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. 

    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.

    Why the cold weather feels a little bit different this year

    Petra Salva, St Mungo’s Director of Rough Sleeping, Westminster and Migrant Services, explains why our services ramp up as temperatures drop. And why Covid-19 is making things a little different this year.

    I’ve dedicated my whole working life to supporting people out of rough sleeping and homelessness. Over the last 20 years or so, I thought I had seen everything in terms of the impact rough sleeping can have on a person and their families.  I’ve seen the harm, the hurt and the pain that people experience, and then came the Covid-19 pandemic.

    All of a sudden, the physical and mental vulnerabilities people already experience whilst sleeping rough came into even sharper focus and became a greater emergency.

    Just imagine what it must feel like, sleeping on a pavement, in the dark, alone, fearing for your safety, maybe taking drugs or drinking, just to numb the pain of your situation, feeling physically unwell because of the toll of this lifestyle or because you have another physical problem that has gone untreated or not even yet diagnosed .

    Then you are faced with the fear of a pandemic, a virus that if caught by you, is likely to make you even more vulnerable and possibly kill you.

    I, and colleagues and volunteers across our organisation,  have had the privilege of helping to house and support hundreds of people since the start of the pandemic to try to address all these risks, but despite our best efforts and that of many charities and local authorities, we have not been able to house everyone, so tonight, too many people are still faced with the grim reality of sleeping rough.

    And now comes the winter and the cold.

    Sleeping rough is dangerous at any time of the year but when the cold strikes, it is even more deadly. Cold weather can, and does, kill.

    On top of that, we know many people who rough sleep already have underlying health conditions, so the risk of Covid-19 makes it even more vital that our clients have access to safe accommodation which will protect them from not just the weather, but from contracting the virus as well.

    There is no doubt, this year will probably be the most challenging that I and our outreach teams have ever experienced but, that won’t stop us from working around the clock to try to save lives by bringing people in from the cold and supporting them when they need us the most.

    The Severe Weather Response, also known as ‘Severe Weather Emergency Protocol’ (SWEP) is triggered when the Met Office forecasts freezing temperatures.

    This can vary from region to region. In London, it is called if it’s going to be zero degrees or below for one night. In our regional areas, it will be activated if zero degrees is forecast three nights in a row, except for in Brighton where our commissioners use a “feels like” temperature.

    In previous years, when local authorities have informed us that our severe weather response is needed, we have provided emergency shelter in the form of communal spaces.

    This year however, we will not be able to provide this type of accommodation. Our clients must be able to sleep somewhere which also allows them to self-isolate, away from others so that they are not at increased risk of contracting Covid-19, but this doesn’t mean we won’t be helping people this year. Instead, we have found new ways to keep our clients safe this winter.

    Our teams have been as agile, adaptable and creative as they always are – seeking out every possible option which can be used to provide much needed accommodation – cleaning rooms previously used for storage, converting meeting rooms to bedrooms – resourcefully adapting as many spaces as we can. As well as working with local councils to find other suitable places.

    Protecting people from the elements is just the beginning for us. Because I know that providing somewhere warm and safe to stay is just the first step.

    Often, when it’s really cold, we have a valuable opportunity to engage with people who, under normal circumstances, might be reluctant to come indoors. So our teams are committed to trying their very best to ensure every person brought inside never has to go back to sleeping outside again.

    They go above and beyond to help people with their future plans, including reconnecting them with family and loved ones, providing permanent housing and linking them to health services, as well as assisting with benefit and employment support.

    Like I said at the very beginning, I have seen first-hand the harm and pain that rough sleeping causes people, but I have also seen how, with the right help and support people can and do recover from homelessness.

    The reason I am still here fighting is because I have hope and belief that mass rough sleeping really can be a thing of the past.

    Anyone concerned about someone sleeping rough should contact StreetLink via their website or app. Alerts will be passed on to the local outreach service or council who will attempt to find them and offer support within 48 hours of being contacted. StreetLink is not an emergency service. If anyone is in need of urgent medical attention, please call 999.

    Our severe weather response will save lives

    Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) is triggered when the Met Office forecasts freezing temperatures. This trigger can vary from region to region, for example in London it’s zero degrees or below forecast for one night, in Brighton, our commissioners use a “feels like” temperature. Most boroughs will activate SWEP when it’s a three night zero forecast. Due to the pandemic SWEP will be different this year. Here Wendy Dodds, Outreach Coordinator in Reading shines a light on what this means and what’s been happening on her streets.

    Photo of Wendy Dodds, Reading Outreach

    I have worked in outreach for sixteen and a half years. In that time I have seen many system changes but the heart breaking circumstances for people remain devastating.

    St Mungo’s were first commissioned to run the outreach service in Reading on 1 January 2008 and we have managed it ever since. We took it over from an organisation called Crime Reduction Initiative, where I had been working since April 2004 and when St Mungo’s took over I moved to be on the team.

    The past context and why SWEP is important

    The homeless picture was very different then, we didn’t have a homeless pathway and it very much depended on our relationship with housing providers to enable a client to access accommodation. This saw an imbalance in service provision and often people with the most complex needs suffered the most. People were more willing to accept a person with low support needs into their accommodation. We saw people who were more entrenched in rough sleeping because there was no pathway for them, yet some people new to rough sleeping were picked up quickly while others remained on the streets for years. It’s shocking to reflect back and I’m glad that has changed.

    We didn’t have a Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) back then either. SWEP was introduced as a life-saving initiative by central government. I have a love hate relationship with SWEP, I love that we get more people in and treated as a priority but it adds a lot more pressure to an already pressurised team.

    Some people still refuse help and it happens a lot, mainly because people do not want to share accommodation – especially if a person had experienced trauma there can be a lot of triggers sleeping in a noisy environment where people are wrestling with all kinds of issues, people often say they don’t feel safe and would prefer to sleep alone on the street. The worry never leaves you, I get frustrated and I make sure people know they are at risk of death, you have to be blunt sometimes – there’s no point dressing it up SWEP is lifesaving and there is no doubt cold kills. In Reading we have people refuse to come inside, people who will accept our help and people who are sofa-surfing booking a space in the hope they will be escalated through the pathway into housing. It’s a tough call, as all are vulnerable but SWEP is emergency provision to save lives. If I give you an example on one night during SWEP last year we had 14 people stay and 9 were sofa surfing.

    During the pandemic

    So with the Covid-19 pandemic and our policy to offer everyone a room of their own in a local B&B will bring a new SWEP. I will be really interested to see what the landscape is like this year. It’s going to be very interesting. The barrier to shared accommodations has been removed so I’m hoping we will be able to help people who tend to refuse support.

    This year has been a difficult year with constant changes to our service provision to adapt to Covid-19 restrictions.

    The highlights of my job and what drive me

    Housing First! In Reading we received funding for a Housing First Outreach worker through a philanthropist. I am a huge believer in housing first and I would love to see it expand across the UK. Seeing the progress people make has been inspirational. It makes me proud to have played a small part in it. Watching a client on their road to recovery and bumping into them on the high street and seeing the difference… it makes me so proud even when they are not my client.

    It’s a massive privilege to do a job I really love. These are people that have fallen through every single safety net in society. We should be the ones that feel privileged that they even engage with us. We need to look at the barriers to why people don’t want to engage. Housing is a right, it shouldn’t be deserved, and it is disgusting. People shouldn’t have to be on the streets but unfortunately they are. If I came in to work tomorrow and was told I had no job because we had solved homelessness – I would skip all the way home.

    Cold weather can kill. Our clients are at greater risk due to underlying health conditions and the year round dangers of sleeping rough. But in extreme cold, these challenges are brought into sharp focus for our clients, for our staff and for our partners and supporters.

    It is vital that everyone who is on the streets, or who is at risk of rough sleeping, can access self-contained accommodation as soon as cold weather hits, alongside the support they need to recover and rebuild their lives. Find out more how you can help here.

    The Independent Review on Drugs is an opportunity for bold change

    Today, St Mungo’s put forward a written submission to the Independent Review on Drugs by Dame Carol Black. Here Emma Cookson, Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer at St Mungo’s explains what this review means and the primary calls St Mungo’s is making towards it.

    This is the second part of the review which is examining drug prevention, treatment and recovery (the findings of the first part were published in February this year).This is a huge opportunity to reflect the needs of St Mungo’s clients, and the many other hundreds of thousands who are homeless and face multiple layers of disadvantage.

    Sadly, as we are all too aware, there is a significant relationship between homelessness and drug and alcohol problems, which becomes even more pronounced amongst people sleeping rough. Data from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN), a multi-agency database recording information about people sleeping rough in London, shows that 62% of people sleeping rough had a recorded drug or alcohol need in 2018-19.

    And it’s not just that people who are sleeping rough have a higher likelihood of drug use – they are also more likely to die from it. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows that in 2018, 726 people died while rough sleeping, with a staggering 40% of all those deaths related to drug poisoning. And it’s getting worse. The St Mungo’s Knocked Back report earlier this year showed that the number of deaths caused by drug poisoning increased by 135% between 2013 and 2018 and by 55% in just one year in 2018. This is an alarming increase.

    For many of our clients, drug use, alcohol use, poor mental health and homelessness are interlocking and mutually reinforcing problems. CHAIN data shows that over half of all people with a recorded drug and alcohol problem have a co-occurring mental health problem. These problems create a vicious cycle from which it is hard to escape. If you just address one of these without tackling the other, you are unlikely to be successful. But this is all too often what the current system does.

    A St Mungo’s Manager set out the disjoint between systems:

    Someone goes into prison and whilst they’re in prison they’re detoxed. But then they’re released and told to go to housing department who say they’re not priority need. They’re then picked up by an outreach team and the only place available is a hostel where there are lots of drug users. This isn’t going to help them in their recovery.

    The vicious circle continues. 

    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.

    This is why in our written submission to the Black Review we’re calling for the following:

    • Integrated, person centred and holistic services.

    To best support people we need integrated support and housing pathways, with a treatment package arranged for them in a way which works for them in that particular point in their recovery journey. One of the best ways to do this is through increasing joint commissioning and explore longer contracts. This would help health, homelessness and drug and alcohol services to work better together and encourage them to treat clients holistically rather than providing insular support related only to one need, whilst clients are caught in the gaps in between services. Longer contracts provide the time to build practice and culture change.

    • Access to affordable and appropriate housing.

    Access to affordable and appropriate housing can act as both prevention and cure for drug misuse. Therefore we want the Government to improve access to truly affordable housing by increasing investment to build 90,000 homes for social rent every year for 15 years, and improving security for tenants in the private rented sector by, for instance, re-aligning Local Housing Allowance Rates to cover the 50th percentile of local rents. There also needs to be an expansion in Housing First services (backed by sufficient funding) and an increase in supported housing provision. This would help prevent individuals from becoming homeless, and rapidly relieve their homelessness if they are forced to sleep rough.

    • Further funding for drug support services.

    There needs to be more funding for services which are interlinked with drug misuse, such as homelessness support services, to support an integrated approach which looks at the whole system and situations which both cause and exacerbate drug misuse. Previous research from St Mungo’s has shown that £1 billion less is being spent on housing related support services per year (which help many people with complex needs, such as drug misuse, gain and retain accommodation) than a decade ago. We are therefore recommending that the Government invest an extra £1 billion a year in services that prevent homelessness and end rough sleeping. This money should be ring-fenced so it can’t be spent on anything else. This echoes our calls in our Home for Good campaign. 

    This review is timely. In the midst of this global pandemic, the health inequalities suffered by those who are homeless have become even starker. This is a chance to put forward bold solutions, which recognise the need to see drug prevention and recovery as interwoven with other systems and services. People aren’t boxes — they have messy, complex lives. We need a whole systems approach which recognises this, so that we can effectively help people.

    Responding to women’s homelessness during COVID-19

    Our Women’s Strategy Manager, Cat Glew shares how St Mungo’s has responded to women’s homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    When the COVID-19 crisis struck, St Mungo’s reacted quickly to support thousands of vulnerable women and men off the streets and into hotel and emergency accommodation where they could safely self-isolate.

    But as domestic abuse charities warned at the beginning of lockdown, women and survivors in our services have been living with two pandemics during this time – the new threat of coronavirus, and the old and endemic risk of violence against women.

    The link between homelessness, domestic abuse and other violence against women is well documented. New evidence published by Women’s Aid last week found that 70% of respondents to their Survivor Voice survey who were still living with their perpetrator said that fears around housing and homelessness were preventing them from leaving. 

    Unfortunately, these fears are well-founded – for many survivors, homelessness is the price they pay for leaving their abuser. Data from the No Women Turned Away programme – which supports women facing additional barriers to accessing refuges spaces – shows that of the 243 women supported, 17 slept rough and 93 sofa-surfed while waiting for refuge.

    As we have seen over the past months, the impact of any pandemic tends to be felt most strongly among the most marginalised groups. Agencies running services by and for Black and minoritised women have spoken out about disproportionate risks and danger of abuse and homelessness during COVID-19, calling for urgent action from government. 

    Domestic abuse is a driver of homelessness and the risk to survivors continues on the streets and in homelessness services. We also know that the risk of serious harm from domestic abuse has risen during COVID-19. With staff and clients in our services facing more challenges than ever, we needed to respond quickly.

    St Mungo’s has worked with our partners Standing Together and Single Homeless Project to produce quick guidance on domestic abuse and sexual violence in homelessness settings during COVID-19, supported by Homeless Link who also hosted our webinar on women’s safety. These resources are designed to help workers in homelessness services ask the right questions to help women and survivors keep safe. 

    As people self-isolating in emergency hotels face an uncertain future. We are also calling on government to secure safe accommodation and support for women and survivors with our No Going Back campaign. Our letter to Dame Louise Casey sets out how the government Rough Sleeping Taskforce can work with local authorities to provide homeless women and survivors with a safe home free from abuse.

    We watch with interest as the Domestic Abuse Bill progresses through parliament. We are working with partners to make the case that domestic abuse accommodation and community services should receive sustainable funding and that all survivors of domestic abuse should receive automatic priority for housing from local authorities. We support calls to lift ‘no recourse to public funds’ restrictions for survivors of violence against women to give survivors access to safe accommodation and support.

    Looking forward to the second year of our Women’s Strategy, our plans will shift as we continue to respond to the pandemic, but our focus on women’s safety is needed now more than ever. We commit to understand and address the additional barriers to safety and recovery faced by homeless Black and minoritised women. 

    As we celebrate our female clients and volunteers with lived experience, we will also continue to listen and be held accountable by them as we improve our response to violence and abuse.

    Support our No Going Back campaign – write to your MP.

    “Everybody In” – working with vulnerable people sleeping rough during COVID-19

    Ed Addison, Manager of St Mungo’s City of London Outreach Team, shares his first-hand experience of supporting people sleeping rough during the outbreak of COVID-19. 

    It was 19 March when the gravity of the situation with COVID-19 hit home for me. I was out on an early shift at around 7am with a colleague and we went to meet George*, a well-informed, articulate man in his 50s who’s been sleeping rough for a couple of years but who is reluctant to accept offers of support for a number of reasons. The City of London had requested that we get everybody indoors due to the potential health risk of COVID-19, which meant us offering to support to anyone, plus we had a duty of care to welfare check and ensure George was safe and well.

    We find different ways to use our knowledge to encourage people to accept support – such as presenting facts around the dangers of rough sleeping. On this occasion I found myself turning the concern around the virus as a tool to encourage George to take up an offer of accommodation. He countered our initial offer of support stating that it was a choice he was making to live his life on the streets, and that he was prepared to die on the streets.

    George and I sat and talked, and he revealed his main concern was where he can access food. I told him that we were hearing about the possibility of a lockdown, that the City was likely to become emptier, shops were going to close, food and vital resources would become scarce, with commuter numbers vastly reduced. I listened to his concerns, and felt he was listening to me. I gave George my number and urged him again to consider coming indoors.

    Working for a homelessness charity it is impossible to distance yourself from the wider housing system. People who end up on the streets can be some of the most disconnected from the system, people who have fallen through a safety net that has become increasingly unsafe. Years of austerity has impacted on the shrinking of local authority budgets and reduced the number of services available to people in need.

    In a broken system is it any wonder that people are reluctant to trust us? One bad experience of being let down can set the tone for all future relationships. This is exacerbated among those who are sleeping rough who may have, throughout their lives, been let down by people in positions of trust. As outreach workers we are often the first point of contact for people such as George and often met with distrust.

    As the severity of the coronavirus public health emergency developed, it quickly became apparent that it was now essential to get everybody off the streets and into an environment where they could self-isolate to protect themselves and others. The UK government had written to every local authority outlining a plan to move all homeless people off the streets within a week. Open access day centres and night shelters were closed due to concerns over lack of ability for people to safely isolate. The situation was changing rapidly, and we knew many of our vulnerable clients would struggle to cope.

    Yet what we and others have achieved has been remarkable in a short space of time. Since the lockdown measures were announced, the St Mungo’s City outreach team has accommodated more than 100 people in hotel rooms, many of whom were people seen sleeping out for the first time. We have been able to support people to take up offers of accommodation where previously they have been sleeping outside for sometimes as much as 10, 15 or even 20 years. In the first week of the lockdown we were able to accommodate and support 12 people into drug treatment who, between them, have a cumulative rough sleeping history of 70 years.

    This shows what an unprecedented opportunity this has been to not only reduce the numbers of people who are living on the streets, but crucially to get to know these people, understand their situation and to put in place effective solutions to ideally prevent them from never going back on the streets again – as our No Going Back campaign calls for.

    This emergency response reinforces the need for a permanent accommodation pathway which is accessible, supportive and helps individuals progress with their lives.

    Street-based outreach workers continue to work tirelessly to find and support people who are living on the streets to find accommodation. All those who have accepted accommodation in the past few weeks should never have to return to these streets, and in the future our system must improve in its attitude towards the vulnerable. George has remained out as far as we’re aware. We continue to go out to find him to offer our help.

    People like George and others who remain on the streets of the City, despite the lockdown, remain the most resistant to support and the most traumatised. These are the individuals that need the most focus of our interest, our time and our care.

    *George’s name has been anonymised for his privacy.

    This blog was first commissioned by World Habitat, an international charity, which holds Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, reflecting its work in support of the goals of UN-HABITAT.

    A chance to end rough sleeping that must not be missed

    Our Head of Policy, Campaigns and Research, Beatrice Orchard, reflects on the unprecedented and impressive response to the coronavirus pandemic so far and outlines what the Government must do to protect people experiencing homelessness during the crisis.

    Daily life has been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. High streets have closed for business and the Government has told everyone to ‘stay at home’, except in some very limited circumstances. But for people who are sleeping rough, this is impossible.

    The Government was quick to recognise the issue and put some measures in place, including allocating £3.2 million to help councils get accommodation for people sleeping rough to self-isolate. Ministers sent a clear message to all councils that everyone sleeping rough must be urgently supported into appropriate accommodation.

    The response from councils, homelessness charities and other partner agencies has been unprecedented and impressive. Rightly so.

    So far our teams have supported more than 700 people who were sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation to self-isolate safely in hotel rooms and other self-contained accommodation. And we will continue to help many more in the days and weeks to come.

    However, this task is not simple because it’s about more much more than just getting people indoors. People need support to be able to follow public health advice. The provision of food and medicine is obviously critical, but so is support to cope with boredom and isolation, as well as poor mental health, drug and alcohol problems and domestic abuse.

    Which is why it is good to hear about thoughtful responses in local areas, such as Brighton and Hove where televisions and games consoles are also being collected to help people who are feeling isolated.

    There has been great progress to date. But there is much more to do.

    To truly protect everyone from coronavirus the Government must to do more to recognise the specific needs of every individual who is homeless during the current crisis. That’s why we’re calling on the Government to:

    • Ensure everyone can get suitable accommodation and stop more people ending up on the streets by:

    Continuing to support council and charity outreach teams to help people sleeping rough, or staying in night shelters, get into housing or hotel accommodation. Despite enormous efforts, there are still hundreds of people on the streets.

    Helping councils to support everyone who needs it to get help. We are hearing that people who might have been sofa surfing before are starting to end up on the streets as this option becomes more difficult. The Government should send a clear message to councils that everyone at risk of, or already homeless, must be found suitable temporary accommodation, regardless of the rules which normally apply, such as local connection, priority need or intentionality.

    Ending the exclusion of some migrants from being able to get help by suspending ‘no recourse’ rules that restrict access to publicly funded support for the duration of the pandemic. Global travel restrictions mean no one can be expected to return to another country while the pandemic is ongoing. The Government has already suspended evictions from Home Office accommodation for asylum seekers, but must now ensure everyone living in the UK is entitled to homelessness and welfare assistance if they need it, regardless of their immigration status. This is vital for preventing more people from sleeping rough during the crisis.

    • Meet the needs of women who are homeless. Women are more likely to be ‘hidden homeless’ due to sleeping out of sight for safety and avoiding male dominated services where they are at risk of sexual violence. Councils should provide safe, women-only accommodation and specialist support for women sleeping rough, and at risk of doing so, during the crisis.
    • Provide more funding to support people in temporary housing or hotel accommodation and ensure no one returns to rough sleeping. It is essential that homeless people accommodated during the crisis are not left unsupported, and it will take skilled and specialist teams to support people to find and maintain longer-term housing beyond the crisis. Funding for  services providing this type of support had been cut by £1bn since 2008-9. The Government must be prepared to provide additional funding to ensure no one has to return to rough sleeping.

    It’s absolutely right that efforts to accommodate people sleeping rough are driven by a focus on saving lives during this public health emergency. No one should be more likely to die from coronavirus simply because they are homeless.

    More than this though, the efforts that we are seeing now represent a unique  chance to end rough sleeping once and for all. Let’s work together to make sure that opportunity is not missed.

    Keep up to date and help us continue to put pressure on the Government during these unprecedented times by signing up as a campaigner.

    If you see someone sleeping rough, please let StreetLink know so they can help connect them to local services. Or in a medical emergency call 999.

    Find out more on how you can help during the coronavirus crisis.

    Our Women’s Strategy turns 1

    Today is International Women’s Day, and Cat Glew, our Women’s Strategy Manager, celebrates the first anniversary of our Women’s Strategy, and shares details of our exciting projects for the year ahead.

    Today, on Sunday 8 March 2020, the world is celebrating International Women’s Day – and St Mungo’s is celebrating the first birthday of our Women’s Strategy!

    A lot has changed in 12 months at St Mungo’s and beyond. Across the world and in our services, women are facing challenges to their rights and their safety that we can’t ignore.

    The UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) has published a new Gender Social Norms Index warning that progress towards gender equality is slowing worldwide. Nearly nine in 10 people across the world hold some bias against women.

    The data showed that half of men and women think that men make better political leaders, and four in 10 think men make better business executives. Twenty-eight per cent of people think it is justified for a man to beat his wife.

    Progress is possible, even if it does feel far too slow. Last week saw the return of the Domestic Abuse Bill to Parliament, more than two years since it was first introduced. Along with the commitments to tackle rough sleeping made by the Government, the new bill offers a once in a generation opportunity to make sure the voices of women who are homeless and sleeping rough are heard by those in power.

    What’s changed since the launch of our Women’s Strategy

    It has never been more important to build alliances and partnerships with women’s organisations so that our clients can have access to the specialist support they deserve. This year, we were delighted to be awarded funding from the Homeless Link Ending Women’s Homelessness Fund for a partnership project led by Standing Together Against Domestic Violence.

    The Safety by Experience project will develop bespoke tools for homelessness services working to end violence against women. We’ll be working with clients to ask what safety advice they would give other women in homelessness settings, and with staff to create tools that fit our services much better.

    We’ve also made progress towards our Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance accreditation this year. We’ve got new domestic abuse training and e-learning available for staff, along with an updated domestic abuse policy, quick guide, posters and leaflets.

    The Women’s Strategy work has focussed this year on our core challenge – creating an environment of physical and emotional safety for women, who are at disproportionate risk of harm from those they love and trust. But as the strategy enters its second year, it’s also time for a positive celebration of the strength and resilience of our female clients and women’s services.

Go back