We must not let the health needs of women experiencing homelessness be forgotten

    We recently submitted our joint recommendations to the Government’s public consultation on England’s first Women’s Health Strategy alongside Crisis, Groundswell and Homeless Link. In this blog Emma Cookson, our Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer, explains why health for women experiencing homelessness is such an important issue.

    The average age of death for women sleeping rough or living in emergency accommodation is just 43 years old – that’s nearly 40 years younger than women in the general population.

    These numbers reflect the devastating reality that in far too many cases, the health needs of women experiencing or at risk of homelessness are too often forgotten.

    The Government recently held a public consultation on their women’s health strategy. And, working together with Crisis, Groundswell and Homeless Link, we submitted a series of recommendations to make sure that our clients’ needs are brought to the forefront.

     

    Hidden from help

    Our experience as a leading service provider shows us how inextricably linked homelessness and health are. In 2021, 81% of women in St Mungo’s housing-related support services had a mental health support need, 49% had a drug support need, and 57% had a physical health support need.

    It’s also important to recognise that women’s experiences of homelessness – and the traumas they face – are vastly different from men’s. Their trauma is often rooted in gender-based violence and abuse. A 2015 study from Ireland found that as many as 92% of homeless women had experienced violence or abuse during their lifetime.

    Many women are hidden whilst homeless or rough sleeping. They find secluded sleep sites or may be forced to stay with strangers who expect sex in return for shelter.

    Hiding from harm means that women are also hidden from help. They are missing from homelessness services and statistically invisible, but the problems they’re facing are considerable.

    Despite all of this, there aren’t enough homelessness services that cater specifically to the needs of women. In 2019, only ten percent of accommodation services in England provided women-only accommodation.

     

    Trapped in a cycle

    How can women feel safe in healthcare settings when they are constantly facing reminders of their experiences of violence and abuse?

    We know that trauma and abuse can impact women’s attitudes and experiences when dealing with support and mental health services. It can leave women trapped in a cycle of homelessness and poor health as their problems are aggravated.

    Women recovering from domestic abuse might struggle to feel comfortable in services which are mostly male-dominated. Some of our clients are also known to be involved in selling or exchanging sex, which can place them at greater risk of physical harm and sexual health issues, including sexual violence. Some women might also feel too ashamed or embarrassed to engage with support.

     

    Grief, shame and guilt

    Another big challenge is supporting women in discussions and decision-making around childcare. Feelings of shame and stigma can make it harder for women to access contraceptives.

    Not to mention the complex feelings surrounding decisions to continue with an unplanned pregnancy in challenging circumstances, coupled with potential judgement from others.

    For many women experiencing homelessness, a lack of support means they are separated from their children permanently – a situation of unimaginable grief, shame and guilt, which can alienate them even further from health and support services.

    All of this highlights why it was so important for us as homeless organisations to make a submission to this strategy, to share the knowledge and experience from our clients’ lived experience and that we have gained working on the frontline.

    These are the main points we included:

    • We need the Government’s Women’s Health Strategy to recognise and meet the needs of women experiencing homelessness, and engage directly with women with lived experience of homelessness and rough sleeping.
    • There needs to be adequate funding for women’s specialist services across the country, including provision of accommodation. Providing the right accommodation is a health intervention in itself – along with women-only services and drop-in sessions in mixed provision being available in every local area.
    • The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to provide increased long-term funding and additional training so services can offer better support for women with complex needs who are trying to sustain or gain access to their children.
    • We need health and homelessness services to be trauma and psychologically informed.
    • Better research into women’s homelessness and data collection to build a clear picture of the problems around women’s homelessness and healthcare.

     

    Women’s lives depend on a Women’s Health Strategy that meets the needs of women experiencing homelessness. Funding is needed so that these women aren’t forgotten or side-lined, even within the homelessness sector. And a focus on women’s health is needed now more than ever.

    St Mungo’s welcomes long term funding commitment to provide homes for people sleeping rough

    The news that the next phase of funding for the Government’s scheme to provide homes for people who had been sleeping rough will cover the next three years, has been described as ‘welcome’ by leading homelessness charity St Mungo’s.

    Today (18 March) the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has launched the application process for councils to submit their requests for a share of the £212m funding.

    The money, which is part of the Rough Sleeping Accommodation Programme, will provide funding for both housing and support over the next three years.

    Homes will be made available in every region of England, enabling people who sleep rough, or who are at risk of sleeping rough, to be rehoused in secure, long-term accommodation.

    It is the next stage of investment in longer-term accommodation for people who have experienced rough sleeping, and will be used to support schemes such as those provided by St Mungo’s in partnership with Bristol City Council.

    Chief Executive of St Mungo’s Steve Douglas CBE said: “This is welcome news, and what we hope will be the next step in the development of a long term strategy to end rough sleeping for good.

    “We saw unprecedented collaboration between national, regional and local government, health agencies, homelessness organisations and housing associations in the response to the pandemic.

    “That response undoubtedly saved lives. We must now ensure that this recognition that longer term planning and funding for the homes and the health support that is necessary, is a cross-government commitment.”

    On 26 March last year the Government launched the Everyone In initiative which saw people who had been sleeping rough supported into emergency accommodation to help protect them from the virus.

    So far more than 37,000 people have been helped, with more than 26,000 already moved on to longer-term accommodation.

    Yesterday the Public Affairs Committee released a report analysing the Government’s handling of the issue rough sleeping during the pandemic which praised the “considerable achievement” of the Everyone In scheme, but which also addressed several areas of concern.

    In May last year the Government pledged £161m for the first year of the programme which was to be used to provide more than 3,000 new homes.

    In total the Government has pledged to provide 6,000 homes by the end of the current Parliament.

    Next Steps Accommodation Programme: Working together to deliver move on accommodation in Bristol

    With over 50 years’ experience providing a wide range of frontline homelessness and housing services across London and the south of England, St Mungo’s works with individuals throughout all stages of homelessness. For people with a history of sleeping rough, the move from supported accommodation to independent housing can often be a challenging step. Without the right accommodation and support available, sometimes individuals can end up returning to the streets.

    To break this cycle St Mungo’s has developed a model of housing acquisition and management with an experienced support team in place to help people move from the homelessness pathways system into their own self-contained accommodation. With good quality, affordable, move-on accommodation alongside sustained 1-2-1 support, residents will be able to build the skills they need to not only maintain their tenancy, but to thrive in their new home eventually accessing fully independent housing.

    With teams based in cities and towns across the south of England and an infrastructure of support functions providing specialist expertise – in areas such as property and asset management, recruitment and data security – St Mungo’s is able to deliver services at scale with the local knowledge and existing partnerships ensuring that these projects can move quickly and are the right fit for their local communities. When the government announced the Next Steps Accommodation Programme (NSAP) funding for 2020/21, St Mungo’s developed a number of proposals built on this central principle. In Bristol, working closely with Bristol City Council and Homes England, a bid for funding to support the acquisition of a number self-contained units of accommodation was successfully developed.

    The Funding

    On 24 May the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) announced the Next Steps Accommodation Programme funding, part of their COVID-19 Rough Sleeping response, for both short and longer term support for people with a history of sleeping rough or those who were made vulnerable to rough sleeping by the pandemic.

    As part of NSAP, over £150 million was announced to deliver 3,300 units of longer-term, move on accommodation within 20/21. As well as capital funding, organisations could also apply for revenue funding to provide support for people moving into the accommodation.

    With the Everyone In initiative seeing thousands of people being supported away from sleeping rough into hotel accommodation, the NSAP funding would allow the sector to find long term housing solutions ensuring the move into emergency accommodation was just the first step towards a safe and secure home, rather than a temporary measure.

    ‘The NSAP is funded by the MHCLG and managed by Homes England (with the exception of London where the GLA managed the funding). In Bristol this was allocated via Bristol City Council, who also managed the revenue funding stream.

    The Partnership

    Whilst partnership working has always been central to the way that St Mungo’s plans and delivers homelessness and housing services, the Covid-19 emergency response showed what could be achieved when all parties work together with a genuinely collaborative approach.

    St Mungo’s works closely with the MHCLG at both a national and regional level resulting in valuable and aligned partnership working across a number of areas, including policy discussions, service developments and capital projects. At a national level, St Mungo’s and Homes England have a strong relationship supported by a shared approach towards strategic planning focussed on long term housing solutions around homelessness.

    In Bristol, St Mungo’s has worked alongside Bristol City Council for over ten years, delivering a number of commissioned homelessness services alongside a number of other housing projects. Shared values and a strong working history formed the basis of a collaborative emergency response that, so far, has seen 546 people supported into emergency hotel accommodation in the city during the pandemic.

    St Mungo’s worked closely with Bristol City Council developing a bid for NSAP funding that would lead to property acquisition to ultimately benefit the city. With rapidly increasing house prices, the private rented sector in Bristol is inaccessible to the vast majority of clients using homelessness services and, as a result, Bristol City Council is working to increase availability of affordable accommodation. St Mungo’s NSAP bid proposal supported this strategy, with a plan to purchase good quality housing that would be both affordable and accessible, providing a long
    term asset available for people in the city.

    Homes England, working with the local authority, administer the NSAP funding for capital and revenue applications. As St Mungo’s would be leading on all the decisions around purchasing the properties, the NSAP bid included documentation to demonstrate the knowledge and resources in place to ensure that only good quality, value for money accommodation would be acquired in line with a robust set of property specifications.

    The Project

    In a unique position to be able to both purchase property and provide experienced support teams for the accommodation, St Mungo’s were able to move quickly once they were awarded the NSAP funding. The St Mungo’s Properties and Acquisition team had a number of properties of interest in Bristol that had already met the criteria for purchase.

    With our Bristol-based staff, the team were able to begin the purchase process immediately whilst regional and national service teams could start modelling the support aspect of the project. A property in east Bristol comprising 11 self-contained units of accommodation, made up of 1 and 2 bedroom flats, was identified and
    assessed against the St Mungo’s property criteria. The funding was allocated in November 2020 and the property purchase was completed in December 2020.

    With a further 10 individual accommodation units currently in the process of being purchased before the end of the financial year, the first round of NSAP funding will have supported St Mungo’s to buy a total of 21 units of self-contained accommodation in Bristol.

    Whilst the properties were being purchased, the St Mungo’s Move On Housing Services team worked closely with Bristol City Council to develop a support model for individuals moving into the accommodation. The St Mungo’s team will provide ‘floating support’ with staff members visiting the accommodation once a week, as well as opportunities for clients to arrange individual appointments at the local St Mungo’s office. The support team will focus on preparing clients to move into the private rented sector, building skills such as budgeting and understanding tenancy responsibilities.

    With continued support from Homes England, St Mungo’s will be able to expand this vital offer, increasing Bristol’s availability of good quality, secure housing for people that cannot access accommodation in the private rental sector. With expert support from St Mungo’s teams, the NSAP properties will have a huge impact on the lives of the people that live in them. It is only by offering long term stability to people, alongside the skills needed to live independently, that the cycle of homelessness can be broken.

    The Response

    Eddie Hughes MP, Minister for Housing and Rough Sleeping said: “Looking back at an incredibly challenging twelve months, everyone who has helped protect rough sleepers, including St Mungo’s and other councils, charities, housing providers and support groups, should be immensely proud of the role they have played in our internationally recognised response.

    “This programme plays a vital role in maintaining this progress, with long-term, secure homes providing a safe place to live so that rough sleepers do not have to return to our streets.”

    Homes England said: “Through MHCLG’s Next Steps Accommodation Programme, we’ve supported local councils to fast-track long term, move-on accommodation, creating homes for some of the most vulnerable in our society.

    “St Mungo’s and Bristol City Council’s work to provide homes for 21 local people is a brilliant example of the tangible impact of this programme. Through our continued partnership, we hope to make this a reality for even more members of the local community.”

    Councillor Helen Godwin, Cabinet Member for Women, Children and Homes, Bristol City Council, said: “The pandemic gave us an opportunity to get a lot of people off the streets, and now we need to help them move on to the next stage of their journey.

    “This is a much needed alternative housing solution for people who do not need the level of intense support provided in supported housing, yet currently need a bit of a wrap-around support to help them gain the skills and confidence needed to maintain a tenancy and a home.

    “We are really pleased to be working in partnership with St Mungo’s, United Communities and Solon Housing to provide these new homes, as tackling an issue like homelessness cannot be done by one organisation alone. We all need to work together and continue to come up with new solutions to help support some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”

    Nicki Doran, Senior Move On Housing Manager at St Mungo’s, said: “We’re really excited to shortly launch the new NSAP programme in Bristol and to expand Move On Housing Services in a new area.

    “This project will provide essential support and accommodation to those in need of a stepping stone towards fully independent housing.

    “We have been working closely with Bristol City Council to ensure that the referral and support elements of the project are tailored to the specific needs of the client group so that there is consistency across the board from all NSAP providers. This collaborative approach has enabled us to pull on knowledge and learnings, across both the organisation and sector, in a bid to secure successful outcomes for our clients.”

    Statistics, announcements and commitments put homelessness centre stage

    Last week was a busy one in the homelessness sector. Our Head of Policy, Campaigns and Research, Beatrice Orchard rounds up, and reflects on, the key moments. 

    The official rough sleeping statistics for England were published last week. They show a 37% reduction in the number of people sleeping rough on a single night, falling from 4,266 in autumn 2019 to 2,688 in autumn 2020. This is the lowest figure since 2013.

    The statistics also show just what can be achieved with a concerted effort and strong partnership working to help people rebuild their lives away from the streets, which is exactly what happened under the ‘Everyone In’ initiative.

    As usual there was much debate and discussion about the extent to which this ‘nightly snapshot’ can ever tell us about the true scale of rough sleeping across the country.

    The Everyone In initiative has provided safe, emergency accommodation and ongoing support for those sleeping rough, as well as others at risk of doing so. At the latest count 37,430 have been helped since March last year, a tremendous achievement and an unprecedented opportunity to support thousands of people to recover from homelessness.

    What the official rough sleeping statistics do provide is a consistent measure, independently verified by Homeless Link, which can be used to help review progress on ending rough sleeping. And it was extremely welcome to see both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Housing commit once again to achieving this goal.

    As well as praising the efforts of everyone involved in securing the reduction in rough sleeping during the past year, including councils, outreach workers, volunteers and civil servants, the Government also took the opportunity to say a bit more about its future Rough Sleeping Strategy.

    We heard Housing First ‘was integral to that mission’ following calls from the Centre for Social Justice, St Mungo’s and others for a significant expansion of the approach.

    Equally, the Housing Secretary told Parliament that the ‘marriage of health and housing’ would be at the heart of the Government’s strategy.

    The pandemic has served as another reminder that homelessness and health are inextricably linked. Recent research by St Mungo’s found almost one in four (24%) of our clients has a health condition which put them at serious risk from Covid-19, with illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and severe respiratory conditions being common.

    The research also found that joined-up working between health and homelessness services has been a key factor in the success of Everyone In. Ministers have agreed and committed to ‘fortify those partnerships between local homelessness and health services, and between central and local government and the NHS.’

    We stand ready to work with the Government to deliver on the recommendations in our Housing and Health report to turn this commitment into a reality.

    Finally, there was also the hint that the Government’s strategy would also be about modernising the approach to street homelessness and finally repealing the 1824 Vagrancy Act which criminalises rough sleeping.

    The Government’s review of the act is still to be published, but the Housing Secretary has now agreed publicly with MPs and homelessness charities that the ‘antiquated’ act should be repealed.

    St Mungo’s has long advocated for an end to the Vagrancy Act. Its very existence runs against modern understandings of homelessness and often drives people sleeping rough further from the support they need.

    A renewed strategy and a modern day approach, which embeds the lessons from the pandemic, is exactly what is needed. With continued political will, and close partnership working, we can make much more progress on the journey to ending rough sleeping for good.

    In my shoes – taking a proactive approach to race action

    In response to the issues raised as a result of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and Black Lives Matter, St Mungo’s is taking a proactive approach.

    As a leading homelessness charity, we have always had a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Survey feedback is that 91% of our staff believe we are committed to diversity and inclusion but we know there is more to do.

    We set up a reverse mentoring scheme called In My Shoes which sees senior staff matched with BAME mentors to ensure better awareness of issues that BAME staff may experience. Here Catherine and Jo write about their mentoring experience.

    What did you hope to gain from your experience? Is it different to what you expected?

    Catherine: I had no real expectations other than to go in with an open mind and have a good chat. I felt mildly anxious beforehand because I am curious about these important issues but I don’t want to offend or say the wrong thing, so setting boundaries was useful.

    Jo has been very open and honest, which I appreciate that at times it can’t be easy. I think there is an element of vulnerability in the conversations from both sides, you are opening yourselves up to expose parts of yourself that may be buried, whether through fear, ignorance or our own unconscious biases; so establishing that trust and rapport has been essential.

    Jo: The main expectation I had was that the mentee would be proactive in their learning. I think that mentoring should focus more on coaching, guidance and support rather than teaching. I was feeling nervous about how I was going to deal with any unpredicted triggers that may come up.

    In my first meeting with Catherine we talked about boundaries, triggers and appropriate language. An important boundary we talked about was how we would communicate if an offensive phrase or word was used, the ways we would both express how that made us feel and that we would take breaks if needed. It was important to remember that we are both learning, and that some mistakes will be made as part of this process.

    This meeting took away most of the pressure I was feeling about making sure Catherine got a lot out of our discussions and would encourage her learning beyond our sessions.

    Is there anything specific that you’ve learnt that has shifted your perspective?

    Catherine: It has been great for me that Jo has a sense of humour, so we have been able to bring a lightness to some very serious subjects. We have talked about a wide range of things in each of our four sessions, bouncing around loads ideas and thoughts. It has certainly challenged me and we have both reflected that our conversations have left us quite tired.

    What I have found most interesting and thought provoking are the non-obvious challenges that people of colour face. I would never have thought about hair being an issue, in terms of what it represents and the fact that people of colour have to deal with having their hair touched by strangers or it be a point of conversation all the time.

    This led on to discussions about defensive living, which as a woman I think we all do in some way but then take that further as a black woman – that made me think a lot. I did some further reading and listening to some podcasts, which delved deeper into this issue and about appearance in general. I can’t imagine having to really think about my appearance if say, I went for a job interview, other than to try to look presentable. But to hear how some people of colour – of any gender – have to consider changing their outward appearance and hide who they are in order to blend in, made me really take a step back. A job interview is enough pressure and to change who you are puts that pressure at a new level. That is just one example in life that I take for granted, I can just be me but that is not the case for everyone. That saddened me.

    Can you share any learnings that you plan to or have started implementing in your day-to-day interactions?

    Catherine: It has definitely made me think about how open we all are, even when we think we are, are we really? I have often heard the phrase ‘I don’t see colour, I just see people.’ To me that feels worse, as there is zero appreciation of someone else’s life experience; that’s something I will challenge more freely now, because I can offer some insight into the impact of those sorts of phrases. I have also got a few exercises that I am going to introduce to my team, to help get others thinking and to spark further conversations and discussions.

    Jo: Catherine is right. When a person says they “don’t see colour” it is very invalidating.

    One of the most important learnings I took away from our discussions is to remember not everyone lives with the same knowledge and experiences. Sometimes I had to rethink how I was explaining a subject to Catherine, as she didn’t have the same insight or understanding. For example, when we talked about hair in our second meeting, Catherine didn’t realise people still touch other people’s hair without consent because this is not something that happens to her. This led to a long discussion about hair history and politics and how this is connected to the Slave Trade. A deep and disturbing subject to talk about with someone who hasn’t grown up with that kind of communal grief and trauma.

    That leads on to another important learning, something I became more aware of was how emotionally draining talking about these subjects can be. When you’re living day to day, certain behaviours are so entrenched, they become subconscious. It takes a lot of self-reflection to sit and pick apart and explain to someone why you do things a certain way.

    It was important to tell Catherine if a subject was too much to talk about in that meeting or highlight a need to change to a “lighter” discussion. I also had to re-assess my own self-care skills and make sure I was doing them, I can be a little bit lazy about that.

     


     

    What else are we doing?

    Our Board and Executive recognise that racism and other forms of discrimination have a profound impact on our clients and our staff. We have had a BAME Positive Action Strategy and action plan since 2017 and we are committed to doing what we can to address these issues.

    Over the past three years we had already reviewed training, policy and guidance, profiled BAME staff and their career progression internally and set up a Steps into Management career progression scheme which BAME staff are particularly encouraged to apply to.

    We asked ourselves what we could do to demonstrate our support to the principle that Black Lives Matter in a meaningful way and to reconfirm our commitment to tackling racism. We:

    • set up discussions with Board members and our BAME Network in the summer
    • surveyed BAME staff
    • took advice from consultants
    • set up a Race Action Steering Group in August to develop a Race Action Plan.

    Our Race Action Plan sets out a programme of activities across three main areas: Leadership awareness and commitment, positive action, and creating safe spaces.

    These commitments include using the Leadership 2025 five point plan as a framework for action and accountability and agreeing aspirational targets to aim for, namely one in three appointments to senior management (Service Development Manager and above) and Trustee roles over the next five years to be people from a BAME background.

    We will also seek to ensure that at least one member of every shortlisting panel for a senior role is BAME and introduce a new Leadership Development Programme for BAME managers to support their progression into senior roles.

    What will success look like?

    Success is when our organisation fully reflects the diversity of the clients we work with and the communities where we work, at all levels of the organisation and when anti-discrimination, in all of its forms, is increasingly embedded in all we do.

    St Mungo’s client Tracy tells us about her experience of talking to MPs at the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

    Our client Tracy shared her experiences of homelessness and coping during the pandemic with MPs on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee last week. Alongside evidence from another St Mungo’s client, our Chief Executive Steve Douglas CBE and two other people with lived experience, her comments will be collated into a report to influence improvements to the current policies surrounding homelessness. She told us about her story and what it was like talking to the Committee.

    When St Mungo’s first asked me if I would like to share my story with MPs, I was happy to do it but I was anxious because I worry that people who don’t know me will judge me.

    28 years ago, I was just 22 years old and I had a nearly two year old son. I didn’t know it at the time but I was struggling with postnatal depression. I didn’t find out that I was pregnant until I was seven months along so I had seven weeks to go from being a teenager to all of a sudden, being responsible for a little baby.

    Once he was born, my family were a huge support, always coming round to look after him – they sort of took over. I tried to look after him myself but I really struggled. I wanted to be a doting mum and I loved him, but I just didn’t have that maternal instinct or feel a bond between us. Back then, depression wasn’t talked about either so no-one knew I was suffering and I couldn’t get any help for it.

    One day, my friend asked me if I wanted to go to London with her for the weekend so I asked my mum if she could look after my son for a couple of hours but I didn’t end up coming back. I met a group of people who were into drugs and so I became a heroin addict, doing sex work at night and sleeping under a bridge for 18 years.  If I’d have known what I know now, that I was actually suffering with postnatal depression, I wouldn’t have come to London.

    Some of my family still haven’t forgiven me for what I did so I still worry about how people will view my story today but I’ve come a long way, and if sharing my story changes someone’s opinion on how they see a homeless person, I would tell it every day and that is why I knew I had to share my story with MPs, the people who really can make a difference to how homeless people are treated.

    I was so nervous and felt a bit of pressure but when the first MP started speaking and told us what we’d be discussing in the meeting, I felt at ease.  Every single one of them was brilliant. They didn’t take their eyes off me while I was speaking and seemed to be totally intrigued at what I had to say. I felt like I was chatting with my peers, not MPs!

    At the end, they told me it was hearing from people like me and the others who were also sharing their stories, that makes their reports so powerful, and then, they all started clapping which they apparently don’t usually do – that just blew it for me!

    After the meeting, I got incredible feedback from my friends and family who’d watched, it felt like I was on this big pedestal. A lot of my friends don’t realise about how vulnerable I was so it moved them to tears. After watching, some of them said they were off to donate money to a homelessness charity – there’s not a better reaction than that for me.

    Not everyone reacts like that though. There’s so much stigma around homelessness and sometimes, I think people forget that we are human beings – someone’s sister, someone’s daughter, someone’s mother. We didn’t wake up one day and think I want to become homeless.

    There’s a famous saying that says ‘you’re only one wage packet away from becoming homeless’ and it’s true but with the right support, people can turn their life around and return to ‘normality’. I’ve been in recovery for ten years now, I’ve still got a way to go in terms of my mental health but I hope that by sharing my story, I will give others who are in a similar situation hope.

    Read about what was discussed at the meeting here and you can watch it in full here.

    Out of the woods? Tackling homelessness in rural communities

    Rory Weal is Churchill Fellow and former Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer at St Mungo’s. Here he writes about a new report on rural homelessness, and offers solutions for tackling this “forgotten” issue, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

    Rolling hills, luscious meadows, quaint village living – these are common conceptions of life in rural England.

    But these idyllic images can hide the realities of hardship for too many, not least the thousands who sleep rough in rural communities across the UK. These communities are too often forgotten when we talk about homelessness – but they have been rising in recent years.

    The state of homelessness in rural areas

    Rough sleeping in rural communities had risen 65% since 2010. While between 2018 and 2019 rough sleeping across England fell by 9%, in rural areas numbers actually rose by 2%. The invisible nature of rural homelessness has bred an equal lack of attention in government policy – the result is not enough of the right services and housing, and too many people isolated and at risk as a result. In many cases austerity has hit harder – research by St Mungo’s found that spending on housing support and homelessness services had fallen by a third in Greater London compared to almost three quarters in the South West between 2008/9 and 2017/18.

    But it doesn’t have to be this way. Last week, I published new research on rural homelessness – comparing responses to rural homelessness in England with the United States, where there have been sustained reductions in levels of homelessness in multiple rural states over the past decade.

    Spending time with outreach services and housing first providers, it was clear that when investment and strong strategic oversight is there – results can be delivered. I saw how services can be adapted to rural needs in my outreach shift in West Virginia, where levels of homelessness have fallen by more than a third since 2010.

    Examining rural homelessness in the United States

    Up at the crack of dawn with Beau Stiles, outreach manager, I saw the impact of securing buy-in from local businesses and community, who become powerful referral partners – as often the only point of contact for people sleeping rough in sparse communities with few services. This has been essential to reducing levels of homelessness, as Beau says: “without outreach you won’t touch the most vulnerable people, ever’.

    The premium placed in rural areas of getting community buy-in extends to senior local leaders. In Mississippi, where levels of homelessness have halved over the past decade, I met with perhaps unlikely advocates for  compassionate responses to homelessness, in the form of the police chief of Elvis’s hometown of Tupelo and the state’s Republican supreme court justice. Both were convinced due to effective lobbying from local homeless services.

    But this local level action has not emerged from nowhere – it has been driven by clear political leadership and adequate funding from central government. The approach under the Obama administration to deliver the first ever federal strategy to end homelessness, and expand investment in best practice services such as Rapid Rehousing and Permanent Supportive Housing has paid dividends. This has built on prior federal requirements for ‘continuums of care’ to ensure joined-up delivery of these services all parts of the country, including rural areas. The result in the states I visited is far fewer people experiencing the pain of a night out than there were a decade ago.

    Tackling rural homelessness in the UK following the coronavirus pandemic

    Back in the UK, we now have a golden opportunity to build on the effective measures to tackle rough sleeping we have seen since the coronavirus pandemic began in March.

    As we move to the next phase of the response it is important that rural communities are not forgotten.  That means developing a new cross-government strategy which is truly national in scope, launched by the Prime Minister – as Obama did back in 2010. It also means investing £1bn for homelessness services, and ensuring rural communities get a fair share of funding to deliver tailored services such as outreach to their local needs. Finally, new legal requirements to tackle rough sleeping through new statutory bodies to keep ‘everyone in’ will be a key way of sustaining success in rural communities, in a way that continuums of care have delivered reductions in the US.

    While measures since the coronavirus pandemic will have helped, we aren’t out of the woods yet – these actions from central government are needed to sustain reductions and ensure rural areas are not longer forgotten and ignored. You can read the full report here.

    St Mungo’s Recovery College – online for our clients

    By Holly Smith, Strategic Marketing Officer

    St Mungo’s Recovery College offers our clients the opportunity to engage with learning, training and employment, and to rebuild their lives.

    When the pandemic began, we were in the middle of making a film about a proposed move to a new Recovery College base in London.

    But if there’s anything that I’m sure we’ve all learned in 2020, it’s that every tale can take you somewhere you didn’t expect.

    So we used the opportunity for clients to talk about how the Recovery College responded to the pandemic by moving its classes online.

    The four people involved, Adrian, AJay, Charles, Mincer, plus our Digital Inclusion Coordinator James, have shared their creativity and resilience every step of the way during this strange time.

    They adapted to new technology, learning to work differently and navigated connections – both badly behaved internet ones, and the welcome surprises of those connections forged with others as a result of the pandemic. 

    AJay said: “I am glad to be part of [the film] as I really valued what St Mungo’s is doing for our community. I hope that the organisers of the digital courses continue to thrive in making sure that everyone feels valued in the community so both old and new students enjoy the experience of taking part in more classes as they get to meet more students and tutors.” 

    St Mungo’s Recovery College is a completely fundraised service, made possible by the generosity of our partners and donors. Pre pandemic, there were a number of College bases in London and Bristol with another set to open in Leicester.

    By early June there were 24 Remote Recovery College activities for our clients to choose from, with 15 regular weekly group sessions, in addition to personalised progression coaching and employment support.

    The most popular individual sessions have been the happiness and wellbeing project and creative writing, delivered through Google Hangouts and over the phone. ‘Music, arts and culture’, ‘health, wellbeing and personal development’ and Maths and English have all been popular classes. By June we had delivered 60 one to one digital support sessions to enable people to engage with the College and use their digital devices to stay connected.

    One Recovery College client was supported by a progression coach to sign up to an online Level 2 diploma in counselling. This was something he had wanted to do for a number of months, to work towards his long-term ambition to work in mental health.

    Reta Robinson, St Mungo’s Director of Fundraising, said: “The way the Recovery College adapted so nimbly to the challenges of the pandemic has been a real reflection of the innovation and resourcefulness of our staff, clients and volunteers.”

    Gavin Benn, Head of St Mungo’s Recovery College, said: “It’s great to see more and more clients joining our remote Recovery College programme and to hear how it has supported their journey to learn, grow and be inspired, despite often challenging personal circumstances. My thanks to all those involved in making this fantastic film.”

    The Recovery College is running a summer programme until 28 August and then starts its autumn term on 5 October, until 27 November.

    Find out more about our Recovery College here, and watch more on YouTube. Thanks also to film makers Chocolate Films.

    Take the lead

    And we’re off! Are you ready to Take the Lead and tackle homelessness for St Mungo’s? 

    August 1 marked the start of our Take the Lead Challenge. For the last few months we’ve been urging dog owners across the UK to sign up, get active and Take the Lead in helping to end homelessness this summer.

    The challenge is for dog owners to walk the length of a marathon (26.2 miles) with their furry companions over the 31 days of August.   

    Meet Dexter

    Who’s getting involved?

    To help achieve our fundraising goals, the challenge is being supported by leading brands Lily’s Kitchen and Nationwide Building Society, as well as dog loving comedian and television presenter Paul O’Grady.

    Representing the canine contingent, we’ve also got Instagram sensations, Marcel the Corgi and Bun the Sausage Dog onboard, who along with other participants are aiming to raise £12,000, and walk a collective total of 4,266 miles – one mile for every person found rough sleeping on a single night in England last year.

    Why dog walking?

    As one of the leading homelessness charities in England to accept pets into their hostels, here at St Mungo’s, we recognise the hugely powerful and emotional support that animals can bring to someone who is sleeping on the streets. During this pandemic, many people have valued the companionship and support of their pets at an unprecedented time of loneliness and isolation.

    Most recently, St Mungo’s teams have been working round the clock to support vulnerable rough sleepers out of hotels, where they have been self-isolating during the pandemic, and into permanent accommodation.

    So far, more than 300 people have been helped to move into longer term accommodation, with more being supported by the charity every single day and this is just one of the many wonderful projects that your fundraising efforts will go towards helping.

    Meet Bun

    What are our supporters saying? 

    Petra Salva OBE, Director of Rough Sleepers, Ex-Offenders and Migrant Services at St Mungo’s says: “I am signing up to Take the Lead with my dog, Nero. We will be taking on the marathon distance virtually, but united as a team to help end homelessness. St Mungo’s are able to reduce barriers for someone coming off the streets by accepting pets into our hostels and we recognise the powerful emotional support a dog can provide.”

    Paul O’Grady says:

    “This challenge is a fantastic way to get outside with our dogs whilst helping to raise money for St Mungo’s and the brilliant work they do. As a dog lover myself, I know all too well about the incredible impact that they can have on people’s lives, especially during difficult times like these, and I am very pleased to be supporting such a great cause.” 

    Samantha Crossley, Head of Marketing at Lily’s Kitchen says:

    “Lily’s Kitchen is delighted to support St Mungo’s with their Take the Lead Challenge, which highlights the scale of homelessness in the UK today, with 4,266 rough sleepers in England alone.”

    Not only that, but Take the Lead celebrates the special bond between dogs and their pup-parents, the special moments spent together each day exploring the world side by side. Lily’s Kitchen understands this relationship implicitly, as do St Mungo’s, which is why they ensure their clients are not separated from their beloved pets which can be an issue when finding safe accommodation.

    “This is one of the reasons why we have loved supporting them over the years and look forward to doing so in the future.”

    Meet Peggy

    Is there still time to sign up with my dog?

    Of course! Dog walkers can Take the Lead to support vulnerable people by visiting Take the Lead for more information on how to sign up. 

    Meet Dexter the Therapaws dog

    In this blog, we introduce you to Dexter, one of St Mungo’s participating TheraPaws dogs.

    What’s a TheraPaws dog you ask?

    Well, being a TheraPaws dog involves taking regular visits to vulnerable members of the community (those living in mental health centres, hospitals, hospices, care homes etc.) who love seeing and engaging with canine friends.

    Therapy dogs are an invaluable asset to homelessness charities such as St Mungo’s as they give the opportunity to reach out and offer a calming and non-judgemental presence to some of society’s most hard-hit individuals. That’s why we are one of the few charities that accommodate people who are homeless with their dogs or other pets wherever possible.

    Dexter is a playful and friendly four-year-old Labradoodle based in West London. As a therapy dog he likes to spend his time supervising staff and trying to encourage complete (but often willing) strangers to play with him and his ball or frisbee!

    Dexter became a TheraPaws dog when one of his staff spotted that a charity was looking for volunteers for their TheraPaws programme and applied accordingly. After passing some background checks and an assessment to determine his suitability, Dexter took part in an induction programme to embark on his new calling as a therapy dog. From there, he was matched on various projects that suit both dog and volunteer teams with appropriate clients.

    Dexter got involved with St Mungo’s when Niamh Carwood, the TheraPaws co-ordinator at Mayhew, got in touch with us here at St Mungo’s to match Dexter as a therapy dog with one of our clients. The client in question has had some social isolation issues and we thought that Dexter’s irresistibly sunny, sociable nature could help bring this client outside on a more regular basis.

    Thankfully, our notion that the client and Dexter would get along was well judged – the client has never missed one of their weekly appointments! St Mungo’s staff, the client as well as Dexter very much look forward to these visits, where all parties got to enjoy some time outside, with Dexter showing how a frisbee should best be chased. The visits also give St Mungo’s staff another (neutral) talking point on which to focus with the client, as well as giving Dexter another pal to pull into his games.

    Want to get involved in the fight against homelessness with your dog? Why not sign up for our #MungosTakeTheLead challenge this August. Register yourself and your dog, find some sponsors and pledge to walk 26.2 miles throughout the 31 days of August.

    Together with all of our participants, we’re hoping to raise £12,000 and walk a collective total of 4,266 miles – one mile for every person found rough sleeping on a single night in England last year.


    Interested? Read more about the dog walking challenge here. 

Go back