“For me, if I can go home knowing I have helped at least one person away from the streets, or just one person away from the distress of mental health illness, I feel blessed.” St Mungo’s Mental Health Practitioner, Fatima, shares her experience of working in Outreach, helping people sleeping rough in the Tower Hamlets area.
I’ve been a mental health nurse for 18 years. In 2011, I became and an approved mental health professional, which incorporates social work. I will work typical outreach shift in terms of going out early in the mornings and staying out late in the evening, as late as two or three in the morning, speaking to clients who are sleeping rough to try to form therapeutic relationships with them to help them move away from a life on the streets.
‘Blinded to homelessness’
I was one of those people who was blinded to homelessness. I could walk past a homeless person or rough sleeper and not really see them to understand what they’re going through. It’s been an eye opener for me and I’ve fortunately been able to influence others to see homelessness through what I do at St Mungo’s.
It can take a week or months to be build a relationship with a person. Sometimes they are in denial – they have no insight about what is happening to them so I try and to slowly educate them. I take decisions out of people’s hands when they’re experiencing mental distress.
I enjoy my work. I can get people registered with a GP surgery, then get them to start medication, stabilise their mental health illness and then help into accommodation whilst we support them. Many people may have been de-registered and have been turned away from Accident and Emergency (A&E) wards. They can go through those revolving doors three or four times a month, back and forth from A&E.
I also work with the clients to ensure they engage with the process of recovering from homelessness. You cannot take someone off the streets and expect them to turn up for every appointment. I have to build that relationship, that rapport and that routine of them coming to see me to talk about their mental health, the medication and the side effects.
‘Long days full of drama’
My days can be very long and full of drama. Sometimes I get abused, which can be quite stressful. But my job is also fun and flexible. For me, if I can go home knowing I have helped at least one person away from the streets, or just one person away from the distress of mental health illness, I feel blessed.
It’s brilliant to see someone who has been sleeping on the streets for five or six years leave that life behind. The kerb becomes their family so getting them into accommodation is not easy. When you put them in a room in a hostel it can be very lonely. The silence can be deafening for them because people out on the streets give them money and say hello – some people get to know them as they walk past them on their commutes. So they run back onto the street and people wonder why because they have accommodation.
‘Everybody is unique, everybody has a journey.’
A lot of clients can lose their accommodation in hostels because of poor mental health – some people cannot understand their journey. Everybody is unique, everybody has a journey. How you hold their hands to support that journey is what makes a difference. People might think, ‘go to housing and get a property, get off the road and get your benefits’, it’s a much longer journey, however.
Different clients talk about their living conditions. Finances are a problem. People have not been used to managing money and paying bills. Universal Credit has also caused a lot of problems for our clients.
I have one client, for example, who believes he has all his money invested in stocks and shares. He says when his investments mature, he’ll pay his rent. He has a diagnosis of schizophrenia with delusional disorder. I ask for my colleagues to work with him in terms of hand-holding to ensure he does not get evicted from his hostel.
I’m working with this lady that I’ve known since I was a student nurse. Up to now she will not allow anyone else to work with her. She was sleeping in a bin shed. She became mentally unwell, and started using drugs to self-medicate the voices she was hearing. Her children were taken into foster care when they were young. I worked with her and got her a place in a hostel. He son got in touch after 15 years and they’re building a relationship again.
‘You cannot be judgemental’
Because of the nature of the people we work with, many with chaotic life styles, who are extremely marginalised, it’s very difficult to get through to the NHS. Even though I am that link between the NHS and homelessness services. Sometimes the nurses have no understanding or knowledge of homelessness. They’ll say, ‘he needs to go, he might bring drugs in here’. It’s a big challenge to get my clients treatment because of the way they look, or dress and their circumstances.
Working in outreach, you cannot be lazy. I have gotten used walking everywhere. You must be able to multitask as you’re dealing with more than one client, sometimes up to seven a day, who are in crisis. I’ve jumped over six feet walls and walked along canals to help people – it’s part of what we do. You must have people skills, respect humanity, and you cannot be judgemental at all. It takes a lot of character to try and support people who are not ready to receive help.
It’s a nice feeling to know you’ve helped someone from being a hermit to re-engage back into society and to be part of a community. I think that’s what has been missing in [conversations about] homelessness. Our country has forgotten how to be a community. To me, it feels like in London everyone is in a rush, so in that mad rush, we are blinded to homelessness.