Housing First as part of the pandemic response

    Over the last year our Housing First service in Brighton has grown rapidly as part of the response to the pandemic. Last summer the service was supporting 22 people and by the end of this year this will increase to 60. We are currently helping 50 people with an imminent five offers made and the final five expected to be completed in October.

    Here, Jonathan* speaks about his experience of this ground breaking initiative that’s fast becoming our flagship service in Brighton.

    My dad died on my 21st birthday and it hit me hard. I moved from County Durham to Brighton to get away from everything. I came with a friend and I remember we partied hard and I woke up on the Green opposite Glenwood Lodge by myself. My friend went home without me and I stayed. That was 26 years ago.

    During that time I had been in a cycle of rough sleeping and time spent in prison. I had survived by shoplifting and doing anything I needed to get through each day. I quickly became addicted to heroin and crack cocaine. Although outreach teams tried to help me over the years, all I was interested in was getting my next fix. To me, I had a sleeping bag and a tent so I was happy as long as I could score. I didn’t think I needed their help.

    I have seen some horrible things and it was hard. I have seen people at their worst on nights out thinking it’s funny to urinate on you while you are sleeping, or chuck beer cans at you and spit on you.

    In 2017 my groin exploded and I went to A&E – this was a turning point for me as they encouraged me to accept help and face my addictions. I was 6.5 stone and I’m 5ft 8” so I was in a bad way. I ended up in prison again though. But once I was released, I met Sophie from St Mungo’s Housing First team and things began to change. On release I was placed in a hotel for two weeks and then offered a one bed flat through Housing First.

    I thought it was a joke, I didn’t trust it and expected to be back on the streets after a few days. I have been here 7 months now. At first I couldn’t get used to being on my own and having my own bed with the choice to come and go as I wanted. My first night I was up and down, I didn’t feel I wanted to be there, I wanted to go back onto the streets. I can’t explain it, I had lived so long on the streets and in prison I couldn’t get my head around having my own space. It’s all thanks to Sophie from Housing First and Emily (CGL Adult Drug & Alcohol Service). They have helped me get a grant so I have everything I need in my flat, a washing machine, furniture and TV.

    I feel ecstatic now. I honestly didn’t think I’d last it out. I didn’t think I would be able to pay my bills but I do. Sophie supports me through this and keeps me on track if I need her help. I feel supported but I also feel independent.

    My hopes for the future are to keep hold of my flat, to keep my two voluntary jobs going, and to remain substance free. Staying clean is the hardest part – I have been off the crack and heroin for 4.5 years and off methadone for one year now.

    I feel like I have woken up. I am part of a community and I chat to my neighbours every day. I love getting up early and catching the bus to work. I enjoy cooking roasts and baking cakes. One of my favourite things is to sit in the communal garden and share my cakes with the seagulls.

    Find out more about Housing First service here.

    The Cotswold Way challenge

    Sarah took part in the Cotswold Way Challenge as part of #TeamMungos, in her own words she tells us her experience of the event.

    Why this event? Where did you find it?

    I found this event via the St Mungo’s Facebook page. I did not realised how big the Cotswolds are, but to my surprise it goes all the way to Bath as well.

    This was your idea – how did you get people to join in the challenge?

    I made a presentation in our fortnightly Outside In group, including options of how many km to do (25km, 50km or 100km).  Also, because it was cancelled last year due to Covid-19, I included the details they had on the website about how they would make the event Covid-19 secure, to give those taking part confidence.

    What made you do it?

    I miss being outside. Things such as running, boxing and walking with friends have really helped me with my mental health as a way of coping with anxiety and frustration.

    In the past year there has been a lot of change, for example our Outside In meetings moving to Zoom. It was nice at first trying out this new technology – despite arguing with my girlfriend (Sally) over internet connection!

    I can only imagine what it like for school kids doing exams from lower-income backgrounds. Also, for those who are homeless struggling to get a roof over their head and food, never mind a computer and decent internet.

    Anyway, this was a way I could now finally see people’s legs! I do like a challenge and within Outside In, a lot of people tend to go out walking and enjoy adventures.

    I have done something like this when I did the Bristol half marathon and though it was hard work, I loved the experiences and was ready for my next challenge after being stuck inside for a long time .

    Before the event – how did you prepare?

    I was able to use the tips I picked up from training for the half marathon. I also looked up YouTube videos on hiking and followed their recommendations – walking boots, snack, and exercises. I followed the ultra challenge Facebook group and the guide they have on the website. Also, when we were waiting for the bus to the challenge we did some stretching to prepare our bodies for the walk, taking it in turns to choose what exercise we should do next.

    The beginning

    When we got to that start line it felt unreal, I couldn’t believe that we were doing this. Our temperature was taken at the start and we got handed an envelope that had our name, tracking chip and trek route with numbers on the back for emergencies. Whilst pinning my number to my backpack, the nerves were getting to me before we set off. I started to feel stressed but after being given sweets for the walk and seeing how everyone was excited, it helped calm me down.

    How was the challenge?

    There was a time where I was very present and got lost in the moment taking in everything and for once not over thinking which I tend to do. There were some parts where it was very steep and I struggled, but the walking sticks helped me a lot. The staff and other walkers were very friendly and the locals even offered to fill up our water bottles as well! We had banana bread made for us by one of the volunteers at Outside In, (who sadly couldn’t make it) which was such a nice treat along the way.

    What support did you get?

    I used the active app on my phone and followed the ultra challenge Facebook group and the guide they have on the website. On there, I was able to ask for tips and look how other people were preparing, as well giving me more confidence for the walk. I also used the Strava app – for training, the main walk and, of course, for the likes. I did need to go to the Wellbeing tent at the halfway point (12km) where they were friendly and were able to give me some tampons as I did not have any on me. This helped me feel more comfortable as although I had my tablets on me I was starting to feel uncomfortable and sickly and having that support helped a lot!

    There was plenty of food and drinks available for us to give us energy for our walk and a chance to sit down and talk to others to find out who they were walking for and why.

    The marshals were supportive as well. They were with us every step of the way, encouraging us and congratulating us as the end as well.  I got really good advice from one of them who suggested I should take my walking boots off on breaks to avoiding getting blisters.

    Was it Covid-19 safe? 

    Most definitely! Before the event they were very clear with what we should do at stops which ensured the safety of our team. We filled out a Covid-19 questionnaire beforehand and we all had to be tested before as well. They reminded us to wear masks and had more spread out start times so we were not all packed together.

    Would you do it again?

    Yes! Although I haven’t stopped napping since, it was a really good team building experience and with the same support from the team I would definitely do this again!


    Inspired by Sarah’s experience? Want to take on a challenge as part of #TeamMungo’s? Check out our events. 

    Lived experience of dual diagnosis

    David, shares his experience of homelessness as well as overcoming alcohol abuse and mental health struggles.

    I’ve had depression, anxiety and OCD intrusive thoughts since I was around 9 years old. It was pretty scary at that age, as I had no idea of what was going on. I remember feeling apart or different from everyone else, and had a feeling that something was just ‘not right’. On the outside I was quite a happy outgoing friendly kid, but on the inside I was very unhappy and lonely.

    I first discovered alcohol at around the same age 9-10. I vividly remember the effect of alcohol leaving me calm and relaxed, and feeling ‘normal’, whatever normal means? It was a very addictive feeling. The only problem was once the alcohol wore off, the mental health problems came back. I didn’t realise it then, but I had learnt to self-medicate.

    I did try to reach out to my family and GP in my late teens and early twenties, but they didn’t understand what was going on. That left me feeling ashamed, stigmatised and misunderstood for many years. I remember telling myself ‘I’ll just get on with it myself ‘and ‘drink my way through it’. I was alcohol dependent by the time I was around 23. I was now caught in a trap, I couldn’t stop drinking because I would get withdrawals, and was also afraid to stop due to being mentally unwell.

    I continued to drink daily for many years, and ended up park drinking and street drinking. I developed alcoholic hepatitis which was really painful and was told by Doctors I had a year to live. But I was more afraid of stopping drinking than dying. I have no idea why I stopped drinking, but looking back it was a combination of a lot of factors. The main one being able to talk to someone in MH services openly about my MH issues without feeling judged for the first time. This was a very freeing experience.

    Stopping drinking was really hard, as my MH problems worsened instantly without the alcohol. I can’t explain how hard it was to go through it, especially as I knew one drink would take it all away. But I didn’t drink and threw myself straight into recovery. I started taking medication for my MH problems, I engaged with local MH services, had therapy, attend fellowship meetings, went back into education and volunteered at various local services.

    It hasn’t been easy in recovery, I was made homeless early on and that was a pretty hard time. I have SHP to thank for helping to rehouse me. I now believe I’ve come full circle working for St Mungo’s, and feel privileged to be able to help those who going through the same issues I once had. I still have to look after my mental health, but I’m doing well. Recovery has been a life changing experience it’s been incredible, and I haven’t a drink or drug now for over 12 ½ years.

    It’s all about options – How St Mungo’s supports European citizens experiencing homelessness

    As the deadline for applications for the European Union Settlement Scheme (EUSS) has now passed, St Mungo’s Head of Migrant and Advice services Sylvia Tijmstra discusses how things have changed for our clients over the past five years. 

    Five years ago, on 24 June 2016, millions of European citizens like myself woke up to the news that the UK had voted to leave the European Union.

    After the initial shock, my mind quickly turned to the practical. What did this mean for us? As someone with a Dutch passport, living with another Dutch national, would we still be allowed to live and work in this country? Would our three young children be forced to leave the country they have called home all their lives?

    A quick Google search revealed our family had options. My partner and I had been in the country for 13 years by that point and had ‘exercised our treaty rights’ throughout. On top of that two of our three children turned out to already be British citizens even though we had not previously realised this.

    I counted my blessings that day, for there are few things more precious in life than options – options to remain in post-Brexit Britain, options to return to the Netherlands and options to start a new adventure in another European country altogether.

    Through my work as the Head of Migrant and Advice services at St Mungo’s, I am, however, acutely aware that not everyone is as blessed with options.

    Routes Home

    Every year, thousands of EU citizens end up sleeping rough in London alone. Quite often this happens because, while they have a right to live and work in the UK when life throws them a curveball, they have very limited access to the benefits and housing support they need at that time.

    One of the services I oversee is the Routes Home  service. This is funded by the Greater London Authority (GLA) and was specifically commissioned in 2016 to support non-UK nationals in this situation to identify viable routes off the streets, either in the UK or abroad.

    While we could often find solutions in the UK for non-EU nationals through immigration advice routes, the options for EU nationals were often much more limited in those early days.

    With an established right to live and work in the UK, but limited opportunity to gain full access to the benefits they needed to stabilise their life, for many the only way to resolve their homelessness was to return to their country of nationality.

    As a result our team members poured their heart and soul into finding the best solution possible for our clients in their country of nationality.

    For example, we developed an innovative partnership with MONAR, a detox and rehab organisation in Poland. This partnership gave any Polish nationals sleeping rough in London access to the often life-saving treatment they were unable to access in the UK.

    The introduction of the EU Settlement Scheme following the Brexit vote drastically changed the options for EU citizens to resolve their homelessness. With its emphasis on residency, it offered those who had made the UK their home for five years or more the same support that had been available to many of us all along.

    This was a truly transformational moment for our Routes Home service and our clients. I will always remember the struggle to gain access to the various test phases of the EU settlement scheme for our clients in 2018 and then the relief when the scheme was finally opened fully on 30 March 2019.

    To make the most of this opportunity, St Mungo’s registered with OISC, the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner, to provide immigration advice in relation to the EU Settlement Scheme and teamed up with a range of migrant sector partners to give those who needed it access to higher level advice.

    For many, this meant that for the first time in a long time they had options – they could apply for settled status in the UK and resolve their homelessness in this country or they could choose to return to their country of nationality and rebuild their lives there.

    As a result, many clients who would normally choose to return to their country of nationality instead chose to make the UK their permanent home.

    Left in Limbo

    Once the novelty of new options started to wear off, the reality of Brexit for those who had arrived more recently, or could not evidence their full residency in the UK, began to hit home.

    Almost from the day the scheme launched there has been debate and legal challenges around the benefit entitlement of those with pre-settled status. More than two years on, we are still waiting for the Supreme Court to make a decision on this matter.

    In the meantime, many of our clients are left in limbo – unable to access the support they needed to resolve their rough sleeping in the UK and unsure how leaving the country now would affect their ability to return at a later date.

    Options have long been limited for this group, but at least prior to Brexit they were clear. Now people are asked to weigh up possibilities and many are choosing to remain in often dangerous situations, holding out for a solution in the UK that may never come.

    COVID-19

    In a strange way the coronavirus pandemic offered some respite for this group. Some chose to return to the safety of home, but many others were offered accommodation as part of the ‘Everyone In’ response to Covid-19.

    This gave us an opportunity to support unprecedented numbers of people to explore their options to leave homelessness behind for good from a place of safety.

    For many, Plan A was to apply for pre-settled status and explore options to find a job in the UK. In London, the Covid pandemic gave us the opportunity to work with the GLA and amazing organisations like Radical Recruit to see if we could make that option a reality.

    During the last year we also managed specialist pan-London Covid emergency hotel called the Stay Club, offering some of this group of people employment support alongside immigration and welfare advice and specialist housing and reconnection support.

    In the face of challenging labour market conditions, many of these achieved the outcome they were aiming for – a decent job and a new future in the UK.

    For others, Plan A turned out to be harder to achieve. They were offered support to explore alternative options.

    Some embraced those options, others did not, but all had the opportunity to make informed choices from a place of safety – something so many of us take for granted.

    So it was with, a mixture of great pride and sadness, that my team and I closed the doors at the Stay Club for the last time on Wednesday 23 June 2021. Exactly five years after the Brexit vote, which truly felt like the end of an era.

    As the end of the Brexit grace period looms, and the Covid emergency provision starts to make way for the recovery phase, as an organisation we want to secure this Covid legacy and carry these ways of working forward into the ‘new normal’ of post-Brexit Britain.

    The Kerslake Commission is pulling together recommendations about ending rough sleeping and from lessons and good practice learnt during the pandemic.

    To achieve an end to street homelessness, our view is that we need continued investment in thorough assessment and support for anyone sleeping rough on the streets, regardless of immigration status or recourse to public funds.

    Only if we take this approach will we ever come close to ending rough sleeping altogether.

     

    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

    In this long read, Outreach Coordinator for our Tower Hamlets team, Leon, discusses the complexities of supporting people away from homelessness.

    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.

    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.

    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.

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