Housing First, bringing learning home.

    St Mungo’s is one of the main providers of Housing First projects in England. We manage eight Housing First projects, offering more than 80 bed spaces between them.

    Housing First is an innovative approach in the UK. We’re keen to develop learning about this model and what it can offer. Here’s the second of a two part blog by Louisa Steele, who was part of a Transatlantic Practice Exchange earlier this year, and went to the US to explore how Housing First works with chronically homeless women to promote safety and build resilience. The views are her own.

    ‘A whirlwind of talking to clients and staff’

    As explained in my first blog, I was lucky enough to be one of five people working in homelessness in the UK to get the opportunity to travel to the US to research a topic of their choosing on the issue of homelessness.

    I flew out to Los Angeles at the beginning of May, with the aim of researching how organisations there use the Housing First model to meet the specific and varied needs of homeless women.

    It was a whirlwind and varied two weeks of talking to clients and staff from my host organisation, the Downtown Women’s Centre, visiting other homelessness agencies, going out on home visits with workers and attending meetings at City Hall.

    Before I go any further, I want to emphasise the sheer scale of both Los Angeles, the city, and of its homeless population.

    Los Angeles is vast, divided up into 84 separate cities, mostly only practically navigable by car, and with a stark divide between those that have and those that don’t.

    ‘Women face multiple disadvantage in similar ways to women in the UK’

    I was hosted by and based at the Downtown Women’s Centre on Skid Row. Skid Row is the area of LA where many of the homelessness services are situated, and therefore homeless people gravitate towards it, and in huge numbers. On Skid Row the community of tents stretches over several blocks, and the effects of poverty, substance use, poor mental and physical health are all too plain to see.

    It was clear that many of the women experience multiple disadvantage in similar ways to women in the UK, where poor mental health, experiences of violence and trauma, substance use, and loss of children combine.

    What is different, though, are the lack of options available to help women off the streets. I met many women sleeping in temporary beds in emergency shelters, which are dormitory style and very short term – not comparable to hostels in the UK. Women in shelters have reported high rates of violence and abuse and many women will switch between these, and sleeping out.

    ‘Diversity of services available for women’

    Another major difference is that women on Skid Row are also more likely to be older; 48% of those surveyed by the Downtown Women’s Centre were aged 51-61, therefore physical health is a major issue.

    I think one of the things that struck me the most during my time in LA, was the diversity of services available for women at the Downtown Women’s Centre, each designed around the acknowledgement that each women’s experience of homelessness and current circumstances would be very different, and with an overarching aim to get women permanently housed, as quickly as possible.

    The Downtown Women’s Centre worked with each woman from whatever stage she was at, or position she was in, whether she was street homeless and needed a shower at the day centre, or whether she was living in a tent on the pavement, had long term mental health issues and needed housing and intensive support.

    Trauma informed support was another key aspect in the response to women’s homelessness. Onsite health and wellbeing services provide physical health and specialist trauma support as well as a wide range of activities from walking groups to confidence and resilience building workshops.

    ‘Partnership working a key part of Housing First ethos’

    I was also lucky enough to sit in on a meeting of the Domestic Violence Homelessness Services Coalition, of which the Downtown Women’s Centre are key members, and drivers for change. The coalition represents an important piece of partnership work, aiming to address the gaps between homelessness and domestic violence services, and ultimately achieve system wide change and reduce the number of women experiencing homelessness due to domestic violence. Partnership working of this kind is a key part of the Housing First ethos, and it was inspiring to see such innovative work in action.

    Downtown have also worked incredibly hard and creatively to change the stigma surrounding homeless women in the community, a key piece of work in changing attitudes and fostering confidence and self-respect among the women they serve.

    It only remains to say that the exchange was an amazing experience, and I am incredibly grateful to have been a part of it.

    I am in the process of writing a report on my findings which should be available on the Homeless Link website sometime in September, and I will continue to talk about women and housing first at my blog http://louisasteele.blogspot.co.uk, and tweet about it here, https://twitter.com/louamarie.

    A festival for clients by clients

    Last month St Mungo’s held its annual Client Festival organised by Outside In, our client involvement group. Liam, a member of Outside In, tells us about his role helping to organise the Festival.

    St Mungo’s Client Festival is a festival for clients by clients. The theme this year was ‘Elements’ and aimed to bring together the different elements that will empower clients to learn thrive, and contribute to their communities.

    I got involved with the Client Festival accidentally. I had intended to enrol at the St Mungo’s Train and Trade Centre, in South London, which offers training in various trades like bricklaying and painting and decorating. Whilst there, I was introduced to Nathan Rosier, the manager of Outside In, a group which is made up of clients who work in partnership with St Mungo’s to improve its services.

    ‘Like a flower blooming’

    Outside In do a lot of different things so I was able to dip my toes in a lot of different things. It was like a flower blooming. I’ve gone from knowing one person to knowing many people in different departments of St Mungo’s. I’m getting to know the different things that interest me.

    Organising the Client Festival was intense but fun. I think I brought a fresh perspective when I was helping organise it. I wanted people to engage with the stall holders at the festival. So I came up with an emoji style quiz, which got people walking around.

    ‘ I had something to bring to the table’

    I took the lead on our raffle quiz, which required people interact with the stall holders. I would probably change how I engaged with the donors of the raffle prizes. I don’t have that much confidence so ringing the donors and the face to face conversations were a bit challenging.

    It’s the first point in ten years where I felt that I had something to bring to the table. It was stressful long days. Hectic! Really hectic! It gave me a routine because I had to manage my personal stuff as well. It made me feel like a professional. I miss it. When I was packing away the stuff at the end of the day, I was thinking, ‘this is all done now’.

    ‘It was a big hit!’

    The Festival went really well. I think it was a big hit! What I hoped for was that clients got more aware of what happens in St Mungo’s and what the different departments do. It was the high level of client involvement from members of Outside In, and volunteers who helped out on the day that made it special.

    Clients took control of the Festival, we decided on the small things, the decorations to the trees on the stage – that’s what made it a success. It wasn’t St Mungo’s coming up and telling us what to do. It was our ideas. It was the engagement from the clients that made it a success.

    ‘The clients’ perspective’

    Client involvement to me is those who live in St Mungo’s properties or use their services getting involved from the smallest things to the biggest. It’s their perspective. It’s their views recognised and listened to by St Mungo’s. It’s the clients acting proactively in everyday things from meetings to events.

    Involving clients is enormously important. I don’t think St Mungo’s would grow or learn without a client perspective and understanding what works. It gives clients motivation, a sense of being, achievement and something to grasp onto. They learn. They grow. They’re inspired. It’s fundamental to what St Mungo’s is.

    ‘The year ahead’

    I’m looking forward to next year. I have applied for a volunteer role at St Mungo’s. I’ve also been speaking to St Mungo’s head of diversity and inclusion about the new Client Involvement Strategy, which is something I am really into. I am keen to find out where I can get most involved next.

    We came. We saw. We conquered.

    Image: Clients and Staff at St Mungo's climb Mount Snowdon

    St Mungo’s client and volunteer, Mandy, has shown incredible strength in her journey to conquer homelessness. Having now also conquered Mount Snowdon, Mandy shares with us her inspirational challenge and her ongoing determination to help others on their road to recovery from homelessness.

    From the streets to the mountain top

    In June I took on one of the biggest challenges of my life. Along with my friend Claire, also a client at St Mungo’s, we successfully led a team of other clients and staff to the top of Mount Snowdon. Snowdon is the tallest mountain in Wales at 1,085m above sea level, and the highest point in the British Isles outside of Scotland. We were keen to do this for a couple of reasons; to celebrate how we had conquered homelessness and to raise funds and awareness to help give others the same chance.

    Your support helped us to the summit, thank you.

    Having spent months meticulously planning, we arrived at Snowdon the day before full of excitement and couldn’t wait for challenge day!

    The team set out first thing in the morning in great spirits. We could all feel exactly how much the challenge meant to us, and we were so determined to complete it.

    We were totally overwhelmed by the number of people who supported us with generous donations and lovely good luck messages in the lead up to the big day. This kept us motivated all the way to the top, we really wanted to do everyone proud.

    We came. We saw. We conquered.

    We made some truly special memories along the walk which we’ll never forget. Touching the summit of Snowdon was a dream come true. It was a proud and emotional moment for all of us, who had never imagined we could do something like this.

    In memory of those who have died while sleeping rough

    At the top of Snowdon we dedicated our challenge to those who have died while homeless or sleeping rough. We all knew that could easily have been us.

    It was a particularly emotional moment for me as I took the chance to reflect on how far I had come along my journey to recovery. Just two years ago, I was sleeping rough. Today I have a place to call home and have had the chance to rebuild my life. I’ve seen myself grow so much, and I know this wouldn’t have been possible without St Mungo’s and their supporters.

    Let’s help everyone conquer homelessness

    At the heart of our challenge was our determination to help others who are homeless. Along with the rest of St Mungo’s, we believe that everybody should have a place to call home and can fulfil their hopes and ambitions.

    I’ve experienced first-hand how dangerous rough sleeping is and how it can affect mental health.  At St Mungo’s having a place to stay, therapy and learning new skills all helped me to recover. We desperately want to give other homeless people the same chance. It would mean the world to so many people if you could give a gift to help us save and change the lives of others.

    We cannot thank people enough for supporting us

    Thank you so much for your support. Without it, this walk would have been literally that; only a walk. Your support has made it a life changing experience not only for us, but for the homeless people we’re now able to help.

    I hope that our challenge will inspire others to think that if Mandy and Claire can climb a mountain, then they can do anything they put their mind to. We’d love to think that someone sleeping rough today could hear about our achievement, feel inspired to conquer their own challenge and make a positive difference to their life or the lives of others.

    Thank you all so much for making this possible and supporting us every step of the way.

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