By Sister Jean Quinn, Daughter of Wisdom
[Sr Jean founded Sophia Housing in 1997 as a national organisation in Ireland, which cares and supports people with complex mental health and addiction needs who are also homeless. Sister Jean is also executive director of UNANIMA International, a United Nations-based coalition of Catholic religious congregations focused on concerns of women, children, migrants and the environment].
The contrast could not have been starker: Just before Easter, ‘Sophia Housing’ hosted a morning of reflection on the possible development of Wisdom centres as part of our ongoing programme of providing homes and vital support for those emerging from homelessness. For 20 years Sophia has been offering a person-centred model of care for individuals and families struggling to rebuild broken lives. Central to our strategy is the provision of homes, reflecting our passionate belief that poverty and homelessness can only be solved through the strategic provision of affordable and sustainable housing, not just “accommodation.” Sophia’s slogan is “providing homes, supporting people”, reflecting a philosophy which recognises that the provision of physical space alone is an inadequate response.
The day after we met, Ireland’s Office of the Ombudsman for Children published its disturbing findings in ‘No Place Like Home’ - the first publicly-funded consultation with homeless children in family hubs.
Sophia has long believed that hotels and family hubs are not the solution to the homeless crisis. While hubs may be safer than hotels, they lack the stability of homes. As a society we can, and must, do better.
Currently Sophia Housing supports 617 adults and 169 children, while another 134 people are supported through our outreach programmes. Respect for the dignity of each person is our cornerstone and informs all our actions.
Sophia works with those who come to us at their own pace, providing vital care services and a pathway to independence. Those who turn to us bear the scars of poverty and social exclusion, and come from a variety of backgrounds.
The principles of what we call trauma-informed care underpin our approach to medical treatment and to the physical and social environment.
In Dublin’s Cork Street a feature of the complex, in the heart of one of the oldest parts of the capital, is a Wisdom Centre, a bright, tranquil space surrounded by a garden and water.
With its emphasis on space and light, the building provides a safe place to seek wisdom of mind, heart and spirit. The layout is designed to create a sense of belonging, and the centre reinforces that community spirit.
Stakeholders, including representatives of the religious congregations who provide funding for Sophia, recently met to discuss the exciting possibility of including similar Wisdom centres in other projects as we develop our work.
As a Daughter of Wisdom I’m proud of the supportive role played by religious congregations in the work of Sophia. Many congregations have given property to Sophia for use as homes. As the needs for large properties declines these congregations are ensuring that buildings will continue to serve those most in need in different ways.
I am acutely aware of our rich heritage of service and commitment to social justice. Religious sisters continue this tradition in different ways, and new models are emerging throughout the world.
For my own part I am currently executive director of UNANIMA International. It is a coalition of communities of religious women who seek to use our voices and experiences in the fields of health, education and social policy to shape UN policy.
As executive director I represent 22 congregations with 20,000 members in over 80 countries. Our priority has been to put the provision of adequate homes at the centre of UN policy, and my work has been shaped by my experience as a founder of Sophia.
Making the right to a home a human right seemed a modest ambition when I set out on this journey. At times the UN can appear removed from the reality of social exclusion, so I was very pleased at our recent success in convincing the Working Group to End Homelessness to incorporate homelessness into a UN resolution. It will now be the priority theme at the Commission on Social Development in 2020.
At a time when trust and confidence in religious institutions has been shattered, there may have been a tendency to step back. Yet there has never been a more urgent need for care and compassion, locally and globally.
In The Republic of Conscience, Seamus Heaney reminds us:
“Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.”
Long may we meet the challenge.