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Credits: The Guardian

“Haven for the homeless”, Joanna Moorhead

by The Guardian

12 January 2013

“Maria Albrecht has only hazy memories of the first homeless person she and her husband, Scott, invited into their home to stay. But he was almost certainly an alcoholic, in his 50s or 60s, and he wouldn’t have had a shower in a long time. He slept on a camp bed in the couple’s sitting room: the family, with two small children at the time, were living in a two-bedroom semi.

That was about 20 years ago: since then, the Albrechts have welcomed approximately 300 homeless people into their home – some straight off the streets, others referred by the British Red Cross. “I know people think it sounds impossible, to just take in homeless people,” says Maria, “but the motivating factor for me is this: if I was sleeping on a park bench, I would hope someone would do this for me. So I do it for others.

“I know we can’t help everyone who’s homeless – but every night that even one person is in our home, that’s one night when one less person is shivering on the street.”

Today, the Albrechts live in a picturesque, red-brick farmhouse outside Watford: it’s surrounded by fields and there’s a large fishing lake in the back garden. It looks and feels like the very embodiment of a comfortable, middle-class existence in the London commuter belt, but inside there’s a bohemian air and, ranged around the house, as well as Scott, 50, and Maria, 51, and their sons, Justin, 18, and Francis, 15, there are several homeless women and two volunteer helpers.

It’s not an enormous house – the boys have their own rooms, and Scott and Maria have theirs, but the women share dormitory-like accommodation on the ground floor. And the house is certainly not palatial – on the day I visited it was raining and buckets had been placed to catch the drips coming through the roof.

“These days we only take homeless women and their children,” says Scott, 50. “Most are asylum seekers – many were trafficked here and have escaped, or they were brought here as domestic workers and treated like slaves, and managed to get away.”

Such women have no right to accommodation. The authorities are obliged to house children, but not their mothers. “What that means is that the children would be taken away from them, and they’d be left on the streets,” says Scott. “They seemed to us like they were in the most desperate situation of all, so a few years ago we decided we’d devote ourselves to helping them. Maria’s mother had just died and we’d inherited some money. We decided to sink it into renting this farmhouse so we’d have plenty of space.”

At present, there are six women in residence, but numbers change on a daily basis; there’s also a room for a woman with children, and the Albrechts recently took out a lease on another house nearby where up to 10 more women and children can stay.

The ethos of the farm is that everyone is part of the family – there’s a rota for cleaning and cooking, and the women take their turn. At mealtimes there are usually 10 or 12 people round the kitchen table – for dishes that often owe their heritage to the cook’s homeland in Africa or Asia. “It can make for interesting meals,” says Francis. “And there are often plenty of people here – at Christmas we might have as many as 50 people. So it’s often busy: but I guess we don’t remember anything else, and we like it this way.”

The Albrechts’ two older children – who were very young when the first homeless guests joined the family at their the two-bed semi – are Shoshanah, 28, and Christian, 24, who now live in Brighton and the United States respectively. But Francis and Justin are still very much at home – and yes, agrees Francis, it is an unusual set-up. “When I tell friends about my home life, they’re often surprised,” he says. “I tell them we share our house with asylum seekers, and lots of people at school don’t even know what an asylum seeker is.

“My friends’ houses are very different – but I’ve never wished I lived anywhere else. There’s always something interesting going on here – and some of the women, and the volunteers who work here, become real friends. I remember one woman from Indonesia – she had had an abusive husband and fled to the UK and ended up living here for a while. She’s moved on, but we keep in touch. It’s sad when people go, especially if they have been here a long time.”

The farm costs about £50,000 a year to run: Scott, who was raised in a Jewish family in Chicago but later converted to Christianity, and Maria, who was raised a Catholic in Australia, are members of the Catholic Worker Movement, a radical US group that identifies itself with helping people at the margins of society. Some of their funding comes from Catholic religious orders who support what they do. Other donations are made by individuals – but what makes a big difference to the accounts is that most of their food is either donated or salvaged from supermarket skips.

“I go dumpster diving – that means basically taking the food that shops have thrown out because they’re past their sell-by dates,” says Scott. “It can be deeply degrading – I remember once being in a skip and someone shouting at us from a window above to get out of there. I thought, I’m glad my father can’t see me now – he’d be so embarrassed.”

Francis says he isn’t remotely ashamed of what his dad has to do to feed his family and the extra mouths they have taken on. “What shocks me more is that supermarkets throw away food like this, when it’s perfectly OK to eat and when there are people who don’t have enough food in our country. That’s the real scandal, not that my dad is taking it out of the skips,” he says.

But what about safety? Have the Albrechts ever been concerned that someone might be dangerous? “We have worried at times,” says Scott. “You’re constantly balancing what we see as our duty to these homeless people with our duty to our children.

“I remember once, when Shoshanah and Christian were little, we had a homeless man staying in the sitting room and when I went in to say goodnight, he had a huge knife in his hand. It was a bit disconcerting, but I sat with him for a while and I could see that he wasn’t going to attack anyone – he was used to living in difficult conditions, and the knife made him feel safe. So we allowed him to stay and all was well.”

Since moving to the farm, says Maria, there have been only four women out of about 170 who have been asked to leave due to concerns about their behaviour. “Scott and I work very much on instinct and we’ve had a lot of experience now of living with people we don’t know, and of gauging their mental state,” she says.

“The thing is that people don’t suddenly grab a carving knife and go berserk. There’s always a build-up – there are warning signs – and we’re very alert to those so we can get people the help they need.”

She admits that one of the big adjustments she’s had to make has been letting go of her domestic pride. “When Scott and I were first married I was very houseproud,” she says. “In those days we lived in Illinois, Scott was earning good money, and we had a nice house and all that went with it. I loved things being just so but the fact is, it wasn’t enough. There was a kind of emptiness at the centre of it – and changing the way we live has given our lives real meaning.”