Catholic priest and doctor: Coronavirus crisis a ‘window of opportunity’ for the homeless

Homeless Credit Tine Leggio via Flickr CC BY NC ND 20 CNA Tine Leggio via Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0.

A Jesuit doctor serving the homeless in London has said that the coronavirus crisis has opened a "window of opportunity" for rough sleepers.

Fr. Paul O'Reilly, SJ, told CNA that the pandemic had brought unexpected benefits to his patients, many of whom have been housed in hotels since the U.K. imposed a nationwide lockdown in March. Local authorities moved thousands of homeless people off the streets in order to shield them from the disease. 

He said: "It's pretty extraordinary. Particular patients I've known for many years, I've had the best conversations I've ever had with them in this period of time. I've seen people really improve in ways I would not have expected."

But he expressed concern that the gains could soon be lost. 

"As the hotels begin to close -- as they will towards the end of June, the beginning of July -- then this window of opportunity that we've had to help our patients improve their situations will close," he said.

O'Reilly, who works at the Doctor Hickey Surgery for the homeless at the Cardinal Hume Centre in central London, said that while the crisis had been "disruptive" for the homeless population, it had had positive side effects.

"It's given a lot of people who were previously very entrenched rough sleepers the opportunity to consider that, well, another world is possible, another way of being is possible," he explained. 

"It's our hope that, having shown them that, it is something they will want to continue even as things go back to a relative normal."

He noted that the lockdown had limited homeless people's access to intoxicants.

"Put very crudely, our people actually do quite well when they have very limited access to drugs and alcohol and unlimited access to accommodation," he observed.

O'Reilly said that, while the coronavirus was "pretty prevalent" among the homeless, it had not had a devastating effect on his patients.

"Our patients have plenty wrong with them. But on the whole, they aren't the relevant comorbidities for coronavirus. So they haven't really suffered all that very much directly from the disease," he said.

O'Reilly, who entered the Society of Jesus in 1987, said that he had moved out of his community because his work made him a contagion risk and moved into private accommodation. 

"I've been living a slightly Carthusian existence," he said. "I have my little cell and somebody comes along and leaves me my food and runs away again. In some respects it's been quite pleasant and quite prayerful."

The lockdown has prompted him to reflect on his priestly identity. 

He said: "From a ministerial point of view, it's been interesting. Because one of the things is, when you can't administer the sacraments and you can't meet people, what actually do you do all day as a priest?" 

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He asked friends for advice and one told him: "Why don't you just do what you're asked to do when you're asked to do it?"

"And I thought: 'Yes, that is actually the answer,'" O'Reilly said, "because everything that happens to you as a priest is in the passive mood: you are called, you are chosen, you are ordained, you are sent. Everything is in response to a need expressed by others, and I think that's the way it should be." 

"And so for this period of time -- which I think will be long rather than short -- I think that, in the ministerial priesthood at least, it will require a great deal of listening to where those needs are and how they are expressed and how they may best be served."

O'Reilly expects the number of people sleeping on London's streets to increase significantly in the coming weeks -- and not only because hotels will cease to house the homeless.

"One of the other things that's going to happen is that because of the rapid economic collapse, particularly in the hospitality industry, we're going to get lots and lots of people who will lose their jobs, lose the accommodation that they have and will therefore be new rough sleepers," he said. 

"I think that's going to be a big theme within a short period of time."

But he remained hopeful because of the improvements he had seen in the long-term homeless.

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"So many of my patients that I've known for so long are so very much better than I've ever seen them before. That always gives you a bit of a lift. You hope that at least some of that will be retained," O'Reilly said.

"All of life for our population is a bit 'two steps forward, one back.' This has been two steps forward. Let's see how much of that we can retain."

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