Ending homelessness, rebuilding lives

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.

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