Wendy is a Pathway Navigator for St Mungo’s in Reading. She shares a 50th birthday this year with St Mungo’s. To mark both occasions, here she reflects on 15 years working in homeless outreach, helping people off the streets and into safety. This is her story.
I’d always wanted to do something different – I was always interested in politics and social issues but I was never in a situation to get actively involved in anything.
When I was younger I did various jobs and eventually I ended up doing some volunteering.
I think I got a little bit set up! I was asked to support somebody to go to a community and youth work evening to see if they were interested – but I found myself signing up! The organiser came up to me and said, “Oh, I knew you would, Wendy.”
But I built off that youth and community work. I went to university and got my degree in it.
Just before that I met partner and she was from Reading – I was from Newcastle, originally – so I moved down here in 2002. You follow your heart.
I started out with an organisation called Single Homeless Project (now LaunchPad) and then I joined the outreach team in Reading and have been doing that ever since. I’m still glad I did.
Coming to Reading and getting into homeless outreach was the best decision I made in my life.
It was completely different back then. There was no Homeless Pathway, no SWEP (Severe Weather Emergency Protocol). There was a lot of ringing up on the day, trying to find anywhere for someone to go.
Today it’s much fairer. We go out early with the Health Outreach Liaison Team, we have our own emergency bed spaces to offer people, and we meet with our partners every week to decide on priorities.
I remember doing our first SWEP, which was brilliant. If you’re an outreach worker, you can’t be bothered by the weather. You’ll be out in minus 8°, helping people in from the cold.
You never know what’s going to happen. You might have your day planned but it can go completely different to what you were expecting. And that’s what I like.
It’s the clients that make it worth it. Completely – nothing else.
I can have a client telling me to “f*** off” – 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 times and I’ll keep going back because one day he’ll go, “OK”.
The perception might be that people are violent, vicious, threatening, that they scrounge off the state. My experience is completely different.
I have one Housing First client, he’s got a flat now and it’s lovely. There’s lots of older people around him and, when I visit, he’ll be telling me – “I’ve just been across the road with the step ladder, because she’s trying to clean her windows and I can’t let her do that, Wendy, because she’s elderly.”
He’s such a nice guy but I had to get to know him on a more personal level to connect. I learnt that he’d travelled when he was younger, and we’d talk about places we’d been. I think that for the people who’ve slept rough for a long time, with complex things to deal with, that connection can make a real difference.
There’ll be times I’ll be crying with laughter. That humour and resilience shines through.
There are a few clients that, whenever I think about them, it makes me smile.
Once, I was standing outside waiting for a client and a man came up to me with a little baby in a pushchair and a nice woman next to him. He said, “Wendy, do you remember me?”
And I could remember exactly where I found him. In a car park, just outside Reading town centre, and it was cold, not quite freezing, but very cold. He was huddled under a very thin blanket, massive cocaine habit – just lying there shivering.
Years later, he was introducing me to his partner, and she already knew all about me. He had his own business, a house in Reading – which isn’t easy to get – and a baby. He told me I’d saved his life and asked me to be the guest of honour at his wedding.
It’s the things like that I think about.
Earlier this month, I turned 50. It’s nice – man walked on the moon, St Mungo’s, and me.
I had a big party with friends, old colleagues, people from the team and some I know from Reading Borough Council.
People went up to my mum and said how proud they were of me – told her how I’ve saved lives.
And I never think about it in that light. I just see it as me giving someone tools and opportunity to move on from a situation. But that was a really lovely thing for my mum to hear.
If I’ve prevented one person from dying, I’d be happy. Hopefully, over 15 years, I’ve done more than one.
Our 50 year history is filled with some extraordinary people. To mark our anniversary, we will be profiling 50 Lives throughout 2019 – a snapshot of those who have played their part in our story. You can read the stories on our website at www.mungos.org/50-lives.