In my shoes – taking a proactive approach to race action

    In response to the issues raised as a result of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and Black Lives Matter, St Mungo’s is taking a proactive approach.

    As a leading homelessness charity, we have always had a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Survey feedback is that 91% of our staff believe we are committed to diversity and inclusion but we know there is more to do.

    We set up a reverse mentoring scheme called In My Shoes which sees senior staff matched with BAME mentors to ensure better awareness of issues that BAME staff may experience. Here Catherine and Jo write about their mentoring experience.

    What did you hope to gain from your experience? Is it different to what you expected?

    Catherine: I had no real expectations other than to go in with an open mind and have a good chat. I felt mildly anxious beforehand because I am curious about these important issues but I don’t want to offend or say the wrong thing, so setting boundaries was useful.

    Jo has been very open and honest, which I appreciate that at times it can’t be easy. I think there is an element of vulnerability in the conversations from both sides, you are opening yourselves up to expose parts of yourself that may be buried, whether through fear, ignorance or our own unconscious biases; so establishing that trust and rapport has been essential.

    Jo: The main expectation I had was that the mentee would be proactive in their learning. I think that mentoring should focus more on coaching, guidance and support rather than teaching. I was feeling nervous about how I was going to deal with any unpredicted triggers that may come up.

    In my first meeting with Catherine we talked about boundaries, triggers and appropriate language. An important boundary we talked about was how we would communicate if an offensive phrase or word was used, the ways we would both express how that made us feel and that we would take breaks if needed. It was important to remember that we are both learning, and that some mistakes will be made as part of this process.

    This meeting took away most of the pressure I was feeling about making sure Catherine got a lot out of our discussions and would encourage her learning beyond our sessions.

    Is there anything specific that you’ve learnt that has shifted your perspective?

    Catherine: It has been great for me that Jo has a sense of humour, so we have been able to bring a lightness to some very serious subjects. We have talked about a wide range of things in each of our four sessions, bouncing around loads ideas and thoughts. It has certainly challenged me and we have both reflected that our conversations have left us quite tired.

    What I have found most interesting and thought provoking are the non-obvious challenges that people of colour face. I would never have thought about hair being an issue, in terms of what it represents and the fact that people of colour have to deal with having their hair touched by strangers or it be a point of conversation all the time.

    This led on to discussions about defensive living, which as a woman I think we all do in some way but then take that further as a black woman – that made me think a lot. I did some further reading and listening to some podcasts, which delved deeper into this issue and about appearance in general. I can’t imagine having to really think about my appearance if say, I went for a job interview, other than to try to look presentable. But to hear how some people of colour – of any gender – have to consider changing their outward appearance and hide who they are in order to blend in, made me really take a step back. A job interview is enough pressure and to change who you are puts that pressure at a new level. That is just one example in life that I take for granted, I can just be me but that is not the case for everyone. That saddened me.

    Can you share any learnings that you plan to or have started implementing in your day-to-day interactions?

    Catherine: It has definitely made me think about how open we all are, even when we think we are, are we really? I have often heard the phrase ‘I don’t see colour, I just see people.’ To me that feels worse, as there is zero appreciation of someone else’s life experience; that’s something I will challenge more freely now, because I can offer some insight into the impact of those sorts of phrases. I have also got a few exercises that I am going to introduce to my team, to help get others thinking and to spark further conversations and discussions.

    Jo: Catherine is right. When a person says they “don’t see colour” it is very invalidating.

    One of the most important learnings I took away from our discussions is to remember not everyone lives with the same knowledge and experiences. Sometimes I had to rethink how I was explaining a subject to Catherine, as she didn’t have the same insight or understanding. For example, when we talked about hair in our second meeting, Catherine didn’t realise people still touch other people’s hair without consent because this is not something that happens to her. This led to a long discussion about hair history and politics and how this is connected to the Slave Trade. A deep and disturbing subject to talk about with someone who hasn’t grown up with that kind of communal grief and trauma.

    That leads on to another important learning, something I became more aware of was how emotionally draining talking about these subjects can be. When you’re living day to day, certain behaviours are so entrenched, they become subconscious. It takes a lot of self-reflection to sit and pick apart and explain to someone why you do things a certain way.

    It was important to tell Catherine if a subject was too much to talk about in that meeting or highlight a need to change to a “lighter” discussion. I also had to re-assess my own self-care skills and make sure I was doing them, I can be a little bit lazy about that.



    What else are we doing?

    Our Board and Executive recognise that racism and other forms of discrimination have a profound impact on our clients and our staff. We have had a BAME Positive Action Strategy and action plan since 2017 and we are committed to doing what we can to address these issues.

    Over the past three years we had already reviewed training, policy and guidance, profiled BAME staff and their career progression internally and set up a Steps into Management career progression scheme which BAME staff are particularly encouraged to apply to.

    We asked ourselves what we could do to demonstrate our support to the principle that Black Lives Matter in a meaningful way and to reconfirm our commitment to tackling racism. We:

    • set up discussions with Board members and our BAME Network in the summer
    • surveyed BAME staff
    • took advice from consultants
    • set up a Race Action Steering Group in August to develop a Race Action Plan.

    Our Race Action Plan sets out a programme of activities across three main areas: Leadership awareness and commitment, positive action, and creating safe spaces.

    These commitments include using the Leadership 2025 five point plan as a framework for action and accountability and agreeing aspirational targets to aim for, namely one in three appointments to senior management (Service Development Manager and above) and Trustee roles over the next five years to be people from a BAME background.

    We will also seek to ensure that at least one member of every shortlisting panel for a senior role is BAME and introduce a new Leadership Development Programme for BAME managers to support their progression into senior roles.

    What will success look like?

    Success is when our organisation fully reflects the diversity of the clients we work with and the communities where we work, at all levels of the organisation and when anti-discrimination, in all of its forms, is increasingly embedded in all we do.

    Housing First – achieving the aim of ending rough sleeping for good

    Housing first was once thought of as a radical rethinking of how homelessness could be tackled – but over the years it has become an increasingly important element to achieving the aim of ending rough sleeping for good.

    One person who has witnessed the scheme’s successes – and a few challenges – over the years is Stephen Brett, Housing First Service Manager in Brighton. Here he shares his thoughts on the scheme.

    A Pilot Scheme and Beyond

    I have worked in homelessness services in Brighton for 20 years. In 2014 I was part of a conversation on how we could adopt different approaches to ending rough sleeping.

    Through this discussion we uncovered aspects of the Housing First model and were afforded the opportunity to run a pilot Housing First scheme.

    It represented an exciting moment in service delivery, a chance to try something genuinely different for people who had exhausted many of the pre-existing resources the city had to offer.

    Housing First is a different model because it provides housing ‘first’, on the basis of right, rather than at the end of a process as a reward.

    And years later the bedrock of the model remains as exciting today as it was in those early stages as we have learned, adapted and grown along the way.

    Challenges and Successes

    I think it’s important to accept that Housing First is not a panacea, but rather as for many people experiencing multiple complex needs offered the prospect of attaining a way out from the risks, rigours and traps of enduring rough sleeping.

    From a burgeoning concept, the approach has now become a valid and established approach to ending rough sleeping. And our experience of delivering Housing First in the intervening years has demonstrated this based upon the achievements of the people that we support through this model. It would however be misleading to say that our growth has been without challenges.

    Housing First workers will work assertively to engage our service users, build lasting supportive relationships, work in a person centred and recovery focused way and manage and respond to any risks. The delivery of the support is therefore both rewarding and challenging. The Housing First model very deliberately attempts to re-frame the typical criteria applied to people sleeping rough accessing self-contained accommodation.

    And part of the journey has, therefore, involved highlighting and indeed contributing to the growing evidence base around efficacy and challenging scepticism.

    We are trying to turn well established processes on their head, we accept that there is an inherent risk within this and related wariness. As people engage in support and maintain their tenancy we aim to break the cycle of rough sleeping so that there is opportunity to address the factors that have contributed to people  ending up on the streets.

    Our longer-term aim is for people to achieve long lasting recovery.

    In Brighton, where I have worked for St Mungo’s since 2016, we have received extra funding from NSAP (Next Steps Accommodation Fund) to offer an additional 20 places – growing from 40 to 60 offers of Housing First.

    The accommodation is dispersed across the city, consciously so and the bedrock of Housing First remains ‘housing as a human right’. We believe that for some people living within a congregated setting hinders their chances of moving away from homelessness.

    We also acknowledge that there are challenges inherent within this offer, and work hard with people to reduce the risk of isolation, maintain regular and consistent contact, coordinate support and provide motivation and encouragement to engage in their recovery goals thereafter, and indeed their new community.

    We make the offer of stable accommodation alongside intensive long-term support, but don’t act as landlords. If people choose not to engage with the support or indeed get to a place whereby the support we offer is no longer required they can still occupy their home.

    That said, the model works best when people engage with intensive support and the adoption of assertive engagement is crucial to this relationship.

    There has been many compelling stories of success:

    • We have had high rates of tenancy retention and continue to contribute to ending rough sleeping in the city
    • We have seen positive engagements with health care support such as completion of treatments for hepatitis and cancer and more generally a reduction in missed appointments
    • We have seen people move away from a cycle of offending
    • We have seen a reduction is substance misuse
    • We have seen abstinence based recovery
    • We have seen people parenting their children
    • We have worked with people on longer term aspirations such as accessing training and employment
    • We have seen people reconnecting with family after many years of disconnect
    • We have seen people connecting with the community they live in

    Hopes for the future of Housing First

    Key to what we are attempting is to offer something of quality to someone experiencing multiple disadvantage that they in turn actually want to accept – I hope that this facet of the Housing First model becomes more prevalent in our approaches to ending rough sleeping as we move forward.

    Given the challenges presented to us all during the pandemic, one of the clear silver linings has been the opportunities created to reduce street homelessness and the incredible work undertaken to implement such opportunity.

    My desire is to see a continuum of this trajectory by affording people lasting, well considered, move on options alongside person-centred, robust support.

    St Mungo’s Housing First

    St Mungo’s is one of the largest providers of Housing First services in England, supporting more than 282 clients and currently delivers Housing First to 14% of places available.

    We have Housing First services in Bournemouth, Brent, Brighton, Camden, Ealing, Hackney and City of London, Hammersmith and Fulham, Haringey, Reading, Sutton, Tower Hamlets and Westminster. Camden and Brighton are our largest schemes, supporting 72 and 60 clients respectively, while our Reading and Sutton services each support five clients.

    As an experienced Housing First provider we have been at the forefront of designing, implementing and running Housing First services in the UK for several years.

    For more information about St Mungo’s Housing First schemes click here.

    Why the cold weather feels a little bit different this year

    Petra Salva, St Mungo’s Director of Rough Sleeping, Westminster and Migrant Services, explains why our services ramp up as temperatures drop. And why Covid-19 is making things a little different this year.

    I’ve dedicated my whole working life to supporting people out of rough sleeping and homelessness. Over the last 20 years or so, I thought I had seen everything in terms of the impact rough sleeping can have on a person and their families.  I’ve seen the harm, the hurt and the pain that people experience, and then came the Covid-19 pandemic.

    All of a sudden, the physical and mental vulnerabilities people already experience whilst sleeping rough came into even sharper focus and became a greater emergency.

    Just imagine what it must feel like, sleeping on a pavement, in the dark, alone, fearing for your safety, maybe taking drugs or drinking, just to numb the pain of your situation, feeling physically unwell because of the toll of this lifestyle or because you have another physical problem that has gone untreated or not even yet diagnosed .

    Then you are faced with the fear of a pandemic, a virus that if caught by you, is likely to make you even more vulnerable and possibly kill you.

    I, and colleagues and volunteers across our organisation,  have had the privilege of helping to house and support hundreds of people since the start of the pandemic to try to address all these risks, but despite our best efforts and that of many charities and local authorities, we have not been able to house everyone, so tonight, too many people are still faced with the grim reality of sleeping rough.

    And now comes the winter and the cold.

    Sleeping rough is dangerous at any time of the year but when the cold strikes, it is even more deadly. Cold weather can, and does, kill.

    On top of that, we know many people who rough sleep already have underlying health conditions, so the risk of Covid-19 makes it even more vital that our clients have access to safe accommodation which will protect them from not just the weather, but from contracting the virus as well.

    There is no doubt, this year will probably be the most challenging that I and our outreach teams have ever experienced but, that won’t stop us from working around the clock to try to save lives by bringing people in from the cold and supporting them when they need us the most.

    The Severe Weather Response, also known as ‘Severe Weather Emergency Protocol’ (SWEP) is triggered when the Met Office forecasts freezing temperatures.

    This can vary from region to region. In London, it is called if it’s going to be zero degrees or below for one night. In our regional areas, it will be activated if zero degrees is forecast three nights in a row, except for in Brighton where our commissioners use a “feels like” temperature.

    In previous years, when local authorities have informed us that our severe weather response is needed, we have provided emergency shelter in the form of communal spaces.

    This year however, we will not be able to provide this type of accommodation. Our clients must be able to sleep somewhere which also allows them to self-isolate, away from others so that they are not at increased risk of contracting Covid-19, but this doesn’t mean we won’t be helping people this year. Instead, we have found new ways to keep our clients safe this winter.

    Our teams have been as agile, adaptable and creative as they always are – seeking out every possible option which can be used to provide much needed accommodation – cleaning rooms previously used for storage, converting meeting rooms to bedrooms – resourcefully adapting as many spaces as we can. As well as working with local councils to find other suitable places.

    Protecting people from the elements is just the beginning for us. Because I know that providing somewhere warm and safe to stay is just the first step.

    Often, when it’s really cold, we have a valuable opportunity to engage with people who, under normal circumstances, might be reluctant to come indoors. So our teams are committed to trying their very best to ensure every person brought inside never has to go back to sleeping outside again.

    They go above and beyond to help people with their future plans, including reconnecting them with family and loved ones, providing permanent housing and linking them to health services, as well as assisting with benefit and employment support.

    Like I said at the very beginning, I have seen first-hand the harm and pain that rough sleeping causes people, but I have also seen how, with the right help and support people can and do recover from homelessness.

    The reason I am still here fighting is because I have hope and belief that mass rough sleeping really can be a thing of the past.

    Anyone concerned about someone sleeping rough should contact StreetLink via their website. Alerts will be passed on to the local outreach service or council who will attempt to find them and offer support within 48 hours of being contacted. StreetLink is not an emergency service. If anyone is in need of urgent medical attention, please call 999.

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