Supporting people through a lonely time of year

    During the winter there’s less opportunity for people to go out and so the people we support can isolate themselves which can have a negative impact on their mental health. Here, Ben, a Housing First Caseworker in Westminster shares how our teams are focusing on arranging activities for the people we support to ensure they don’t feel lonely this time of the year. 

    Housing First is a service that moves people into accommodation first and then work with them around that to help them support their tenancy. I think it’s really important that we work in this way as I think it’s easy to get someone into accommodation and then to lose them as they’ll get into somewhere and they find themselves isolated and by themselves and they don’t know what to do and they can sometimes develop depression because they’re feeling so alone. It’s not something many people would expect for someone who has just been given their own home but because they’re not used to being on their own all the time it’s difficult for them.

    When you’ve housed people who have been living on the streets during the winter time it’s hard to persuade them to come out in the cold and wet weather. So it’s important that we offer them something new, and we try to give them a new experience, whether that’s a museum visit or going out for a Chinese so that they feel part of society and their community.

    I was speaking with someone today who had been on the streets for 14 years and now they’re in the flat they can’t give it up for anything, the home is everything they have and since he’s moved into accommodation he has regressed and hidden himself away because he’s never had the opportunity to do that before. It becomes harder during the winter months to keep our clients engaged and to get them out of their houses and taking part in activities. I also recognise the fact that none of us do particularly well during the winter, it’s not a great time of year for most people so there’s definitely  a change of mood. It’s making sure that I’m having daily check ins with my clients to see how they’re coping and to make sure they’re ok and what support they need.

    Christmas is a bit of a taboo subject as if you’ve had very traumatic experience, Christmas is not a fun loving or pleasant time for them. They see people around them that are off doing their Christmas shopping, meeting with their friends and being able to spend time with their family and loved ones and it can add to the isolation people feel. Just because they’re in their own accommodation it doesn’t get any easier for them and it can sometimes bring up period of their life where they are reflecting on the past and they realise they are alone for Christmas. It’s a real struggle and I think it is a bit of a taboo subject, as the reality of it is that it is a really tough time for a lot of people.

    A lot of the things that we do around Housing First, is to make sure all our clients have food hampers over Christmas and we individualise each of our clients Christmas packages as much as we can which I Think makes a real difference. Making sure that our clients are aware of the extra support that is available to them over the winter time. As a team we work for the majority of Christmas and we make sure that staff are available to support clients when they need them and they’ll receive daily check-ins and phone calls and we share the work load a lot as sometimes people do need to be off, we also take on other teams clients when they’re off on leave to make sure that everyone is still supported during the break.

    I do go out and buy my clients their very own mini Christmas tree and a few decorations so they have something to look forward to. I think it’s also a nice reminder that if they do start to feel lonely at Christmas and if they are on their own then they can look at the tree and know that someone does care about them and hopefully it will remind them of a happier moment.

    I think it’s really important that people show that they care at this time of year, however they do that. There are parts of Christmas that I don’t enjoy and I think sharing these experiences and my own feeling helps my clients to see that they’re not alone, and that not everyone is having a jolly festive time, regardless of their situation.

    I’ve been working with someone with very complex mental health. At the beginning the only way he would feel comfortable talking to me was if he was in his bed under a duvet. He wouldn’t come out to see me and he wasn’t looking after himself very well. Six months later, we now meet up three times a week and get a cup of coffee at a local café and he’s beginning to trust me which is amazing. He’s now on a mental health pathway within St Mungo’s and is moving to additional support, he said “I can’t believe you’ve listened to me and you’ve made it happen”. He was so happy. I think it goes to show that there isn’t a perfect scenario for people experiencing homelessness and your options are always limited when you’re in the system, but being able to find him a space that’s more calming environment and less chaotic is really great for me. To see the growth in someone is the reason why I do this job.

    Find out more about our Housing First service here.

    Experiencing homelessness at Christmas

    Nathaniel is a former client and a member of our Client Involvement Working Group. Here, he shares his experiences of homelessness at Christmas and the message he wants people to know.

    I was adopted from birth and grew up with my family in Bounds Green, North London. I used to spend Christmas at home and celebrate with my mother and our extended family but since I became homeless I’m on my own.

    I became homeless after I started to experience voices in my head which was mentally and physically debilitating. I was in dire straits and my mum didn’t understand what was happening and couldn’t look after me.

    I spent my first Christmas in supported accommodation and it was very lonely. We didn’t have any festivities and, at the time, I was experiencing negative voices which also caused me pain and physical manifestations. It really affected my mental health and I was physically and mentally debilitated. I couldn’t do anything so I spend Christmas day alone in bed drinking soup, trying to fight my way out of something that was really dark and difficult to get out of. It was a really tough time.

    Since then I’ve taken part in a lot of client involvement projects with St Mungo’s and I volunteered at the StreetLink service. At StreetLink they were really supportive and gave me my role responsibilities in stages, to make sure I had jobs that I felt comfortable in doing. My first role was inputting information into the computer and then, as my confidence grew, I worked up to taking phone calls and assisting people in that way. I felt happy, content and valued for the work I was doing and I felt that I was part of the team.

    I also joined the Outside In network and started to get involved in some client involvement projects. The work I’ve been doing has definitely been life changing for me. Being able to do things and support with activities has definitely helped me keep my mind free and I’ve been able to talk to other people who have experienced homelessness and hear their stories which has been really educational.

    This Christmas I would like people to open their hearts and minds and be able to connect to others and to the issues and plights of people around them. Homelessness is something that is so common that we don’t really see it anymore. Homelessness has been around since recorded history and I want to encourage people to educate themselves about homelessness and to open up the dialog that will bring about action, understanding, and education and will hopefully inspire people to change the systems and policies in place. Homelessness is something that together, in unity with organisations, the public and policy makers we need to eradicate.

    Keeping us safer: support for women’s homelessness

    Today, 10 December, marks Human Rights Day and brings to a close the 16 days of action against gender-based violence. To mark the day we share how we’re supporting our colleagues, and other staff within the homelessness and women’s sector, to provide the best support for females who are also survivors of domestic abuse and violence.

    Earlier this year, in partnership with Standing Together, we created our Keeping us Safer guidance. This guidance aims to provide staff within the homelessness and women’s sector with the skills and confidence to be able to support female clients who are also survivors of domestic abuse.

    The guidance was created in collaboration with 16 women from our services who have experienced homelessness, abuse and violence. As part of the project the women were asked to share what strategies they used to keep themselves safe. One service user explained what she did when she felt unsafe, she said; “if I don’t feel safe, for example at night on the streets, I go to McDonald’s and eat my dinner very late, around 11pm or 12am. There you can stay inside and be warm and you’re okay.” Another client shared what it was like visiting a night shelter which had majority male occupancy, “(Night shelters are) better than the street but I could feel the look of the men on me … I could feel the sexual pressure and I was like, ‘Okay, I have to make a decent decision. I’ll stay here for two hours and then go.’” Some of the other strategies shared included sleeping in hidden locations or public places, constantly keeping on the move, and dressing as a male to avoid harm.

    Our Keeping us Safer guidance aims to build a strong foundation from which professionals can better support women. The guide encourages you to think about and integrate different approaches which support women’s needs and help to build supportive relationships. The guidance also includes examples of challenges professionals face when supporting women; barriers you may come across within your service; ways to look after your own wellbeing when working with someone with trauma; and suggestions on how to overcome these barriers to best support your female client and create a safe and secure environment.

    Jillian Thursby, Regional Head and Women and Domestic Abuse Lead, worked on the guidance and said; “We know that women experience homelessness differently from men and it’s our job to improve our support offer to fit their needs. The Keeping us Safer guidance has taken the perspectives of women experiencing homelessness, violence, and abuse and created an approach which encourages staff to consider these experiences in order to improve the support offered. The guidance was piloted in three St Mungo’s Services – an outreach team, mixed gender hostel, and women’s only hostel – and staff fed back that the guidance gave them new ways to discuss violence and safety with both clients and partner agencies.”

    “I am grateful also to St Mungo’s… they never give up. They are always coming to see me and check if I’m okay which is keeping me in contact with my reality, otherwise I would be lost.” – Service user

    Ultimately, we hope this approach will contribute to changing attitudes and improve support for women in all their diversity, whether they are rough sleeping, hidden homeless, or living in homelessness support services.

    Having difficult conversations about grief and loss

    Here, Catherine our Bereavement Support Coordinator explains her role in helping our staff and the people we support through our Bereavement Support Service.

    Bereavement is cited in the top 10 reasons that contribute to homelessness. This is why it’s so important to be with the people we support as they process their loss as well as ensure that staff are properly equipped to help them with all the difficult emotions that grief can bring up. Our Bereavement Support Service is available across all St Mungo’s services and aims to do just that – provide a range of bereavement support to those in services and the staff supporting them.

    While each person’s story is unique, there can be factors that can contribute to why people find themselves facing homelessness. Sometimes this is having an unstable environment in childhood or traumatic life experiences such as losing loved ones. In my role as Bereavement Care Coordinator, I offer emotional support to people in St Mungo’s services, with the aim to offer a calm presence in a non-judgemental space for them to discuss their loss and feelings, either face to face or over the phone.

    People who experience homelessness can face chronic health problems and, the sad reality is that without support, people on the streets face a much shorter life expectancy. This is why my role equally focuses on supporting staff members who work in our services and closely with people who are experiencing homelessness to help them process their feelings of loss if someone they have been supporting passes away.

    Whether the individual has passed away under tragic circumstances or due to prolonged ill health, staff can often be caught between the need to remain professional but being personally impact by the person’s death. It’s important to offer reassurance and promote the need for self-care and space for them to reflect about what has happened – to try and normalise the grieving process. But this can be hard and there is often an incredible sadness of feeling like a life has been cut short. Cruelly in most cases, staff will have seen the people we support start to make changes, improve drinking habits and get onto a path of recovery but this can’t always be maintained.

    With time we work with staff about the need to pre-empt the potential outcome of individuals passing away in their services – our Palliative Care Service is crucial in this. But despite coming into their jobs to make a difference and to bring hope in ending homelessness, staff do often say they still need to mentally prepare themselves for seeing people they interact with every day approaching the end of life. Nevertheless, I am always struck by the bond that staff have with the people they support and the ‘family’ type feeling they have for each other.

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