Volunteering in emergency accommodation during the Covid-19 pandemic

    Stuart describes his rewarding experience of volunteering with people housed in emergency hotel accommodation during the pandemic.

    Having previously spent close to 15 years working overseas with British health NGOs and the United Nations in critical emergency situations, I never could have envisaged the situation that would unfold in the UK just over one year ago as the pandemic took hold. Those working conditions with which I had become familiar elsewhere were now a part of UK daily life: vulnerable communities, breakdowns in supply chains, restrictions on movements and personal freedoms coupled with national uncertainty, fear, and anxiety.

    At the onset of the pandemic, a call went out from the British Red Cross with whom I have been involved for the last two years, seeking volunteers to assist St Mungo’s with the Everyone In response that was accommodating rough sleepers across a number of hotels in London. Having had a long-term interest in the issue and causes of homelessness dating back to my time at university, I was keen to sign up!

    My role supporting the team and vulnerable people

    Those first few visits to the Limehouse hotel, where up to 150 people were being accommodated and supported by Mungo’s, were quite surreal. Travelling in an empty carriage on the DLR through a deserted Canary Wharf is something that will stay with me for a long time and certainly brought home the deadly threat facing the country.

    Working conditions too were adapted to this new environment with personal protective equipment now a requirement. Whereas in my previous working life, PPE had consisted of the need for 12kg body armour in Gaza, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, this time around it took the form of masks, gloves and gowns as well as the need for two metre spacing and the constant wiping down of public surfaces. I initially found masks to be quite an intrusive barrier to communications with clients and colleagues however, as always, one adapts.

    Since starting at Limehouse towards the end of April 2020, I have also worked at a hotel in Leyton and most recently Greenwich. This has typically involved one full day a week or more recently two half- day shifts. The work is predictable but essential! As a result of Covid-19 requirements, communal indoors eating is obviously no longer possible. My principle role along with those of the other volunteers is very much focussed on the provision of the daily meals which involves going from room-to- room three times daily and providing pre-prepared food to the clients.

    Outside of the food runs, the main task is to act as an interface with the clients for basic requests, so that the St Mungo’s team can be left to get on with the all-important casework. Everyone In has provided St Mungo’s with a great opportunity to get clients’ lives back on track, whether this is through the ability to look at longer-term housing options as well as connecting with health and dental services and the benefits system and Home Office. The presence of volunteers in the hotels allows the full-time staff the time to focus on sustainable solutions for the individual clients.

    There have been so many highlights of this experience in the last year. Where do I start? Arriving on a shift to learn that one of the clients that you have been supporting for a number of months has found a place to live. Being part of a team of dedicated volunteers and staff seeking to – and succeeding in – making tangible improvements to the life quality of some of the more marginal and vulnerable individuals within our communities. The surprise of learning that I had been nominated by my peers for the Marsh Award!

    Find out more about volunteering at St Mungo’s here.

    Volunteering to inspire people creatively

    In this blog, our award-winning volunteer, Emma discusses her role as a Creative Writing Facilitator for the St Mungo’s Recovery College and why she recommends volunteering to everyone.

    A bit about me…

    I am a creative writing facilitator for St Mungo’s Recovery College, which I’ve been doing for two and a half years. Before lockdown I facilitated a two-hour session in London every week, then after the first lockdown hit we converted that to an online session twice a week for about three months, and now once a week, on Tuesdays from 11am to1.15pm

    How did I start volunteering?

    Long story! I went to university as an adult and gained a creative writing degree. When I graduated, I started volunteering facilitating creative writing workshops for charities including the 999 Club in Deptford and Salvation Army. Then I worked in a prison full time. My job at the prison had nothing to do with creative writing and my mental health suffered as a result. I had to get back to doing what I was good at, and what I enjoyed. A friend of mine had done some volunteering at the St Mungo’s Recovery College (now the Digital Recovery College) and recommended it. He introduced me so that I could begin to get back on track.

    Every week is different.

    I don’t follow a specific curriculum, I offer prompts to inspire writing. It could be music, stories, items, images – because we’re online at the moment students are able to collect items from their own space to write about which is great. I simply concentrate on providing a safe, nurturing space for students to express themselves freely.

    I don’t call myself a tutor as I don’t believe creative writing can be taught. I call myself a facilitator; I provide students with the space to express the voice that belongs to them – you can’t ‘teach’ that.

    Students sign up for the class at the start of term (the Recovery College usually has four terms a year) but then numbers will vary week to week. Last year we had 11-14 people attending on average, sometimes up to 20. Recently we’ve been starting our sessions with a dance which has brought a lot of joy and positive energy. We also do occasional meditations, which again is a benefit of being online. I wouldn’t suggest this in person because some students may not feel comfortable closing their eyes in public. Many students have expressed how much they enjoy meditating together.

    The rewards are indescribable.

    We’re so much more than just a writing class – we are a gathering of beautiful human beings. I wouldn’t name it a therapeutic or wellbeing workshop, but there is that essence to it because we are coming together and communicating from our hearts and souls.

    The students give me so much; their ability to show up, their vulnerability, their bravery, how truthful they are in their writing. And I have the privilege of hearing all their voices!

    To anyone thinking about volunteering, I’d say, ‘go for it’, you have nothing to lose. Be open. It’s not just about what you give… you get back what you give ten-fold.

    Find out more about volunteering at St Mungo’s 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.

    Experience of volunteering at St Mungo’s during the pandemic

    We recently celebrated our Heroes of the Pandemic Volunteer Awards, which recognised the hard work and dedication of our wonderful volunteers over the last year.

    In this blog, one of our award winners, Sara Ramos Pinto discusses her role with Mulberry House in Bath, the impact it has had and how she has had to adapt in response to COVID-19.

    Role and why to volunteer

    I volunteer with Mulberry House (a supported housing service for people living with and recovering from mental health issues) as a walking group facilitator.

    On the walks, we literally just walk and talk. We talk about anything and everything, and along the way we’ve got to know each other more. Sometimes we share worries, sometimes we share goals or interests and sometimes we don’t share at all – sometimes people don’t want to talk and that’s okay too.

    I decided to volunteer with St Mungo’s because I am a strong believer in community and now that I had settled in Bath I wanted to actively participate in the community of Bath. I am also acutely aware that we all have a tendency to live in our own bubbles, only spending time with people who are similar to us. I looked around me and realised everyone was a university lecturer (like me!), and I thought there’s something not right about this. I wanted to burst that bubble and have contact with new people who had different experiences, different backgrounds and different lives.

    I reached out to a friend who worked at Mulberry house and she told me about the volunteer opportunity, which thankfully worked out!

    The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on volunteering

    When lockdown first hit, we weren’t able to meet up due to the restrictions, so during these times I have kept in contact with everyone in the house over email instead, sharing pictures and challenges to keep us going.

    When we have been able meet up, for example during the summer, everyone was really excited and we had even more people involved in the walks than usual. Everyone has been indoors and more isolated than usual, so walking in a group and enjoying the astonishing nature of Bath was exactly what we all needed and a rare moment of normality!

    Sadly, due to the latest lockdown, our walks had been on hold again, but now that we are easing out of this we’ve been able to start them up again and enjoy the spring! The next step would be to organise a longer walk, maybe doing the skyline walk, or a longer walk with a picnic in the middle.

    Highlights of volunteering during a challenging year

    During one walk, a client expressed hopelessness about their prospects of getting employment due to them having dyslexia. The client was new to the group, so I decided to take the opportunity to disclose that I also had moderate dyslexia. The client was really taken aback as he couldn’t believe that I, as an academic, had dyslexia! He had lots of questions and we talked openly about it, breaking down the assumptions and misconceptions. It was truly special!

    The impact of volunteering

    I think through sharing information about our lives, we have made connections which has helped people to feel safe and open up. As a result, I have seen the group grow in confidence. For some, this has meant talking more on walks, whilst others have even started volunteering themselves and considering further education options.

    The staff at Mulberry House say that the walks are doing a ‘world of good’ and are a ‘lifeline to clients’ but I often think it has benefited me more than them!

    I’ve learnt and shared so much and it’s helped me to put my own life in perspective. When you are in your own bubble, sometimes things that aren’t that significant can seem really big and important. But when you hear about other people’s experiences and establish a connection with that person, you start to realise what really matters. In addition to now knowing a lot more about plants, animals, the city of Goa in India or the new lingo of generation Z, this experience has only reinforced my belief in community and how important it is to have connections with people who have different life experiences to you.

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

    A Mental Health Act that works for vulnerable people

    This week we submitted our views to the public consultation on reforming the Mental Health Act. Emma Cookson, our Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer, outlines what we want the legislation to remember about people who are homeless experiencing mental ill health.

    How many people who are homeless do you think suffer from mental ill health?

    From October to December 2020 our data showed that 72% of people accessing St Mungo’s housing-related support services had a mental health support need.

    The Mental Health Foundation (2015) found that depression rates are more than 10 times higher in the homeless population, and Office for National Statistics data for 2019 shows suicide rates 14 times higher than among the general population.

    But all too frequently people tell us they can only access help when they reach crisis point. And then even once they receive help, they can often be disempowered and not treated with dignity and respect.

    The role of complex needs and multiple layers of disadvantage – like homelessness – in people’s mental health and access to mainstream services is also completely under-acknowledged. Research carried out by St Mungo’s in 2016, for example, revealed that 68% of areas where 10 or more people sleep rough on any one night do not commission any mental health services actively targeting people sleeping rough. There has been some positive progress with the £30m in NHS funding to enable specialist homeless mental health services to be set up in some parts of the country. However, there is still plenty more to do.

    It’s been two years since the Independent Review of the Mental Health Act, led by Professor Sir Simon Wessely, which recognised the need to give people more say in their own treatment; to require stronger, transparent justification for using compulsory powers; and to improve services.

    It also highlighted the huge race inequality in the use of the Act: black people, for instance, are more than eight times more likely to be subjected to Community Treatment Orders than white people.

    In response, the Government has now published its long-awaited White Paper on reforming the Mental Health Act and held a public consultation on it. This is a huge opportunity to reflect the needs of St Mungo’s clients and ensure that people who are homeless are not forgotten in the reforms.

    Here are the main points we put forward in our submission:

    • We need more focus on prevention, rather than only being able to access help once someone has reached crisis point. Many homeless people are not engaged with statutory mental health services (for reasons including a lack of trust in services and barriers in access). This lets problems escalate. Specialist homeless mental health services are an invaluable means of overcoming the inaccessibility of mainstream health services. But these teams have been subject to major funding cuts during the past decade.
    • Wherever possible, successful community-based interventions are much more preferable to the situation where people are held in a secure, medicalised setting with other people who are also very unwell, with huge restrictions on their choices and freedoms, and where treatment may be administered against their will. Sometimes detention is necessary – but we want it to be a last resort.
    • Housing needs are too often forgotten in both prevention and recovery from mental ill health. Homelessness is toxic to mental wellbeing. To stop a cycle of discharge, re-admittance and worsening mental health, we need more Supported Housing and Housing First which can play a big part in improving mental ill health.
    • People who are homeless face significant stigma, including from ‘professionals’ in positions of responsibility. We need to make sure that there are checks and balances in place to prevent this. We also need more awareness of complex needs amongst mental health professionals to understand the complexities of being homeless with mental health needs.
    • Many people who are homeless with mental ill health have complex trauma. It’s crucial that detention – and other responses to mental ill health — do not re-traumatise the individual, exacerbating mental ill health and creating more difficulties in addressing other, intertwined problems – such as homelessness, substance use, chronic physical, health problems and crime.
    • Even though there is National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance in place to prevent it, people are frequently pushed into individual treatment pathways. Mental health, homelessness, and drugs and alcohol services are all designed and funded as if people fit into one box, rather than the reality that people’s problems are complex and interwoven. They cannot be addressed one-by-one but need to be approached holistically.

    It’s so important to have a Mental Health Act which works for vulnerable people – like our clients — who find it difficult to engage in mainstream services and who need person-centred care which takes into account their complex needs.

    Just changing the law won’t be a magic switch. Money is needed for chronically underfunded mental health services and we need attitudes towards mental ill health to shift, although there’s been some good progress. Overhauling the Mental Health Act 1983 is a good place to start.

    Our Putting Down Roots programme

    Image: Putting Down Roots

    Matt Woodruff, Horticulture Skills Manager, shares his work supporting St Mungo’s clients through Putting Down Roots.

    Before joining St Mungo’s, Matt had a variety of jobs including garden designer and horticulture teacher – he believes his current role is the most rewarding so far.

    What is Putting Down Roots?

    Putting Down Roots is a horticultural therapy and training project, using gardening as a tool to help people in their recovery. It has been taking place for 21 years – we had been due to celebrate 20 years in 2020!

    How does Putting Down Roots help clients* in their recovery journey?

    Putting Down Roots helps to build people’s self-esteem, confidence and sociability.

    It establishes a routine by asking participants to commit to attending regular sessions, and taking responsibility in caring for plants. Learning to nurture something else helps people to learn to nurture themselves, and there is a parallel between the growth and development of plants and the growth and development of people.

    Putting Down Roots can be an up and down journey, with set-backs and recovering from things going wrong. The cyclical nature of gardening can teach a wider message about positive outcomes coming after cold spells.

    How do clients find out about Putting Down Roots?

    A client may be told about Putting Down Roots via their key worker or another client who has been involved. Clients fill out an application form, and the Putting Down Roots team then make an assessment to ensure the client would be suitable and safe to participate, and at the appropriate stage of their recovery journey to do so.

    Clients can take part in Putting Down Roots for up to two years, before being encouraged to move on to another activity to make space for someone else. This can be difficult as people enjoy the programme so much!

    Is Putting Down Roots an accessible programme?

    It is very accessible! Putting Down Roots is open to all clients and we can assign tasks depending on physicality, for example a participant can sow seeds or do digging, and we have raised beds for people who can’t bend over.

    In addition to our permanent sites in Bristol and London, we are doing in-reach work in hostels to encourage new recruits who may not feel comfortable travelling to a project site. People may feel comfortable participating in the garden of their accommodation project initially, to build up their confidence.

    What outcomes do you expect to see from Putting Down Roots?

    The small things can be the biggest achievement. Simply leaving a room or quitting a substance can be a subtle way in which people have turned their lives around.

    Everyone has a unique recovery journey, and therefore will have different outcomes from Putting Down Roots. For some people, employment or retraining may be the ultimate goal. For others, it may be feeling comfortable and confident in joining another community group as a volunteer. For others, it is regaining confidence and managing to work as part of a team.

    We build our own community within St Mungo’s and seeing the change in people’s outlook is very powerful.

    What has been the impact on the Coronavirus pandemic?

    There has been a massive impact – the initial lockdown in March 2020 meant that the programme could not run and the gardens quickly became out of control. Again, there can be an analogy between people’s lives spiralling due to the pandemic in the same way as the gardens.

    We were allowed to resume at the end of summer, and it has been a start-stop process since then. Putting Down Roots has recently resumed however the rule of 6 means that only four clients and two trainers can participate in a session at the moment. We are looking forward to welcoming more clients back when it is safe to do so.

    We always encourage new recruits and are currently seeing massive demand for Putting Down Roots with a waiting list of clients wishing to take part. I think lockdown has contributed to this – people want to be taking part in a physical activity in new surroundings.

    What is the most rewarding part of your job?

    The most rewarding part is getting to see a tangible difference in people in a very short period of time. In about six weeks you can really notice a person’s confidence increasing, and the feedback we receive from clients is great – they wouldn’t keep coming back if they didn’t enjoy it.

    The transformations are amazing and it feels like a privilege to be part of that.

     

    *Clients are people who use our services, for example, some are residents in our hostels and/or use our Recovery College to gain skills and confidence after homelessness. 


    Putting Down Roots is funded by our generous supporters including corporate partners Barratt Developments and Jo Malone London. Find out more about our partnerships and how you can get involved here


    Donate to help us fund more programmes like Putting Down Roots.

    Housing First in action: Camden

    One of the largest Housing First services St Mungo’s provides is in Camden, which we began running in 2014 with 20 clients. The service has since expanded four times, mostly through Rough Sleeping Initiative (RSI) funding, although its most recent expansion was through the Next Steps Accommodation Programme, increasing its capacity to 72 clients.

    The power of choice

    Housing First staff have small caseloads. They work intensively over long periods with clients, whose trust and belief in the model is key to its sustainability. Staff in Camden begin by asking a client “do you want to work with us?” It seems a simple question, but the most vulnerable clients may feel that past decisions have been made for or to them. Having choice put firmly in their hands from the outset provides a bedrock of empowerment at odds with past experience. Small caseloads have been consistent throughout expansion, with the service maintaining the necessary staffing to support this through partnership working with Camden Council.

    The service works with a range of housing providers, affording choice to clients on where they want to live. This cements their power over their journey and provides a physical platform for recovery in the right environment. The service works with Camden Council and providers such as One Housing and Notting Hill Genesis with whom the service has negotiated service level agreements. These ensure that housing providers understand the Housing First client group, and streamlines processes to prevent clients being overwhelmed. Staff use personalisation budgets to purchase items clients choose which they feel will turn their tenancy into a home.

    The right support

    Housing First is based on clients’ strengths and aspirations, with no requirement for them to engage with support services. Recovery is not linear and, for many, the rigid structure of statutory services, with fixed treatment programmes and methods, can be difficult.

    When clients are ready to engage, challenging the status quo of a treatment programme is important. Staff support clients to engage with these services but also support the services to engage with a client group that they may be unfamiliar with, attending multi-agency meetings to advocate on a client’s behalf.

    As a result, 96% of clients in Camden Housing First are registered with a GP*, and 100% of clients with a mental, physical or substance misuse issue who need to engage with services are doing so*.

    Camden Housing First provides an Occupational Therapist, Rosemary, supported by Homeless Link’s Housing First Fund, to work with clients who have the most difficulty engaging. Using her specialist healthcare knowledge Rosemary works alongside Housing First staff to ensure that clients can access services, especially where those rigid structures and methods have proved insurmountable in keeping clients within treatment and care programmes. Rosemary is able to assess, establish and evidence their clinical requirements and needs. This includes ensuring that capacity is assessed accurately, that adequate care is provided and stepping in when this is not the case.

    Rosemary also works with clients to make sure they have everything they need to meet their support needs within their homes and to access the community through digital inclusion. This has been particularly beneficial during covid, affording access to virtual medical appointments and learning opportunities.

    One client said, “Rose [the OT] is lovely. She gets things done, she don’t turn her back on nothing. She got a laptop for me. I get on fabulous with her and she does everything that’s required”.

    The ecosystem

    Staff also link clients in with other organisations, such as Groundswell, who assist clients through the entire process of attending appointments.  This can include getting ready and travelling to/from, ensuring access to vital medical care.

    During the pandemic staff have been working with services to ensure that medication is dropped directly to clients’ doors where possible. Necessary face-to-face contact has been carried out safely, and food delivered when needed.

    The service and partners in Camden Council identified a real need for a more trauma informed approach when working with female clients. They introduced a women’s worker to ensure a gender-informed approach: understanding and addressing barriers specific to women that they may face in accessing services.  A dedicated women’s worker also allows for more time to be spent building up trust with those clients.

    Support in Housing First services also includes practical things such as cleaning, shopping, and ensuring that the client is in receipt of the correct benefits. This helps people to develop skills which they can carry forward if/when they move on from the service. 100% of the clients at Camden Housing First have increased their ability to manage money as measured by an outcomes star*, and 100% are in receipt of the correct benefits with no sanctions*. The service also works with clients who are subject to court or Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, which staff support them to comply with, with a current compliance rate of 100%*.

    Being a St Mungo’s client also means access to services such as the Recovery College, the Lifeworks psychotherapy service or the Putting Down Roots gardening programme. The St Mungo’s Palliative Care Team have supported staff with hospital and hospice liaison and coping with a client death.

    Patience and persistence   

    It is these vital building blocks and wraparound support which help clients to maintain their tenancies – the ultimate goal of any Housing First service. In Camden, 50 out of 51 service users maintained their tenancies in the most recent quarter*.

    The ethos of Housing First has often been summed up as never giving up on a client. What is perhaps even truer is that clients, who may have every reason to do so, never give up on us.

     

    *Note: figures in this piece are from the reporting quarter 6th July – 4th October 2020

    Street Impact Brighton: successes and outcomes

    Street Impact Brighton Limited (SIB) was established to work with some of Brighton’s most complex rough sleepers; people with histories which involve prolonged and repeat episodes of rough sleeping as well as complex issues around alcohol, drug use and mental health.

    The project was due to start in 2017, however attempts to deliver a four-year multiagency, Sussex-wide SIB were unsuccessful. The following year Brighton and Hove City Council commissioned St Mungo’s to deliver Brighton SIB – a pioneering project to work with 100 people who were identified as being hard to reach, and the most difficult for our teams to encourage to engage with our support.

    The project officially started in March 2018 and is a Social Impact Bond which has social investors putting up the funds to meet the scheme’s running costs and is reimbursed on a 100% payment by results basis by Brighton & Hove City Council. This is backed by the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

    Fast forward three years and the project closes at the end of March 2021 with some wonderful outcomes. Paulina Drydra, former SIB Outreach Manager shares their journey.

    How does SIB work?

     Over the past three years we have been working with a cohort of 100 named individuals who have experienced long periods of time rough sleeping or who repeatedly return to the streets.  We have a dedicated team of four staff: one manager and three SIB workers. The SIB workers are assigned up to 30 clients each at any one time.

    We were not looking to replace or replicate services that people already had strong links to, but to support those services and fill any gaps with targeted personal support and funds to help people really sustain their recovery.

    The SIB models works because it relies on a great degree of trust between a person sleeping rough and a support worker who has the time and capacity to tackle the complex causes of someone’s homelessness and support them to recover in their own way.

    Optimism when all hope is lost

    Being a SIB worker is about carrying optimism when someone sleeping rough may have lost all hope, while at the same time being absolutely respectful of the individual’s choices and decisions – because it is their life after all. This takes time and focus, and the SIB model gave us that.

    The project essentially succeeds or fails according to how well the team are able to deliver a ‘throughcare’ service – the secret ingredient is providing a new way of working with clients and not replicating something that hasn’t worked before.

    What makes SIB different?

    The two differences that have enabled us to sustain long term outcomes for some of Brighton’s most complex rough sleepers have been consistency and freedom to innovate.

    We offer consistency because we are with people for the whole process allowing the worker/client relationships to develop slowly.

    We have greater freedom to individually tailor our approach to achieve the end goal for our clients, backed up by funds. This kind of approach is harder to take in more traditionally commissioned services, where costs and time spent with each client is directly influenced by commissioning frameworks and contractual expectations.

    Our success

    As we come to the end of the programme, I am proud to say we have achieved some great results. We have engaged with 100 people which is 100% of the original target. We have supported 78% to either enter or sustain their accommodation, providing the vital support they need to get their life back on track, 28% people have successfully signed a long term tenancy agreement and 15% have sustained their tenancy for over one year. There are currently no rough sleepers in Brighton that sit within the SIB Cohort. It’s wonderful to see people feeling in control of their lives again.

    Find out more about our Social Impact Bonds model and successes and outcomes to date here.

    Paulina no longer works for St Mungo’s but she has given her permission to use this article.

    Looking back at the last year, “What a privilege to be a part of it all”

    John from our Outreach team in Bristol reflects on what has been achieved in the past year.

    Looking back at the last year, the first words I think of are tiring and exhausting. But also, what a privilege to be part of it all. What we managed to achieve within that year is absolutely amazing.

    When we first went into lockdown we had to get everyone in, and we had to find the best way to get everybody in. It was that simple. My role is to go onto the streets and reach out to people. To build a relationship. To build trust.

    Sometimes, I was literally able to chat to someone who was sleeping rough, talk to Bristol City Council, and depending on what was available I could get them into emergency accommodation within 20 minutes.

    I have to mention other services. I can only talk about my experience but I can’t emphasize enough how much it was a collective thing. The team, St Mungo’s, other homelessness organisations, the emergency services, Bristol City Council – us as a city, we all pulled together.

    Let’s not forget that most important is the person who is on the street. What we manage to achieve alongside each other. When I think about people who are homeless and how difficult it must have been – one minute they were on a busy street, the next thing they knew the whole city had locked down. How hard that was for people with no homes, for people that needed support or who had alcohol and drug problems. We had to make sure we tailored our support so it was right for their needs.

    You need to remember how fast everything happened at the beginning. Hotels being opened for people on the streets, supported accommodation project making changes so they could keep going – it all happened very quickly! It’s also important to emphasise how Bristol City Council stepped in to help, and how the government gave funding.

    It was stressful and exhausting. I remember some nights I’d get home after a day’s work and fall asleep with my tea on my lap. Go straight to bed and then wake up the next morning to do it all again.

    When we offered people on the streets a hotel room, they couldn’t believe it. Honestly, within a night you could see a difference. An instant stabilisation – being somewhere warm, safe and with a hot meal. Doing the job I do I know how important that is. Imagine how difficult it is on the streets; how hard it is to rest, to find food, to find warm bedding, to find somewhere safe to sleep. And how traumatic that must be for anybody.

    Of course, Covid has been horrific for everyone. But I do have gratitude for some of the positive things that I’ve seen come out of a bad experience. There were people that we had been engaging with for some time – who might have experienced trauma, difficulties with their mental health, or have had challenging experiences – and we were able to get them in for the first time. And because we could get them into emergency accommodation, we have had so many amazing stories of people moving into their own places. Sometimes I see people that I supported into accommodation and they are walking down the street like a completely different person.

    Recently, over winter, we’ve activated our severe weather response three times in Bristol. So we’ve got Covid, we’ve got lockdowns starting and stopping, shops opening and closing and then all of a sudden the weather is freezing and it’s all hands on deck again. We’re out from 6 in the morning until midnight, going out to get everyone in from the cold.

    Even though we achieved what we did in lockdown, sadly there are still people on the street. We can’t lose sight of that. Every single person deserves a home.

    When I reflect back on the last year – exhaustion, tiredness, not sleeping very well – have I recovered from it? Absolutely not! As a team it’s been hard work.

    But also, what a lovely thing to be able to do. What a privilege to be part of it.

    And you know what? I’d do it all again tomorrow.

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