Few things press my anger buttons more than homelessness. In a wealthy society like ours, no one should be forced into sleeping on the street, in hostels or on a succession of sofas. Yet, it is hardly difficult to end up in such situations. Most of us have faced the loss of job or partner, poor health, addiction, financial or family difficulties in our lives – these are all factors that can contribute to losing a home either for ourselves or someone close to us.
I had volunteered for Crisis at Christmas for several years before coming to Providence Row and had listened to many accounts of how people come to sleep on the street. I recall meeting one guest who had lost his job in his hometown due to new technology. He had moved to London to seek a living, leaving his family behind. Eventually, he could no longer afford his London rent, his relationship with his partner ended and severe depression became a daily battle. Others told of coming to the UK from overseas to find better opportunities instead finding uncertain jobs paying little money and expensive, insecure accommodation. Many don’t have enough funds to return home and end up on the street.
It wasn’t until I arrived as a Triage Volunteer at Providence Row that I really appreciated the hard work involved in not having your own place or address. It’s pretty much a full time job. One place to sleep, another for breakfast, across town to apply for a benefit or housing application and yet another to claim it or turn up for a job. And then back to the street for a snatch of sleep. No wonder that just living is painful.
At Providence Row, I am one of a team of about 20 people volunteering across the week, helping in the welcome area where new people come for support and those already using the service arrive for the day’s activities. My main task is to greet people, find out what they need that day and ensure that they can meet with their key worker and use the facilities at Providence Row – a shower, the IT room, one of the various learning activities, something to eat and drink. I also carry out a short initial assessment with new people coming to the centre, asking them about their circumstances, recording their needs and introducing them to the services that Providence Row offers. Like any member of the public, I can also refer street sleepers to Streetlink, a web based service run for local authorities to find emergency accommodation for people living on the street. I can also inform them about other support services in the borough. Their information is then passed to a Providence Row key worker who works with them longer term.
Before I retired, interviewing and talking to people was the backbone of my job. Although my professional skills are useful at Providence Row, I have had to find new ways of letting people tell their story without being intrusive or persistent, but ensuring I also gather all the information that the key worker needs. Understanding people’s complex needs and the services involved in supporting them is certainly a challenge and every day is a learning curve for me. I do not refer people for further help (that is the role of advice and support key workers) but I think it inspires confidence if I am aware of other services. As well as the great learning and training resources offered by our welcome area coordinator Charles, the weekly Big Issue and monthly Pavement magazines are handy sources of useful information.
Without exception, the people I have met at Providence Row have been cheerful, pleased to talk, willing to pass over their information and grateful if we are able to assist. At the end of an assessment, it always feels like a privilege to have spoken to them.