“Homeless people have dreams too”

INSP’s Project Manager, Zoe Greenfield, visited the Camillian Mission for Social Assistance as part of  FEANTSA’s Ninth European Research Conference in Warsaw last week. She describes how homeless people are building a ship to travel the world…

A personal love of travel drew me to the St. Lazarus Boarding House run by the Camillian Mission for Social Assistance where the residents are building a boat with one mission: to travel the world.

The building, which now houses 100 men, was purchased in 1991 by Bogusław Paleczny, a charismatic Camillian monk who recognized that homeless people in Warsaw were in need of more than food handouts. He wanted to show that homeless people have skills and should be valued members of the community. A seafarer himself, he was the inspiration behind the project and the ship has been named in his honour: Marine Yacht Father Bogusław.

The ship has been a hugely successful tool in attracting media attention with journalists from as far afield as Japan visiting the project. The staff are often asked when the ship with be finished and they answer that it is already working! By attracting journalists to the project, it is helping to bring homelessness to the attention of the public and also city officials.

The residents of the boarding house have designed and decorated the rooms and corridors. The themes of travel and the sea run throughout, with a whole wall in the cafeteria dedicated to a map of the world (useful if you are planning to sail it!). In the basement a mural flows along the corridors covering walls and doors, showing a peaceful place with birds flying over a lake, flanked by dense forest.

The boarding house is now managed by Adriana Porowska, supported by a core team comprising an employment advisor, a social worker, a psychologist and a psychotherapist. The community within the boarding house is founded on the principles of care, dignity and respect. The staff and residents eat daily meals together. As Ariana explained, there is no one definition of a homeless person nor is it as simple as ‘the homeless’ and ‘everyone else’. People often ask ‘What does a homeless person look like?’ The answer, no matter who you are, is: ‘Like me.’

The staff from the boarding house also do street work, reaching out to people sleeping rough who are invited for meals and to use shower and laundry facilities. The harsh Polish winters mean that police often rely on social workers to identify bodies of people who have died sleeping rough in temperatures which have been known to plummet to -30°C.

There are positive stories too. Staff recently attended the wedding of a former resident and just days before the visit learned that he and his new wife are expecting their first child. A collage of postcards [right] in the office shows some of the places that former residents have visited or relocated to.

The ship, the murals and the postcards area helping to break stereotypes of homelessness. When asked why homeless people should build a ship to travel the world, one resident responds, “Homeless people have dreams too, so why not?”