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 Centre, Duncan 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.