Stuart describes his rewarding experience of volunteering with people housed in emergency hotel accommodation during the pandemic.
Having previously spent close to 15 years working overseas with British health NGOs and the United Nations in critical emergency situations, I never could have envisaged the situation that would unfold in the UK just over one year ago as the pandemic took hold. Those working conditions with which I had become familiar elsewhere were now a part of UK daily life: vulnerable communities, breakdowns in supply chains, restrictions on movements and personal freedoms coupled with national uncertainty, fear, and anxiety.
At the onset of the pandemic, a call went out from the British Red Cross with whom I have been involved for the last two years, seeking volunteers to assist St Mungo’s with the Everyone In response that was accommodating rough sleepers across a number of hotels in London. Having had a long-term interest in the issue and causes of homelessness dating back to my time at university, I was keen to sign up!
My role supporting the team and vulnerable people
Those first few visits to the Limehouse hotel, where up to 150 people were being accommodated and supported by Mungo’s, were quite surreal. Travelling in an empty carriage on the DLR through a deserted Canary Wharf is something that will stay with me for a long time and certainly brought home the deadly threat facing the country.
Working conditions too were adapted to this new environment with personal protective equipment now a requirement. Whereas in my previous working life, PPE had consisted of the need for 12kg body armour in Gaza, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, this time around it took the form of masks, gloves and gowns as well as the need for two metre spacing and the constant wiping down of public surfaces. I initially found masks to be quite an intrusive barrier to communications with clients and colleagues however, as always, one adapts.
Since starting at Limehouse towards the end of April 2020, I have also worked at a hotel in Leyton and most recently Greenwich. This has typically involved one full day a week or more recently two half- day shifts. The work is predictable but essential! As a result of Covid-19 requirements, communal indoors eating is obviously no longer possible. My principle role along with those of the other volunteers is very much focussed on the provision of the daily meals which involves going from room-to- room three times daily and providing pre-prepared food to the clients.
Outside of the food runs, the main task is to act as an interface with the clients for basic requests, so that the St Mungo’s team can be left to get on with the all-important casework. Everyone In has provided St Mungo’s with a great opportunity to get clients’ lives back on track, whether this is through the ability to look at longer-term housing options as well as connecting with health and dental services and the benefits system and Home Office. The presence of volunteers in the hotels allows the full-time staff the time to focus on sustainable solutions for the individual clients.
There have been so many highlights of this experience in the last year. Where do I start? Arriving on a shift to learn that one of the clients that you have been supporting for a number of months has found a place to live. Being part of a team of dedicated volunteers and staff seeking to – and succeeding in – making tangible improvements to the life quality of some of the more marginal and vulnerable individuals within our communities. The surprise of learning that I had been nominated by my peers for the Marsh Award!
Find out more about volunteering at St Mungo’s here.