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Anna Dubuis, Reporter
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
A group of mostly young people are eating breakfast together, chatting while perusing the newspapers.
There is nothing about them that indicates they were ever out on the street.
Dressed like any other twenty-somethings they seem settled, but the reality is that until arriving at the House of Mercy hostel in Gravesend they were spending their nights out alone in the cold.
Over the last 20 years more than 500 people, of whom the majority are local, have taken refuge at House of Mercy after sleeping rough. For up to six months a person can stay and get themselves on the road to independence – securing a job with that much-needed address, getting help with budgeting, shopping and other life skills and finding themselves a permanent place to live.
Yet on leaving the street and entering the hostel they also become part of a family of past and present House of Mercy residents who support each other, and at the centre of it all is Brother Roy Kennedy.
Roy has been in charge since day one and has played a part in each of their lives. “Each person has their own story. There are good times and bad times. They have often lost everything and only have what they are wearing.
“This is the first step on the ladder back to living and being able to care for themselves and getting back a bit of pride and self-esteem. The amazing thing is the satisfaction of seeing someone getting back on their feet,” he said.
The 63-year-old runs a strict household with a zero tolerance on drugs and alcohol, but the atmosphere is gentle.
On the day I visit, two former residents – who are now a couple – come to Roy following the suicide of a close relative the previous day. A year on from leaving House of Mercy, it is clearly a place that they feel a strong bond with.
In 1992, the hostel was launched by the Sisters of Mercy, an international community of Catholic women, who asked the Presentation Brothers – their male equivalent, of which Roy is part of – to help to set it up. The Sisters continue to fund it and have recently bought a second property in Gravesend to be used as a transition house.
Roy said: “They were looking for a manager and I jumped at the opportunity. We have a duty to care for those who are disadvantaged. To me they are my brothers and sisters and anyone of us could find ourselves in need.”
Recently he has found a shift in the average age of residents.
“Two or three years ago the average age was 20 – it was normal because of young people leaving home because of family problems. Now the average is mid-20s due to the economic situation – people losing their jobs and pressure on families.”
Next year Roy will retire and leave House of Mercy in the hands of another. Rather than returning to his native Ireland, he will stay here, surrounded by the extended family from all walks of life that came through the doors at one time or another.
Kieren Manning, 21
After a fight with his brother escalated and police were called, Kieren left his mum and stepdad’s house and found himself out on the street.
“I spent three weeks sleeping rough. I slept in a cardboard box. I was scared. I didn’t think it would happen to me. I could have stayed with my friends but it would dent my pride. It’s a pride thing. I thought it would be over in a couple of days but after three weeks I went to the Civic Centre and they gave me some numbers to ring. I walked down here and Roy opened the door and asked me in for a cup of tea and that was three months ago. I should be getting a job and my own place soon – that’s what I really want.”
Aaron Wiltshire, 25
“I stayed here three years ago for six months after sleeping rough in Dartford for three or four months. I met my partner here. She is 20 but she was 17 when she came here. We now live together and have a 14-month-year-old boy and a week-old baby girl. It was really good for me here. I come back to help Roy out and I sometimes do the shopping. I’m a bad pest that won’t go away.”