Cardinal Hume Centre


The Cardinal Hume Centre (CHC) was founded by Cardinal Basil Hume in 1986 to help some of the poorest people he saw living in London – homeless young people sleeping rough and families in bed and breakfast accommodation. Today the Centre still supports homeless young people and badly housed families, alongside people from the local community in Westminster with little or no income who face multiple challenges in turning their lives around.

Although its foundation and ethos are unambiguously Catholic with a Benedictine flavour, and many if not most of its supporters and friends are faith motivated, the work of Cardinal Hume Centre takes place largely in a secular context. Of the CHC's active funding partnerships, none are with organisations that are overtly faith based and its committed volunteers come from many backgrounds. Putting the needs of its clients first, the Centre has forged a range of relationships and partnerships which enable it to deliver effectively.

An active member of CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network, the social action arm of the Catholic Church in England and Wales) CHC enjoys good working relationships with ecumenical organisations such as Housing Justice (of which it is also a member) and Church Action on Poverty, as it does through its membership with many local networks. CHC relates to many charities and bodies which are (multi) faith based or are secular and the Centre plays host to a wide variety of organisations. This flexible approach has enabled it to respond creatively to changing needs.

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Our aim is to help people to gain the skills they need to break out of poverty and build better lives.  We focus on four major issues that affect people in need: housing, income, education and skills and formal immigration status accepting that beyond the ‘presenting’ need there will be others that need to be addressed before the client can flourish.  To this end, we deliver a wide range of services on one site and invite partner organisations in to complement those services – offering a holistic approach to need.

The Cardinal Hume Centre is a dynamic organisation that, by its very nature, is required to change as the needs of its client groups change and the external environment evolves.  Over our 27 years’ history, every aspect of our services has been reviewed, including seeking client views, and adapted in the light of those reviews and new services developed in response to emerging need.

More than a homeless shelter - a holistic approach to need

We share our (limited) space with other groups working with vulnerable people, reinforcing the Centre’s role as a local hub (examples include the Carers Network, the local refuge for women fleeing domestic violence,  HomeStart, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Feltham Chaplaincy Befrienders Group, and the Coptic Church’s outreach service).

Our funding comes from a wide variety of sources with charitable trusts and individuals being the major players; we maintain a balance at all times of 60/40% voluntary to statutory income which gives us the flexibility to respond and adapt. The Centre owns the building (custom built as a convent around a Chapel which still functions as a Chapel of Ease for Westminster Cathedral) from which it operates and has raised capital funds over the years to adapt and expand the site to house developing services. 

We take the Benedictine tradition and charism of our founder very seriously.  Members of staff with no faith formation are able to identify with key concepts such as welcoming the stranger, providing a place of sanctuary and offering non-judgemental hospitality. 

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Development of an Immigration Advice Service

One of the Centre’s 11 services, all delivered on one site, is English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) which is offered free at the point of entry to those people who are not able to access English language classes elsewhere.  Currently we offer an average of 60 hours per week all delivered through qualified and experienced volunteers with one paid Co-ordinator. In 2008, it was becoming evident that there was a steadily decreasing availability of free legal advice for people whose immigration status was uncertain. In our ESOL classes, we were seeing people who were living difficult and often dangerous existences because of their lack of formal status.  For example, a woman fleeing persecution in her own country whose claim for asylum had been refused was now living a destitute existence and sleeping on the night bus; with others undertaking three to four jobs at slave labour wages who were not protected by law. 

On several occasions we noticed mistakes on the asylum claim documents that people showed us which they had paid companies to produce for them. In one example, two separate clients had exactly the same wording in their statements provided to help them claim asylum, complete with identical typos.  We were concerned that they were victims of sub-standard professional advice yet we did not have the expertise in-house to address the problem. We discussed the situation with other agencies that were also experiencing the same concerns and with others who provided such advice themselves but who were coming under financial pressures forcing them to reduce or cut services. 

Sharing expertise with other organisations and working in partnership

However, we did identify one organisation which could still help - Praxis, a human rights organisation based in east London, and we developed a partnership where one of their advisors held regular sessions at the Centre for clients with concerns about their immigration status.  We also forged a working partnership with organisations such as the Helen Bamber Foundation (responding to victims of torture) to bring in more specialist expertise.  However, as the demands grew and cuts in services started to come through, we were keen to develop and strengthen our own resources in this area.  We therefore took the decision to directly recruit an immigration advisor who would be able to take on complex cases and, if necessary, represent clients at hearings and judicial reviews.  We then developed a partnership with the Migrants Resource Centre to undertake legally required supervision and independent case reviews.  

Following an objective root and branch service review in 2010, the Centre decided to expand its work in this area as the writing was clearly on the wall about tougher rules for asylum seekers and much tighter controls on immigration.   Before the review, however, we were on the point of closing the service on the grounds of affordability - acknowledging the financial risks involved in expanding and sustaining a larger service - and the resistance amongst (some) existing and potential donors to supporting this kind of work (in terms of the client group).  The reviewer’s evidence of need, however, persuaded us to take the risk.  The honesty, rigour and evidence base of the Review in fact helped us to attract a major new source of funding from the Oak Foundation which put an emphasis on sharing expertise with other organisations and working in partnership to benefit as many vulnerable people as possible.

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The Centre now has two immigration lawyers and a qualified intern and at a time when statutory funding for legal services has been dramatically reduced if not yet entirely disappeared, we are able to provide legal advice without charging our clients.  We are also working with a range of other organisations both in the delivery of training sessions for their staff and in providing advice and taking on new cases.  In the year to end March 2013, we provided immigration advice to 140 individuals with a 70% success rate on appeals.

Being engaged with legal aid work has enabled us to participate in advocacy and lobbying work in Parliament through CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network) in order to draw attention to the impact of cuts in the provision of legal aid by providing live case studies.  Being engaged at the front line gives any charity or group the authenticity and credibility to critique policies which are harmful to human flourishing.

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Lessons learned? 

Where there is a will there is a way; if you have rent free use of a building, if you have local patronage and goodwill, including from the Church, if you can attract some initial funding and sponsorship to establish a core staff team, if you are open to responding to need as it presents itself and have some willing volunteers, if you are willing to build partnerships and not compete……








Tigist Zewde fled to the UK from the Horn of Africa following persecution including her husband’s wrongful imprisonment. As an asylum seeker she was moved from Liverpool to Manchester, and then to London, where she spent a period of time sofa surfing and sleeping rough. When her husband was eventually released, they could finally speak on the phone, but this was the hardest time for her husband: “I was so worried about her, I couldn’t help her. She had no job, no home. All I could do was hear her voice, I felt so useless.” Tigist was granted asylum in September 2011 and also applied for her husband to come to the UK, but was told that her marriage was not considered valid as there was no evidence of ‘family life’. “I felt so frustrated. Being here on my own was very lonely, I wanted to build our lives together, but we were thousands of miles apart.” Eventually Tigist found a room in a homeless hostel near to the Cardinal Hume Centre, where a fellow resident told them that the Centre was the best place to go for help and advice: “Everyone was so kind. I knew when I arrived that it was a good place.” Tigist enrolled into the Centre’s Jobs club, and has found work as a carer.  As her employment coach says: “Tigist is one of the most hardworking people I have ever met. She is so motivated, both because she craves independence, but also because you can only bring a spouse to the UK if you can prove you can support them. Tigist is doing three jobs to make sure that she is doing everything she can to see him again”. Once she was earning money, the Centre’s housing team managed to find her a studio flat nearby too, but Tigist’s real goal was to see her husband. After advocating on her behalf, the immigration advice team at the Centre managed to secure a visa for him and two days later he was on a flight to the UK. After four years apart, they are finally together again. As he says: “All the staff at the Centre, they feel like family to me already. I know everyone’s name, because they were helping Tigist when I couldn’t. It’s so emotional to be here, and to be together. Once I have my National Insurance number, I am going to work hard to look after my wife – she has been through enough”.

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