Collaboration in the Service of Homeless People

by | Jun 18, 2018 | News

I am Andrew McKnight, Director of the charity Depaul in France. We are part of a branch of the Vincentian Family called Depaul International and I am a member of the Collaboration Commission.

Members of the commission have prepared these short videos to inspire you in your collaborative working with other branches of the Vincentian Family in the service of the poor. I would like to talk about my personal experience of collaboration on the ground in Paris which involved the creation of a brand new day centre for homeless people. This project is an example of collaboration between different members in different branches of the Vincentian Family in Paris. Today, a team of thirty volunteers welcomes homeless people 5 days a week to our day centre. The homeless come for rest and relaxation, to meet other people, to have a shower, wash their clothes, see a nurse who can care for their feet, talk to a doctor, get help sorting out their documents. The team is made up of:

  • 7 Daughters of Charity
  • 3 members of the AIC
  • 1 member of the SVP
  • 1 CM
  • Some seminarians – both vincentiens and jesuits
  • And lay people who come from local churches, or who live in the local area and who want to help out.

The centre is managed by Depaul and everyone contributes to the service of the homeless, united in this common mission. We share many special moments and organise different events to bring people together. These are always invitations and no-one is ever forced to participate. For example,

  • Every morning before we start our service we have a briefing, and at the end of our service, we gather together for a de-brief
  • Once a month we hold a team meeting
  • We organise training or information sessions on the life of St Vincent or on Vincentian spirituality
  • We organise reflective practice sessions to help us analyse and improve our work.

The beginning was difficult:

  • A brand new project
  • With an uncertain, even unknown, future
  • With major financial challenges
  • And new partnerships which had to be created,
  • And different people with different experiences, different perspectives and different missions all gathered around the same table.

It took two years to open the centre. Lots of meetings, conversations, visits, experienced together. This called for patience, diplomacy, flexibility, humility, a style of working that was fixed on the end goal,  and which was open to feedback and criticism… St Vincent tells us, “All beginnings are a little strange, but be patient. The novelty will soon wear off…” (CCD VIII :117) You have surely discovered that there are lots of tools out there which can help us work better together and understand the dynamics of collaboration :

  • Inventory of personal styles
  • Skills audit
  • Consensus decision-making
  • Conflict management
  • Project management

We cover these in the Vincentian Family Collaborative Action training Programme (VFCAP). By the way, if you are interested in this initiative, you should get in touch with the commission to see how a training programme could be delivered in your country. For me, whilst these tools are very useful, it is important to remember that everything is relational. It is, above all, through our relationships with each other that we succeed in working and collaborating together. In our project, therefore, we do everything we can to prioritise these relationships. Just as we do with the service users of the centre, we place great importance on relationships and trust between different members of the team. Collaboration isn’t always easy. When we have to work with others, we can all be difficult, stubborn, proud, derogatory, distrustful, motivated by our own personal or organisational glory rather than the common good that comes through collective effort. But we must persevere. We have to be able to manage our meetings with each other in a positive spirit, we have to be gentle and conciliatory. We have to be able to question ourselves. And we must keep an open mind. St Vincent reminds us, “We are obliged, as Christians, to bear with our neighbour’s ill humour and try to temper it.” (CCD V :412) So what sort of results have we achieved? I think of Stéphane, one of our service users, who loves coming to the centre – he really appreciates the human warmth, the welcome that he gets, the team that is ready to listen to him, the physical space which is clean, the services that are provided and which are essential for him to maintain his dignity. It is a place where he finds hope, where he is able to spend time in a little bubble away from the difficulties of his life on the streets. It is thanks to our collaboration, with each other, all these different branches which come together in action, serving the homeless that Stéphane is able to say, “there’s something magic about this place.”