Olallo Project helps migrants find work

London, Mar. 26, 2009 - George Tatar has slept on the streets in five different countries since he left Romania two years ago. For the last eight months he has been living out of a sleeping bag in central London. From shop doorways, underpasses and subways he has learned to love the city. Now he wants to stay.

He also wants a job and roof over his head. He is among the first of a dozen "rough sleepers," as the British call them, handpicked to be the first clients of the Olallo Project, an initiative of the Catholic Church to help shift the European homeless off the streets of London and into legal employment.

To Tatar, 30, the project not only means a place to stay and a short-term base from which to apply for work, but it will ensure that he has the right documentation to find a job.

For up to eight weeks it will give him the opportunity to improve his English and learn basic skills in such fields as catering and construction to improve his chances of finding paid employment. It also will help him return to his hometown if ultimately he fails to establish roots.

"This project is helping me very much, but the best help is to have a place to stay in winter," he told Catholic News Service in March. "To look for a job and be employed you can't just throw off your sleeping bag, looking dreadful, dirty, tired and hungry. Nobody will give you a job when you are like that.

"Here I can use the Internet and do other things to look for work, and people are looking after my case. It is a brilliant thing," he said. "The idea is that I want to work legally, and I don't want to wait until my time here is finished before that happens."

He added: "When I earn my first money, I will spend it on rent and settle down. I have had enough of homelessness."

Homelessness always has been a problem in London but, after the European Union expanded to incorporate eight new countries in 2004, Central and East Europeans began to turn up at hostels in large numbers for the first time. They are predominantly Polish, but since 2007 have included Romanian and Bulgarian migrants from the two latest additions to the 27-member European bloc.

The charity Homeless Link reports as much as 25 percent of homeless people in London are Europeans who came to Britain in search of work. The Federation of Poles in Great Britain estimates that there are 1,500 Poles living on the streets of British cities; more than 300 of them are in London.

Most of the 1 million Poles who have arrived in Great Britain since 2004 -- the single largest wave of immigration in British history -- successfully integrated, though a third have returned home as employment opportunities dried up and the value of the British pound tumbled.

David Barratt, manager of the Olallo Project, explained to CNS that "for a small proportion of migrant workers who come over things go wrong. Those people who find themselves without work end up living on streets, in garages or squats in subhuman conditions, which is not acceptable."

He said that under British law those who had not registered to work legally for more than a year were unable to access any services paid for by public money or receive any cash benefits.

Charities funded by taxpayers "are being told that they cannot provide services for this client group," he said. "That leads people into very unsafe and damaging conditions, be it prostitution or exploitation -- working 12-hour shifts for 25 pounds ($35) cash in hand. There is very little alternative for some of these people."

The Olallo Project was set up after the Passage-- a hostel run by the Archdiocese of Westminster for homeless people mostly with alcohol, drug or mental health problems -- was inundated by migrant workers complaining they were destitute.

The Passage, the Poor Servants of the Mother of God and the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God set up the new hostel. It is named for Blessed Jose Olallo Valdes, a Cuban member of the Hospitaller order who spent his life serving the sick, the wounded and dying in Cuba's 1868-1878 war of independence and who was beatified in November.

The Olallo hostel, based in a former London hotel owned by the Poor Servants, opened its first 12 beds in December and planned to extend the number of beds to 32 by the end of March, though Barratt said it could fill "10 times that number" if it accepted every possible referral from the three central London council areas it serves.

The 32 people -- men, women and couples of all ages -- will be housed in eight apartments, each with its own self-contained kitchen. There is shared communal space, but at the heart of the project is a newly developed training center offering employment programs, ad hoc training sessions and workshops.

Plans include development of a commercial kitchen to train migrants in catering skills.

The 13 staffers include workers fluent in key European languages who help to map their clients' skills and qualifications and match them with vacancies on employment databases. Although migrants can study English, eight computers installed at the center contain training and job-seeking programs in Polish.

The project has been denied government assistance, so more than 90 percent of its 600,000-pound yearly funding will come from the church and private donations. Enough has been secured to cover the running costs for the first year, with the venture, in its early phases, still classed as a pilot project.

Poor Servant Sister Mary Forrest told CNS the main purpose of the project was to ensure that destitute migrants "don't go back onto the streets and become part of the problem of homeless people on the streets of this city."

Four of the first 12 clients found permanent jobs within six weeks.

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