who are rough sleepers typically have complex needs and multiple problems, such as compromised mental health, overuse of alcohol and drug addiction. Unlike many of the other services that deliver support to people with alcohol and addiction issues, Catching Lives does not demand that the person eschews those substances as a prerequisite to engagement. Some have just been released from prison. Catching Lives also does not demand that, in order to engage, a service user already has access to public funds.
The first stage of contact with a service user involves a detailed assessment of their needs, a process that might take several days. The person is also given food and clothing and the opportunity to shower. Catching Lives does not have the funds to assign an individual key worker to each service user, so record-keeping knits together a team of paid and volunteer project workers. Once assessment has been completed the person can additionally be guided towards other services offering more specialised help and support, and Catching Lives works with Porchlight and with Turning Point. A typical contact is for three months, although the nature of life for rough sleepers is such that their engagement might initially be sporadic. Further, Catching Lives will continue to work with a service user until they have been able to move on to a better life. Catching Lives provides a place for homeless people to go during the day. For three months of the year, during the winter, Catching Lives is also able to offer a night shelter for 15 rough sleepers. It is sobering to realise that there may be as many as 50 homeless people visiting Catching Lives every day.
Catching Lives has very few paid staff, and is mostly staffed by volunteers. The organisation receives financial support from the local authority, but also relies on donations, including of food and clothing.
Were Catching Lives suddenly to fold, the effect would be felt immediately by those they are supporting, and also seen by the people of Canterbury as the rough sleepers would be more evident on the streets. Ideally, the issue of rough sleeping and homelessness would be fully resolved so that there would be no further need for Catching Lives. However, until that happens, it would be a small miracle were the organisation able to increase the number of beds in its night shelter, and to extend the period of the year over which the night shelter operates, or even to build its own permanent shelter.
Catching Lives is grateful for the donations given by Canterbury Quaker Meeting (we sometimes collect money in our weekly appeal, and we have a weekly food collection that typically includes instant coffee, sugar, breakfast cereal and canned vegetables) and if we wish to offer more help, we could do so both by more fund-raising, and also by volunteering.
To end, Mark told us of an EU-sponsored project called LitFest, which is an ERASMUS+ project involving partner organisations from France, Italy, Spain and the UK. This European network of literary festivals aims to bring new learning to isolated groups, using engagement with literature to build the self-esteem of people belonging to disadvantaged groups.
“The European LitFest brings together partners from France, Italy, Spain and UK to learn together, transferring innovation and good practice to promote creative writing, poetry and the use of language as a tool for improving basic skills and promoting learning communities. Through four literary festivals local participants welcome authors, poets and publishers into the heart of their communities. Within each programme, partners organise a community learning workshop event based on literacy and literature: run by published authors and poets they train aspiring writers in the art of creative literature and the use of poetry and prose as communication and well-being tools.” (from the Litfest website).
Regarding the involvement of Catching Lives, Mark wrote: “We are developing creative opportunities at the Open Centre to encourage clients to work alongside visual, verbal and performance artists in practical workshops, inspiring individual and group work that will enable clients to express their thoughts, feelings and emotions through art work, photography, animation, film, poetry, drama and short story writing.”
Catching Lives will be hosting LitFest public events in Canterbury between 20 and 23 October 2015, co-inciding with Canterbury Arts Festival.
Kent Refugee Help
In 2104 the UK Home Office detained approximately 30,000 people across a network of 13 detention centres, incarcerating people in these centres for an indefinite period without charge or trial. Many are asylum seekers and other migrants who have committed no crime, but are detained for reasons relating to immigration.
Kent Refugee Help is a small charitable organisation based in Whitstable. It facilitates the release from Dover Immigration Removal Centre and from prisons around south east England, people who have been detained regarding their right to remain in the UK, such as refugees, asylum-seekers, people whose visa has expired (‘over-stayers’) and so-called ‘economic migrants’. Britain is the only country that detains such people indefinitely (that is, with no date by which their case will have been determined). It costs £36,000 to keep a person in a detention centre for a year. It came as a surprise to some Quakers present for the discussion that the operation of almost all immigration detention facilities in the UK has been contracted out to large transnational corporations (the raison d’etre of which is to make a financial profit).
The purpose of immigration detention is to ensure that the individual remains visible to the authorities:
“Immigration detention is the policy of holding individuals suspected of visa violations, illegal entry or unauthorised arrival, and those subject to deportation and removal in detention until a decision is made by immigration authorities to grant a visa and release them into the community, or to repatriate them to their country of departure. Mandatory detention is the practice of compulsorily detaining or imprisoning people seeking political asylum, or who are considered to be illegal immigrants or unauthorised arrivals into a country.” (Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_detention)
The function of Kent Refugee Help is to organise bail sureties so that a person held in detention can be released on bail pending a decision about their right to remain in the UK. A bail surety is a person, maybe a relative or friend, or maybe an altruistic person, who acts as a guarantor that the person for whom they stand bail will keep to their bail conditions.
Kent Refugee Help has two projects, one focusing on Dover Immigration Removal Centre, the other focusing on people held in prison. Kent Refugee Help employs two case workers, of whom Kate Adams is one, and also employs sessional workers.
Were Kent Refugee Help to fold, then more people would be held in detention for longer. The miracle would be that the Home Office stopped locking up people who have committed no offence. What can we do to help: consider visiting a detainee; consider offering a bail surety.
There followed considerable discussion about issues of migration, whether it is even right for the UK to accept applications to live in the UK from people who are foreign nationals, and whether it is proportionate that a person who is not a UK citizen, and who has committed only a a minor offence, such as littering, or not having the correct papers, should then be held in detention pending deportation. The discussion, which had now become quite passionate, moved increasingly towards matters relating to the experience of Richard Warren working as an immigration case-worker at the University of Kent Law Clinic. He told us about a case in which a husband, who had lived in the UK for many years, was threatened with deportation solely because, amongst all the other papers he had submitted, he had mistakenly provided an incorrect number of bank statements (the case was taken to appeal and the threat to deport was overturned). A Friend who is not a UK national explained how, when she lived in the UK twenty years ago, she had freedoms that, having recently returned to the UK, she is now denied. Richard told us about a young man from Afghanistan, who had managed to evade ‘recruitment’ by the Taliban, and came to the UK, but was denied asylum and deported, being returned to Afghanistan on the basis that the British government considers Kabul, the capital, to be safe. We heard from a Friend who used to work in a university, how a student from Pakistan was failing part of his university course due to depression, preventing him from continuing until he had resat and passed an exam a few months later, but new Home Office regulations meant that his student visa was automatically rescinded, making it illegal for him to remain in the UK for more than a few days. We also heard how a student from India was forbidden to continue on his university course because Home Office regulations demanded that he retained a substantial balance in a UK bank account that he was no longer able to afford. Richard offered further examples of Home Office decisions, and the application of immigration rules, that lacked compassion, separating families, particularly children, as detailed in a recent report by the Joint Council on the Welfare of Immigrants. Whilst many of those who took part in the discussion expressed deep concern that a British government should be behaving in this manner, some Friends were unpersuaded by the anecdotal evidence provided by Richard and others, and remain content that immigration legislation should be rigorously enforced.
Kate ended her address with information about a documentary film called Working Illegally that has been made about the distance between the rhetoric of politicians regarding migrants and the reality of how migrants are treated. The film highlights the fact that whilst undocumented migrants are prohibited from working in the UK while their right to stay in the country is being processed, and thus making their lives miserable, in detention they are invited to work for a mere £1 per hour, saving the private security companies contracted to run detention centres substantial amounts of money. Kate will be screening the movie at Whitstable Labour Club, Whitstable on the evening of Tuesday 13 October 2015, followed by a question and answer session with two additional panelists (free, but a collection will be taken in support of the work of Kent Refugee Help).
Kent Refugee Action Network
When adult asylum-seekers arrive in the UK they are either deported to another European country through which they had passed on their way to the UK, or they are relocated within the UK, often to Northern England. In contrast, when unaccompanied minor asylum-seekers arrive in the UK they are retained in Kent. It is these young people with whom Kent Refugee Action Network works.
Kent Refugee Action Network operates several projects:
- Education Projects: these are the only projects for young (aged 16 – 18) refugees and asylum seekers in Kent to provide a comprehensive programme of life skills (including cooking), literacy English as a second language), numeracy, social and cultural studies regardless of ability for between 15 and 20 hours each week throughout schools terms and holidays
- The Folkestone Outreach Project, based in The Shed, Folkestone
- The Riverside Project, based in Kingsmead Road, Canterbury
- Refugee Youth Project: based in Dover Street, Canterbury, this drop-in centre offers a safe and welcoming space, advice, and a range of services and social activities to all separated young people and refugees aged between 15 and 24.
- Mentoring and Befriending Scheme (see below)
- evening youth group
- drop-in advice and advocacy on welfare, benefit and legal issues
- group activities: English as a second language, CV and job preparation workshops
- therapeutic activities, such as art therapy and maintaining the allotment
- summer and Christmas parties
- Mentoring and Befriending Scheme: volunteer mentors provide one to one support to a young asylum seeker or refugee. The mentoring relationship provides friendship for socially isolated young migrants, and aims to ease their integration into local community life by helping to build their self-esteem, confidence and language skills.
- Catering Skills Project: this provides young refugees and asylum-seekers with catering skills and experience, food hygiene training, and an opportunity to be awarded the ASDAN Food Wise Short Course Certificate.
Richard explained that the young people experience considerable emotional pressure as a result of the insecurity of their future. Having a mentor helps with this. In answer to the ‘miracle question’, Richard suggested that Kent Refugee Action Network would very much like to provide the young people with specialist mental health support.
In terms of what we can do to help, Kent Refugee Action Network is in desperate need of mentors. (Terry Wood, Clerk to Canterbury Quaker Meeting, currently mentors for Kent Refugee Action Network.)
Kent Refugee Action Network has produced and printed copies of a book of recipes relating directly to the backgrounds of some of the young people who have been helped and supported. Priced at a modest £6 each, copies can be bought from Peter Hughes. Kent Refugee Action Network has also produced and printed four Christmas cards each designed by one of the young people who have been helped and supported. Priced at £3 for a pack of the four cards, packs can be bought from Peter Hughes. [Note: sale of the books and cards in Canterbury Meeting raised over £90 for Kent Refugee Action Network.]
The talks and discussion over-ran, and the ninety-minute session extended to an intense two hours.
The final event of the afternoon was a session called Songs of Protest, Songs of Hope.
Songs of Protest, Songs of Hope was the third and final event of the Quaker Day of Action in Support of Equality, Homeless People and Refugees. It involved ensemble singing accompanied by ukulele and piano. About half a dozen Friends, and two of the speakers from the earlier part of the afternoon were present.The result was enjoyable, if a little rough round the edges, and one of the speakers likened the event to occasions in his childhood when the entire family would gather around the piano at Christmas and sing songs together. As enjoyable as the experience was, it could have been improved in three respects: 1) had there been more musicians, 2) who had previously practiced together as a group, and 3) a few more singers.
A playlist of 15 songs had been prepared, and song sheets printed. Chords for guitar / ukulele were arranged and printed. Wonderfully, David Clarke was able accompany many of the songs on the piano without the benefit of sheet music.
With the previous session having over-run, sadly we did not get to sing our way through the entire playlist. However, here is the intended playlist:
Songs of hope
- Let It Be (The Beatles)
- Simple Gifts (Shaker song
- Turn, Turn, Turn (adapted from a song written by Pete Seeger who adapted it from Ecclesiastes 3)
- The Times They Are A Changin’ (Bob Dylan)
- We Shall Overcome (Pete Seeger)
- Blowin’ In The Wind (Bob Dylan)
- Where Have All The Flowers Gone (Pete Seeger)
- Dancing At Whitsun (written by Austin John Marshall, made famous by Tim Hart)
Concern for the natural environment
- Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell)
Standing alongside people who are marginalised
- Barney’s Epic Homer (Leon Rosselson)
- King Of The Road (Trailer For Sale Or Rent) (Roger Miller)
- Ramblin’ Boy (Tom Paxton)
- Hit The Road, Jack (written by Percy Mayfield, made famous by Ray Charles)
- Streets Of London (Ralph McTell)
- The World Turned Upside Down (Leon Rosselson)
Further suggestions, to extend the playlist for the future, will be welcomed and gratefully received.
Conclusion: we had managed to hold a silent vigil in a public place, informed ourselves with talks and discussion, let some important local organisations know that we care about their work, and through song, recommitted ourselves to the people and issues in society who/which need our support. A little bit of Quaker ‘faith in action’.
Peter Hughes, 2015.