St Mungo’s client Tracy tells us about her experience of talking to MPs at the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

    Our client Tracy shared her experiences of homelessness and coping during the pandemic with MPs on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee last week. Alongside evidence from another St Mungo’s client, our Chief Executive Steve Douglas CBE and two other people with lived experience, her comments will be collated into a report to influence improvements to the current policies surrounding homelessness. She told us about her story and what it was like talking to the Committee.

    When St Mungo’s first asked me if I would like to share my story with MPs, I was happy to do it but I was anxious because I worry that people who don’t know me will judge me.

    28 years ago, I was just 22 years old and I had a nearly two year old son. I didn’t know it at the time but I was struggling with postnatal depression. I didn’t find out that I was pregnant until I was seven months along so I had seven weeks to go from being a teenager to all of a sudden, being responsible for a little baby.

    Once he was born, my family were a huge support, always coming round to look after him – they sort of took over. I tried to look after him myself but I really struggled. I wanted to be a doting mum and I loved him, but I just didn’t have that maternal instinct or feel a bond between us. Back then, depression wasn’t talked about either so no-one knew I was suffering and I couldn’t get any help for it.

    One day, my friend asked me if I wanted to go to London with her for the weekend so I asked my mum if she could look after my son for a couple of hours but I didn’t end up coming back. I met a group of people who were into drugs and so I became a heroin addict, doing sex work at night and sleeping under a bridge for 18 years.  If I’d have known what I know now, that I was actually suffering with postnatal depression, I wouldn’t have come to London.

    Some of my family still haven’t forgiven me for what I did so I still worry about how people will view my story today but I’ve come a long way, and if sharing my story changes someone’s opinion on how they see a homeless person, I would tell it every day and that is why I knew I had to share my story with MPs, the people who really can make a difference to how homeless people are treated.

    I was so nervous and felt a bit of pressure but when the first MP started speaking and told us what we’d be discussing in the meeting, I felt at ease.  Every single one of them was brilliant. They didn’t take their eyes off me while I was speaking and seemed to be totally intrigued at what I had to say. I felt like I was chatting with my peers, not MPs!

    At the end, they told me it was hearing from people like me and the others who were also sharing their stories, that makes their reports so powerful, and then, they all started clapping which they apparently don’t usually do – that just blew it for me!

    After the meeting, I got incredible feedback from my friends and family who’d watched, it felt like I was on this big pedestal. A lot of my friends don’t realise about how vulnerable I was so it moved them to tears. After watching, some of them said they were off to donate money to a homelessness charity – there’s not a better reaction than that for me.

    Not everyone reacts like that though. There’s so much stigma around homelessness and sometimes, I think people forget that we are human beings – someone’s sister, someone’s daughter, someone’s mother. We didn’t wake up one day and think I want to become homeless.

    There’s a famous saying that says ‘you’re only one wage packet away from becoming homeless’ and it’s true but with the right support, people can turn their life around and return to ‘normality’. I’ve been in recovery for ten years now, I’ve still got a way to go in terms of my mental health but I hope that by sharing my story, I will give others who are in a similar situation hope.

    Read about what was discussed at the meeting here and you can watch it in full here.

    Elvis the elephant: a heart-warming story raising awareness of homelessness

    Our specialist move-on worker Helen Brian has written a children’s book about homelessness called Elvis. Here she shares her creative journey of writing Elvis the elephant’s story.

    I have worked in the homeless sector for years now and I love what I do. I spent a lot of time feeling very lost in my early 20s after a period of severe anxiety caused me to leave my creative writing course at university. When I was better, I fell into my first job as a support worker by accident and I have never looked back. I have worked as a rough sleeper outreach worker, a prison resettlement worker and I now work on a hospital ward supporting people who face homelessness on discharge.

    I am lucky enough to have a job that I enjoy and, although I still suffer with anxiety, I’ve learned to manage it better. There was one thing that I had never been able to bring myself to do since leaving my course and that was writing again. I just couldn’t face it, until…

    The inspiration behind Elvis

    As my son has gotten older, he’s been asking me to tell him stories. Although I began to do it very reluctantly, I will always believe that it was his little imagination that restarted mine. When I was at university, I remember one of my lecturers saying that when you have character ideas for a book that you should write about, you will just know –  I had always wondered what he meant.

    I was at home watching something trashy on television with my husband and my son and suddenly, from nowhere, this elephant popped into my head. I could see Elvis, what he was wearing, how he spoke, exactly what he looked like and I knew his story. Without telling my family what I was doing and for the first time in eighteen years I went upstairs and wrote a book draft.

    The only person who knew about that book for the next six weeks was me. I was too nervous to show anyone else until one evening when I read it to my four year old son. About an hour afterwards he started to ask me questions about why Elvis was homeless. The following week in Bath, he asked if we could buy a drink for somebody who was sleeping by the Abbey. I knew then that I might have something worth pursuing and  that Elvis’ story had a purpose.

    After a fundraising campaign to turn the book idea into a reality, I contacted Steven Kynman to tell him about what I had written and he asked me to send the story to him. To my amazement, he sent me a message suggesting we have a chat and two days later we were on Facetime planning an audio book.

    I was lucky enough to be surrounded by amazing people through the book development and I have never learned so much. Carly at Peahen Publishing taught me endlessly about editing and the publishing process and she is always around when I need her, even if it’s just for me to talk about how nervous I am.

    I absolutely loved working with Chantal, the illustrator for Elvis and, developing the characters in my head on to paper. I will never forget the moment that I first saw a sketch of Elvis, I am not ashamed to say that I dissolved into tears (of happiness)!

    When Steven talked about the fact that we needed some music for the audio book there was only one person that I wanted to work with. Sam Eason is a brilliantly talented singer songwriter and I knew that he would understand Elvis’ journey and do something magical with it and I was so right.

    Elvis is in the building

    I wanted to raise as much awareness as possible about the book and needed to be brave and pitch my book with confidence but this isn’t easy when it’s your own work! d I would be lying if I didn’t experience several of those 3am moments when I was awake asking myself what on earth I was doing!

    I sent the book draft to Kerry Howard, a British TV actress local to Bath and asked if she would be interested in supporting it, she was very kind about my writing and even agreed to be interviewed for the promotional launch film, she gave me a massive confidence boost.

    When Elvis arrived, I was so thrilled to see it in print (I cried again)!, The book isn’t about me, it’s about all the incredible and brave people facing homelessness that the charities and I have supported and I could only do them all justice if I absolutely went for it and did as much promotion as I could.

    I will never stop being grateful for everyone’s support, the reception of Elvis has blown me away, I ordered 325 copies worrying that I would have boxes of books gathering dust in my house, within three days of going live on pre orders we had to request a reprint.

    Seeing Elvis in bookshop windows is amazing but what gives me the biggest buzz is the messages that I have had from parents telling me that my story has started an important conversation about homelessness and that their children are now acknowledging the issue in a different way, that’s why I wrote it and if that’s what Elvis and Cilla do, then they’ve done their job.

    Elvis is available to buy online here. Profits are going to Julian House and towards our work to end homelessness and rebuild lives.

    Housing First can be an integral part of ending homelessness

    As new research is published about Housing First in England, St Mungo’s Chief Executive Steve Douglas CBE explains why its client-centred focus means it can be an ideal fit for us and our clients and echoes our recovery approach. A version of this blog has been published in Inside Housing magazine.

    I read a great piece this week about Housing First by the chair of the All Party Parliamentary group for Ending Homelessness Bob Blackman MP.

    He recognised the diversity and range of needs our clients have and that “homelessness is complex and every case is unique”, before calling for a much wider roll out of Housing First.

    We agree. Housing First may not be the right option for every person but it is an important contribution to accommodation and support solutions to end homelessness and rough sleeping.

    This is evidenced in the research published today by Housing First England and Homeless Link.

    This detailed and comprehensive research estimates an almost six-fold increase in the capacity of Housing First services across England since 2017.

    I am pleased that, working with our local authority partners and housing associations, St Mungo’s has been part of that expansion. We now run 11 Housing First schemes in London, Brighton, Bournemouth and Reading.

    And in the last few weeks we have been given approval to expand our existing service in the London Borough of Camden, meaning we will soon be able to support more than 70 clients there.

    We also have a new expanded contract for our Brighton Housing First service to support up to 40 clients.

    These service expansions give us confidence that our Housing First models work for our clients and for our local authority commissioners. We’ve seen the results.

    Importantly, though, we think that this is linked to following certain principles carefully. It’s not a ‘quick fix’.

    As many readers will know, Housing First is an internationally recognised approach to tackling homelessness for people with high and complex needs who have been unable to sustain a long term home.

    In the model there are no conditions attached to being ‘housing ready’. Instead people are provided with accommodation first and then given access to intensive, multi-faceted ‘wrap around’ long term support with case workers who are able to work intensively with just a small number of clients. 

    It is based on people having control of the services they receive. That client centred recovery approach is very much our ethos overall at St Mungo’s.

    Housing First projects, by their very nature, are time and resource intensive. They don’t work for every person experiencing homelessness, but for a specific cohort of clients they are extremely effective.

    It naturally follows that people with the most complex needs often need the greatest support.

    However, long term help, requires long term funding.

    That is why the Government’s recent commitment to provide multi-year support via the Next Steps and Rough Sleeping Accommodation Programmes is so important, with several Housing First projects already in line for this funding.

    But, as highlighted in today’s research, the lack of more secure long term revenue streams is often a factor in why local authorities don’t commission more Housing First services.

    If these projects are to have the longevity they need, dedicated mutli-year Government spending commitments are vital. 

    There is the determination and increasing momentum to end rough sleeping and homelessness, and our experience and this research shows that Housing First can be an integral part of achieving that.

    Read more about St Mungo’s Housing First services here.

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