What it’s like to be an Outreach worker

    Winter Edition 2023

    What's like to be an Outreach worker

    Sam McCormack has been a St Mungo’s Outreach worker since the start of the pandemic. From waking rough sleepers at 6am to the best text he’s ever received, he takes us through a few of his experiences on the job.

    I’ve worked for St Mungo’s for five and a half years. I was the Antisocial Behaviour Support Worker for rough sleepers, then I became an Outreach worker at the beginning of the pandemic.

    They really needed someone just because of the sheer volume of people on the streets. Because the government said everyone must be housed during covid, we housed over 400 clients over a short space of time – I had a caseload of about 55 clients at any given point (15-20 clients is a normal load).

    It’s not as simple as saying “this is what my day’s going to be today”. Today on my Outreach sheets (which are lists of rough sleepers and their locations) there are 36 different names of rough sleepers and their locations written on here – from just this morning!

    A lot of them are regular clients, and then when we get in we pick up phone messages and emails about the whereabouts of various rough sleepers. We get them from members of the public, from clients themselves, from any other agencies, drug and alcohol services, ambulance, police – you name it. Sometimes there are no messages, sometimes there are as many as 12 or 20.

    It’s common for people to not want to engage at first. It could be they’ve had poor experiences with agencies or the council that left them with the thought, “I’ve tried this before, it didn’t work out”.

    That’s where our consistent approach is so important: we make sure they know we’re here when they’re ready. Sometimes they say they don’t want to do the housing stuff, but they have a health issue and we refer them to our health teams.

     

    It’s all about gauging from that first moment how they want their support. If they say, “Please can you not come and wake me up at six in the morning?” that’s perfectly alright. If you don’t want to speak today, we’ll come back.

    We have a lot of clients who are long-term rough sleepers who, in the last couple of years, have engaged and actually gone into accommodation. If you say, “What can we do for you?” they’ll often say nothing, but if you ask, “How’s your health? Have you got a passport, benefits, money?”, often they’ll come back to us a few weeks later.

    “As Outreach workers, we’re the ones who bring in a sense of normality and structure to clients amid a lot of chaos. We find them, say hello and offer help, and often it takes time to build trust.”

    Sometimes they walk several miles to come here when previously they didn’t want help, because now the trust is there.

    Christmas usually brings an influx of rough sleepers to Bournemouth. Rural homelessness is difficult; being out in the middle of nowhere, and begging is much easier at the Christmas market in Bournemouth.

    The client that sticks in my mind is one I referred to Hope Housing, a small charity that provides supported accommodation for people experiencing homelessness; he was in semi-supported shared accommodation within a week and a half.

    He sent me a text that said, “You lot mean more to me than you can ever imagine” and a heart emoji at the end! We also have a feedback book where clients write lovely messages to us. I always tell colleagues, “During your bad days, when the clients have been directing their frustration at you, just come back and read the book.”

    Sometimes they walk several miles to come here when previously they didn’t want help, because now the trust is there.

    Christmas usually brings an influx of rough sleepers to Bournemouth. Rural homelessness is difficult; being out in the middle of nowhere, and begging is much easier at the Christmas market in Bournemouth.

    The truth about Outreach is that there’s no typical day, no typical client. And to our supporters, I just want to say thank you. Without them we wouldn’t be here.

    I’ve worked for a lot of housing associations and none of them have been as compassionate as St Mungo’s; they think about the bigger picture.

    3 things the Government can do to end rough sleeping

    Winter Edition 2023

    3 things the Government can do to end rough sleeping

    What can we learn from our response to the pandemic when it comes to homelessness? The Kerslake Commission has three recommendations.

    Few will remember the Covid-19 pandemic with any kind of fondness. But it was also a moment in which ambitious solutions to homelessness were implemented.

    The Government’s initiative Everyone In ensured that people sleeping rough were put up in hotels and other forms of accommodation, and remarkable progress was made. So what lessons can we learn from our pandemic response?

    The Kerslake Commission was set up, with St Mungo’s as the secretariat, to answer that question. Joe Walker, our Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer, explains three of its recommendations:

    1. Raise housing benefit

    Image: Mobile

    “During the pandemic, the Government increased rates of universal credit by £20 a week, to recognise that people needed extra support. But it just brought people to a level that they needed to sustain themselves. When that was removed, it had a huge impact.

    “With benefits levels already inadequate, the freeze to housing benefit means that people can’t cover their rent. So local councils spend around £60m a month on temporary accommodation.

    “The rates of housing benefit should cover the bottom 30% of rent prices. Currently it’s more like 5%, and that estimate is generous. Go on Rightmove or Zoopla and see if you can find any properties for the local housing benefit rate. You can find maybe two or three if you’re lucky.”

    2. Build more housing

    “We’re not in a pandemic anymore, so the response to ending homelessness over the long term will look different. We won’t be able to open hotels and student accommodation again for people to be housed in.

    “This country has failed to build an adequate supply of social rented housing. That puts huge amounts of pressure on the private rented sector, so rents are sky high. So people can’t afford to move on from homelessness, or they fall into homelessness because they can’t afford to sustain their housing.

    “Even if the Government decided to build more housing, getting bricks in the ground will take the best part of a decade, so we need intermediate solutions: regenerating housing that has fallen into disrepair, more robust measures on empty properties, and transferring current developments that are for private or shared ownership into social rented housing. Alleviating pressure at the bottom end of the market is the most effective way of preventing homelessness.

    “Because there’s not enough social housing, our clients are placed into the private rental sector when they move on from homelessness. The private rental sector is great for some: flexible, easier to live nearer workplaces in the city centre. But what people recovering from homelessness need is safe, secure and affordable housing, which the private rental sector is not.”

     

    3. Extend support to non-UK nationals

    “Around half of people sleeping rough in urban areas are non-UK nationals. During the pandemic the Government was clear that anyone, regardless of their immigration status, should be brought in off the streets.

    “Now the funding no longer exists, and the Government isn’t clear about what local authorities can do to support people who have limited entitlements to public funds due to their immigration status.

    “At St Mungo’s, we don’t just support people on the front line when they’re experiencing crisis; we want to change the systemic issues that cause people to be in that situation in the first place. When you support St Mungo’s, yes you’re supporting people who need outreach support and placing in accommodation – but you’re also supporting an organisation that is committed to ending homelessness and rough sleeping in the long term.”

    Support that can turn lives around

    Winter Edition 2023

    Support that can turn lives around

    St Mungo’s offers help in so many ways – such as running 12 Housing First schemes, which offer people experiencing homelessness housing as quickly as possible so they can then deal with other issues (such as addiction, unemployment, or mental health issues) from a secure environment.

    We talked to case worker Andrew Murray and his client ‘L’ about how this kind of support turns lives around…

    Providing clients with essential support

    “As a case worker, you’ve got to build a trusting relationship quite quickly and that’s hard to do, because you’re working with people who don’t really trust many people at all.

    “You become an integral part of their lives. It’s a testament to how well the service does that when I started there were six clients and now there’s almost 60.

    “The success rate is incredibly high, which for us means that people stay in accommodation and break the cycle of going back to the streets. I had clients who were housed with Housing First in 2016 who have managed to stay in the same accommodation.

    “Christmas is a difficult time for a lot of people, those with children or extended family they don’t see or are estranged from can find it really hard. You’ve just got to be there for them.

    “To supporters of St Mungo’s, I would say, your contributions enable St Mungo’s to be able to invest in services like Housing First, which gives people the time and resources to develop to their full potential and succeed.”

    Client L's story

    “I had an abusive father, and I’d been on heroin since I was seven. I knew about withdrawal and how to inject myself before I finished primary school.

    “When I got away from my dad I was moved into a hostel (not run by St Mungo’s). I was trying to get clean, but other residents were difficult. There’d be a knock on my door at 3am, and someone’s arm would come through with a tourniquet around it and a needle asking me to do it because they couldn’t find a vein. So I left, thinking I’d rather be on the streets – and I was, for seven years.

    “I was polite to people, never asked for money, I just had a sign. I tried getting into accommodation, but I was sent to the same place, with some of the same residents. I decided again to take my chances on the streets. The council saw this as me making myself intentionally homeless.

    “During ‘the Beast from the East’ I was outside a Tesco’s literally getting covered in snow, and people threw coffee at me from a moving car. That’s your lowest point. I’ve had a tent set on fire while I was inside, I’ve been urinated on, beaten up, had my shoes stolen.

    “I’ve had a tent set on fire while I was inside, I’ve been urinated on, beaten up, had my shoes stolen.”

    “As an addict, winter is particularly dangerous. You’re physically dependent so if you don’t have it, you’re vomiting every five seconds, going to the toilet uncontrollably and all your trauma that’s been blocked out is going to hit you like a wave and none of your coping mechanisms are there to protect you. If you’re homeless, you’ve got no change of clothes, no shower – it’s dangerous to be sweating profusely and unable to keep water or food down.

    “I became suicidal. When I tried to kill myself, I was sectioned for all of six hours: the second they found out I was homeless and an addict they gave me £30 for a B&B and dropped me back in Bournemouth.

    “Things turned around, but only after something terrible happened. A guy I knew froze to death after he said the council took his bedding away. We used to talk a lot, he would stand outside McDonalds and say hi to people; I’m lactose and gluten intolerant so I would give him my extra food. I didn’t see him for a couple of days, and then I found out he’d frozen to death. A week or so later, my phone rang: the council were putting me in a hotel.

    “After a few weeks I was referred to Housing First. They said, ‘We’ll give you a flat with the rent paid, and you can take it from there.‘ They said I was getting a key worker from St Mungo’s and I was very wary of letting a stranger in.

    “Now Andy and I have worked together for almost five years. I feel like doctors make up their mind about me straight away but when I have Andy present I have a witness with a laminated badge which completely changes how people treat you.

    “The reason this has worked for me is the autonomy I have: I’ve been able to taper my methadone down at my own pace, and request that the drugs charity WeAreWithYou lower my dose as I’ve gotten my daily intake lower and lower.

    “Out of all the different services I’ve worked with, with St Mungo’s the practical help is huge.

    “I feel like doctors make up their mind about me straight away but when I have Andy present I have a witness with a laminated badge which completely changes how people treat you.”

    “Whether it’s needing to go to the pharmacy or ‘I need to talk to someone right now!’, they’ve always been able to help. Andy is perfectly suited for helping people.”

    25 years of helping St Mungo’s clients

    Winter Edition 2023

    25 years of helping St Mungo's clients

    Marking her 25th year with St Mungo’s, few have made more impact on how we support our clients than Samantha Cowie.

    As Head of Criminal Justice Services, Sam tells us about the work she leads here at St Mungo’s, where housing meets the criminal justice system.

    If you want to address homelessness in Britain, you’ve got to look at the population that are coming out of prisons with nowhere to live.

    “No matter how quickly you’re taking people off the street you’ve still got this flow of people coming out, often with nowhere to go.”

    Sam and her team support people to either sustain the accommodation they have when they go into prison (so that, if their sentence is short enough, it will be waiting for them upon their release), or if they can’t save it, to help them relinquish it in a way that won’t diminish their housing rights when they do leave prison.

    If they have no accommodation or won’t have anywhere to live when they’re released, Sam and her team help them find housing.

    There is a strong link between prison and homelessness, Sam explains.

    “Many people who find themselves homeless are at a higher risk of finding themselves engaged with the criminal justice system in some way… If you’ve got nowhere to live, no money or you can’t claim benefits you may feel you have no other choice than to, for example, shoplift. If you’re suffering with your mental health, you might be self-medicating with drugs, drink, antisocial behaviour happens…”

    People also have a higher risk of experiencing homelessness when they are released from prison and are far more likely to reoffend if they have nowhere to live.

    In her 25 years, Sam has fought tirelessly to get the housing needs of prisoners taken into consideration; even here at St Mungo’s.

    “When I first started working in Criminal Justice Services, I remember having to make the argument that it’s an integral part of what St Mungo’s does,” says Sam.

    “It took a long time for this link to be recognised across the whole sector: that part of our work in Criminal Justice Services is to highlight that people on the streets can end up offending and in prison, and people who’ve been in prison often come out and end up on the street. Either way, they end up in our hostels, or from our hostels they end up in prison.”

    Sadly, perhaps understandably in some ways, there is still a lack of public empathy for prisoners.

    The element of rehabilitation is often overridden by the idea of prison as a punishment, and the negative impact of incarceration becomes something that is ‘deserved’.

    “People don’t want to hear about criminals being supported in a way that they see as unfair, and that includes access to housing or services,” says Sam.

    “We're not making excuses for bad choices, but quite often there are also explanations as to why people end up in that situation, and we are trying to undo that damage”

    “And yet we know that prisons are full of young people who have come through the care system, been failed by it, and who have been institutionalised to the point of not functioning outside the institution.

    “And when efforts are made to rehabilitate through activities like sports, the arts, education and helping them get jobs and a home, people are often angry about it because they see it as a reward.”

    The idea of reward and punishment misses the point of rehabilitation, Sam explains.

    “We’re not making excuses for bad choices, but quite often there are also explanations as to why people end up in that situation, and we are trying to undo that damage – the alternative is we lock people up and do nothing, no effort to rehabilitate, and the cycle continues.

    “It can cost around £50,000 a year to keep a person in prison: that’s a lot of money if someone keeps going back again and again. Having a home goes some way in breaking that cycle.”

    On occasion, people experiencing homelessness even offend because prison feels like a step up from life
    on the streets, deliberately getting arrested to return to the familiarity of the prison system.

    While the numbers are not quite as drastic as some have reported, Sam says it is something her team sees, but most often it happens in the run up to Christmas.

    “If you’ve been institutionalised and you don’t have that family dynamic, Christmas is a really stressful time of year for people,” she says. “It can be a stark reminder of what you don’t have.”

    Last night on the streets: introducing our winter campaign

    Winter Edition 2023

    Introducing our winter campaign

    Rough sleeping in winter can be fatal. Just one night in the warm can turn someone’s life around. With your support, tonight could be someone’s last night on the streets. 

    The cycle of homelessness

    It can be hard to see a way out of rough sleeping. Without a home, finding a job is almost impossible and without a job, finding a home is impossible. And in winter, rough sleeping can be dangerous or even fatal.

    Last year we launched Last Night on the Streets to highlight the dangers of rough sleeping, and our brilliant outreach teams who work all hours to bring people in from the cold to safety.

    Last night on the streets

    The demand for support is increasing again this year, and the pressure is on. The numbers of people facing eviction amid a housing emergency have risen to shocking levels, and the cost of living crisis has pushed the most vulnerable into unsuitable temporary accommodation or even onto the streets.

    As part of our winter campaign and in the hopes of reaching more people like you, we have produced a TV advert that provides a glimpse into a person’s journey from the streets and into accommodation, the harsh winter elements they endure night after night, and the hope that our outreach teams can bring.

    We are so thankful to you for supporting our clients through times like these and we hope to spread the word to as many people as possible. The more wonderful supporters like you we can find, the more people we can help.

    An end to rough sleeping is possible. Thank you for helping us to get there.

Go back