My journey from volunteer to project worker at St Mungo’s

    Lianne started volunteering for St Mungo’s back in 2019 and is now a full time project worker at our Mental Health service in Camden. Here, she shares her rewarding journey of working with people experiencing homelessness.

    My journey with St Mungo’s started in October 2019 when I was volunteering in two places. My first ‘gig’ was an outreach role that specialised in communicating with a man in Vietnamese who was homeless in Central London but couldn’t speak English. This gave me a taste of outreach work. I would speak to him once a month to check in with him, we would go out when it was cold at night to see if he wanted any food, drink or support, but he never wanted our help. Instead, we spoke in our home language (when he felt like it) and he seemed to enjoy the company. This was my first time doing charity work and it felt good to give something back.

    My second volunteering role was at the St Mungo’s service, No Second Night Out (NSNO) in Hackney. I did this once a week in the evening after work. I really loved doing this as I was able to use my IT, communication and interpersonal skills to help St Mungo’s clients and staff within the service. My typical volunteering evening went pretty quickly as I was able to help out my colleagues with client work and speak to people at the service and help sort out any queries or problems they had. My colleagues were a great support and fantastic to work with, so much so that I left my job back then and applied to become a locum at St Mungo’s!

    I gained a lot of insights into the lives of people who are experiencing homeless and the additional support they need. It made me really appreciative and grateful for all that I had; a warm house, good food and great company. There were times when a client’s behaviour became challenging but it only proved how important it was to be adaptable in how I supported the client. I was able to see how happy a client was when I spent some time with them in the service, or even just supporting them to the local job centre.

    The move into employment with St Mungo’s was a thorough and long process, but I was really motivated to become a locum and start working more with the NSNO hub. I’d like to thank my Deputy Manager, Sophie and the team in supporting me throughout the process and welcoming me to the team.  Being a locum was a great experience and it has given me a lot of flexibility, finding a shift pattern that worked for me. In April last year, I moved into the North Camden Mental Health services and worked as a Locum Mental Health Project Worker. I gained more insight into clients with complex needs and who are in high supported accommodation. I found it challenging and rewarding when I was able to support clients moving onto their own independent accommodation. Six months on, I am now a permanent Project Worker.

    I’ve come a long way in just over a year and don’t regret a single thing. I have loved working with different colleagues, teams and clients who have been friendly and kind to me along the way.  My advice to someone who wants to dip their toes into St Mungo’s would be to go for it. There is always room for growth, progression and training with the support of colleagues and managers. St Mungo’s is a fantastic place to work and you’re never in for a boring day.

    Find out more about volunteering with St Mungo’s here and our current volunteering opportunities here.

    Leaving the streets isn’t easy, but being HomelessWise is.

    In this long read, Outreach Coordinator for our Tower Hamlets team, Leon, discusses the complexities of supporting people away from homelessness and how you can help in two easy steps.

    Leaving the streets isn’t easy, but being HomelessWise is.

    For me, our HomelessWise campaign is another example of how partnership working is central to the success of supporting our rough sleeping community. With the public’s support we can help people move away from the streets and towards healthy and fulfilling lives. Best of all, you can help us in just two easy steps:

    • Step one – Smile: A simple, but powerful gesture. Smiling or saying hello to someone sleeping rough could make their day and boost their self-esteem.
    • Step two – StreetLink: By letting StreetLink know if you see someone sleeping rough, you are helping to connect them to expert support that can help them leave the streets behind.

    The next step, Support, is where I and the rest of the team come in.

    First, a bit about me…

    I was born in England but moved to Edinburgh within my first year. I lived with my mum in different Thatcher era council estates. Music was my escape from some tough times growing up. From these musical roots, I’ve carried creativity and innovation into my work with people sleeping rough in East London.

    And a bit about the team…

    We reflect the locality we live in. We have representation from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, which is vital for supporting people away from the streets, particularly as we communicate to people early in the morning or late at night. Our diverse representation helps us overcome barriers of language, culture, and faith – giving the people we work with the best opportunity to maximise their time working with us.

    Between us we have expansive local street knowledge, years of experience of working with vulnerable people, as well as passion and an ability to work under pressure. We also have knowledge of local services, welfare rights and, particularly important in the current climate, an understanding of navigating immigration cases in partnership with St Mungo’s Street Legal service, Praxis and partnerships law firms, like the Tower Hamlets Law CentreDuncan Lewis and Tamson’s Solicitors.

    We are blessed to have a dedicated team which includes roles specialising in health and supporting women, as well as strong partnerships with other impressive local agencies, including NHS Rough Sleeping Mental Health Team and Providence Row.

    Our day to day…

    In outreach our day either starts early or finishes late. Morning shifts start at 5am and evening shifts finish anywhere from midnight to 2am.

    The first thing I do in the morning is check our referrals from StreetLink, which is run by St Mungo’s in partnership with Homeless Link. The StreetLink team field calls and monitor alerts which they use to drop pins upon geographical locations. They are sent to us and we start organising and prioritising people in need of support.

    Then we will head out and start to look for people. But it’s not just a matter of finding them – people don’t always want our help at first. This is because many people sleeping rough have had negative experiences with other services in the past so it’s hard for them to trust us. Not to mention that it’s very early in the morning – I know if someone woke me up at 5am I wouldn’t be too happy!

    It’s our job to build a relationship and encourage people to accept our support. You have to put yourself in a rough sleeper’s shoes – there is a lot to think about when you approach a homeless person. What should my opening be? What is my body language like? How much eye contact is friendly and how much is threatening? There is a lot of skill involved in being an Outreach Worker and it can take time to learn how to approach people.

    At around 9 or 10am, we head back to the office. Anyone we have been able to engage with will come back with us. They are given a hot meal and we’ll have a chat so I can work out the best way to help. I’ll also follow up with people we have met on previous shifts. Although we’re the first point of contact for people sleeping rough, we don’t just forget about them once they’re off the streets. There are many people we have supported throughout their journey to recovery.

    One person I’m particularly proud of is someone we first came across at the start of the pandemic. He had been homeless for years – lots of different teams across London had met him before, but he never wanted to accept help. He was a heroin user and was in a very dysfunctional relationship. But last year, we finally managed to get through to him. We found him a place in emergency accommodation and now, just a year later, he’s living in his own flat. It’s cases like that that make the job so rewarding.

    As well as being out on the streets, we also run a hub just off Brick Lane in the heart of Whitechapel in partnership with Providence Row. This gives rough sleepers a place to make contact with us throughout office hours. This consistent availability allows us to work with people to identify potential accommodation and put support in place to help them move away from the streets.

    We also have emergency bed spaces available to us – these are held for people fleeing violence, people with underlying physical health conditions, or other supporting needs that we deem as high risk.

    Before I go home I will hand over to the night shift team with a report on the day. But even when I’m at home, work is still on my mind. We can’t support everyone off the streets immediately. At night, I often worry about the people I have seen on the streets, especially women who often face exploitation. I wonder where they are and what they’re doing. And I hope that one day we will get through to them too.

    We never give up on people

    At Mungo’s we have a ‘never give up’ attitude when working with the rough sleeping community. During the pandemic our team has supported hundreds of people – in March 2020 alone, we supported over 130 people off the streets. The team’s response to this global emergency was simply heroic and demonstrated that with communal responsibility and action, we can end homelessness.

    However, sometimes even when people do engage with us, there are no immediate options for people off the streets. This is the most frustrating aspect of our work. There are lots of complex reasons why this might be the case – some may have compromised their placements locally, others may have exited prison without a supporting network and an accommodation option. In the current climate, the days of guaranteed offers for offenders coming out of prison have diminished significantly. We see people who have absconded from hospitals, being cuckooed out of their flats by street gangs and people fleeing domestic violence – the variables are extreme and can be totally different person by person, day by day.

    If there are delays in placing people sleeping rough, we have to exercise our specific knowledge of welfare rights and the Homeless Reduction Act. We offer street assessments, so we can gather sufficient information on someone’s local connections to towns and cities in the UK and offer them to return. We can sometimes refer people straight into the private rented sector, via locality agencies, where our commitment to partnership work has resulted in some great outcomes for people.  We can also offer people routes to their original boroughs in London, cities in Britain, and reconnecting people to Europe and beyond.  This service is for people with no eligibility in the borough or coming from different parts of the world.

    Our commitment to ensuring everybody has options when in crisis is unyielding. Leaving the streets isn’t easy, but we will continue working day and night to reach people and support them into accommodation – and you can help us!

    See miracles in life everyday…

    You can support our work in two easy steps: smiling and using StreetLink. Why are these steps important?

    Studies have shown that smiling releases endorphins, other natural painkillers, and serotonin. Together, these brain chemicals make us feel good from head to toe. Not only do they elevate your mood, but they also relax your body and reduce physical pain. Smiling is a natural drug. Next time you walk past a homeless person, stop, make eye contact, smile and say hello. If you feel comfortable, giving someone a few moments on top can give them a feeling of recognition, dignity, and even hope. If our society is going to grow, we all know that our future generations will remember how we treated the worst off in the world.

    This interaction costs nothing and if you see them sleeping rough, take another five minutes and complete a StreetLink referral. That few minutes may help us identify a person in critical need of support and care. You will be helping us, help people achieve a pathway to somewhere they can call home. For us at the Tower Hamlets Street Outreach Team, that is our primary objective, which we will continue to fight for 24/7.

    Find out more about our HomelessWise campaign here. 

    Biphobia and bi-erasure should not be as prevalent as they are

    For International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia 2021, Emma from our Lease and Contracts team explains what biphobia and bi-erasuare are and how they are sadly still too prevalent in today’s society.

    There are many different stereotypes depicted that are then perpetuated by society and contribute to bisexuals having such a negative reputation. Biphobia and bi-erasure have sadly been prevalent in society for decades, if not longer, and as I’ve gotten older I have noticed some similarities and some glaring differences in the portrayal of bi men, women, non-binaries and all other gender identities in the media. For clarification, for the duration of this blog, I will be using the term “bi” to cover all those under the umbrella term (e.g. bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, multisexual, polysexual, heteroflexible, homoflexible, fluid).

    A common stereotype of bi people generally is that they’re greedy nymphomaniacs unable to settle down with one person, and therefore more likely to cheat which then leads to the belief that they are more likely to contract and pass on STIs. There are no facts to support any of these claims, and yet these are the most common accusations the bi community faces. Bi people usually find that a lot their “friends” believe they are always trying to flirt with them, usually after we have opened up and come out to them which discourages many from being open with others about their sexuality. Partners often accuse bi people of wanting to leave them for someone of a different gender, claiming they can’t be satisfied with one partner because they can be attracted to more than one gender. A common claim is that bi people are just going through a phase or doing it for attention before they eventually decide on heterosexuality or homosexuality; that sexuality is and can only be that black and white with no grey areas. Additionally, when a bi person goes from dating one gender to another and people comment “so you’re straight/gay now”; this insistence that we must be one or the other invalidates our orientation and is one of the most infuriating things to experience.

    As for differences, bi women are often sexualised and fetishized whereas bi men are abhorred and ridiculed. Bi women face comments from straight men about automatically being ok with a threesome, and many face attitudes for so-called “gold star” lesbians who won’t have anything to do with bi women as they may have been with a man in the past. Bi men are not as fetishized; instead, they are often avoided by straight women, who act as though they are dirty or shameful and more likely to pass on STIs due to possible relations with other men, and gay men, for being “too straight”. There is one common element I have noticed about the different things said about bi men and bi women in particular that I would like to draw attention to. A lot of the comments I and other bi women hear is that we’re only doing it for attention from men, to make us seem more sexually appealing, and that eventually we will settle down with a man so we can have a family. Bi men, on the other hand, are frequently told that they’re just too scared to be gay and that they will eventually admit that they are gay and settle down with a man. In both circumstances, a male partner is viewed as the inevitable ending for us all; it implies that women are not a viable option for a long-term partner, and this in itself is a very sexist attitude to hold and perpetuate.

    Those who identify as non-binary, genderfluid, genderqueer, etc. usually face the same comments as bi men and women but it is dependent on how others perceive them which in itself is alienating and can be very dysphoric to the individual.  It erases more of their identity than bi men or women as their gender is invalidated as well as their sexual orientation, and this can be very damaging.

    One of the most concerning things I have found from speaking with others within the bi community is that some of the worst biphobia and bi-erasure they have experienced has come from within the LGBTQIA+ community itself. Here, too, exist the beliefs that bi people will cheat with a different gender because they can never be satisfied with one partner. This is not only unfair and untrue, but it also invalidates any who choose a polyamorous lifestyle. There are also many who claim bi people don’t belong if they are in a relationship with someone of a different gender to themselves as they have “straight passing privilege”, meaning they don’t face the same discrimination as an openly and obviously gay couple would as they can pass as a straight couple. This further alienates bi people from a community that is supposed to accept us, and has left a lot of bi people questioning if they want to date outside of the bi or straight community as they feel they will get less judgement.

    The attitude towards bisexuality from both straight and LGBTQIA+ people is that it is a stepping point to “picking a side”; they ignore the huge expanse of no man’s land between straight and gay where all the bi’s live. Also, both straight and LGBTQIA+ people try to dictate what bi means, assigning descriptions without discussing it with those it concerns. For example, bi people are often told that identifying as bisexual is transphobic and/or doesn’t include non-binary people and, that if you are attracted to trans/non binary people, you are automatically pansexual. The basis is that “bi” means “two” and is interpreted as two genders; this is not the true definition of bisexuality which is romantic or sexual attraction to more than one gender.

    Biphobia and bi-erasure should not be as prevalent as they are. In the last fifty years, we as a society have made great strides in acceptance for those within the LGBTQIA+ community, and we are in a much better position than our forebears. That’s not to say that there isn’t more still to do, but now imagine that that community who fought so hard to get here are also still ostracising one of their own; bi people are still fighting stereotypes, misconceptions and ignorance from all corners when we should be banding together. We need to unite to show that, regardless of our spectrum, all flags are valid, seen, respected, valued, and loved.

    Find out more about Diversity and Inclusion at St Mungo’s here.

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