This July we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the opening of St Mungo’s North London’s Women’s project. Julia Jarrett MBE, project manager of the women-only service, and Olivia Smith, deputy manager, talk about how the project supports its residents to make positive changes in their lives.
Julia: “I was working for St Mungo’s when the North London Women’s project opened 25 years ago, in July 1993. It was such a big thing to have a women-only project.”
Olivia: “One of the things we emphasise here is about feeling safe. In an all-female hostel, our residents know that they’re safe, their ex-partner not being here, they’re not going to feel that harassment or abuse from them. We support 31 women at any one time. Our residents can be fleeing domestic violence or abusive relationships. Some women may have mental health problems or be tackling alcohol and substance use as well.”
Julia: “Having also worked in mixed hostels, that’s one of the main difference in services. Women here might experience the same complex issues but they handle them in a different way to men. A lot of the women here have had quite traumatic experiences in their lives around men, which may go back to childhood. Sometimes the men they are trying to escape find them and try to get them back into a lifestyle that is not good for their physical and mental health. Having this women-only space, where they don’t feel harassed or get abuse from men is safer for them.”
Olivia: “Also, a lot of the women have lost their children or they’re in care or with guardians. One of the things we support women with is to establish contact, whether it’s by letter, or to re-establish contact with extended family who are looking after their child, or contact with social services. It’s not always a happy ending but at least we can help.
“We also work with women who have a history of involvement in prostitution. We work with women who have been raped and who then come to us the next day to tell us that they have been sexually assaulted by a pimp. You have to work through that trauma with them. Sometimes this can take a toll on the team, but we are not easily fazed. The amount of work our team put into supporting women with horrific complex trauma is testament to their dedication.”
Julia: “I’ve worked with people who had been given up on completely. People said they’re never going to change or they’re going to die. Next thing you know they have a partner, a flat and kids. It can take somebody decades to change. We keep the atmosphere quite laid back, focus on building up good relationships.
“We’ve just finished some trauma informed training. I want the service to be more trauma informed and staff to have a better understanding when women behave the way they do, that there is reason they do that. We’re also looking at PIEs (psychologically informed environments), focusing on making the hostel friendlier and more welcoming to improve people’s psychological and emotional wellbeing.”
The small things that count
Olivia: “Sometimes it’s the small things that count. Sometimes it’s about making their lives a little richer. Sometimes you can do that with a small amount of food and general basic items. You don’t have to do the heavy things a lot of the time; it’s just being there and having a listening ear because you don’t know what’s best for the client. The client knows what’s best. If someone doesn’t want to engage with recovery at the initial stage, I’m fine with that, as long as long as they are feeling safe. We can offer support and comfortable and safe surroundings. But if they are willing to engage in their recovery journey and willing to receive support from staff, hopefully we can move them on to a richer life.
“Some of the highlights for me have been the two photo calendars we did with the women. We were also involved in producing the Pregnancy Toolkit for expectant mothers who are homeless. That was quite inspirational. It’s also the little moments. If the client gives you a compliment about the work we’ve done with them. That’s what’s is moving for me. That ‘thank you’. Sometimes we get external agencies especially with clients who have been referred and have very complex trauma and they thank us for our work, our patience and tolerance, and how we’re willing to work through women’s journeys with them.”
Recovery isn’t a quick fix
Julia: “Recovery isn’t a quick fix. People forget that and they want to move people too fast or if they’re not doing this or not doing that, they’re not going to change. People do change. You just need to give people time. We’re not on a schedule.
“Olivia does a lot of mindfulness and yoga with clients and staff. Sometimes the issues of the women here can lead to burn out and other consequences. The women who work here are so committed to the women that live here. I think we are quite resilient women ourselves. To work here, you have to have sorted out your own issues.
“We marked the 25th anniversary with a small party, food and music for residents and staff, to celebrate what the women themselves have achieved, and the project, over that time. The project is for strong women – and it’s still standing, still going strong.”