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Real Voices: Supporting the homeless in West Yorkshire

In this week’s Real Voices, we hear from the leader of a team of outreach workers from the charity Simon on the Streets, who work with homeless people in the West Yorkshire area. She describes the ups and downs of this crucial work, and successes that the team have seen over the years.

I’ve been an outreach worker in Bradford for seven years, and six months ago I was promoted to become team leader. There’s never a typical day in this line of work as it’s a very reactive role. Fundamentally our role as outreach workers is to work with entrenched rough sleepers. We work with the people that the council-funded commissioned services cannot work with. In Leeds, everybody that you see in the city centre will typically be assigned to the commissioned outreach team. If there are rough sleepers in the city centre who do not want to be housed and do not want to work with those commissioned services, we can step in and work with them. Primarily however, we work on the outskirts of town. We go out and find people who are sleeping rough away from the main roads, we often look for them in woods and secluded places like that. We also get a lot of referrals, and we liaise with the street outreach team to identify homeless people who might have gone under the radar and be in need of support. 

We’re not government-funded, so we do not have the same targets as the commissioned service. We don’t have the same processes and boxes which need to be ticked. Our job is more user-led, and centred around what each service user wants from us. They might not want to be housed, they might just want to talk or have some food. We build up trust with each rough sleeper over time, and get to know what they want to do. If it turns out that they do decide they want to be housed, then we’ll look at helping with that process. Depending on what that individual wants, we can look at getting them a referral or a housing assessment, helping them decide where they want to live, things like that. Every service user is different. When we do book appointments with people, nine times out of ten they don’t end up happening. We are dealing with complex people with quite chaotic lives, so they struggle making it to appointments. It’s our job to try and guide them and help them get to these appointments as they’re so important. It can be a very long process, and nothing gets done quickly. We’ve no set timescales with anybody either, so we can work with people for a very long time. What we’ve found a lot of the time is that people tend to return to us and ask for help, if we helped get them housed for example and then they get evicted. We just start the whole housing process again. 

The most demanding thing about this work is getting these chaotic people to work with the services they need, especially when it comes to getting them to turn up to appointments. Especially with the NHS at the moment, if you miss an appointment for any reason (say if the letter’s gone missing, or the person doesn’t regularly open their post and missed the invitation) it can take so long to get another one. So that’s the hardest thing, when you’ve worked so hard to get someone an appointment and then you’re back to the end of the queue. It’s like one step forward, ten steps back. We have to have a lot of patience with people. We’re never going to force anyone to do anything they don’t want to do, our role is to guide them instead. We advocate and support, and we have empathy for our service users. You do become very attached to people. I’ve worked with the same people for over seven years and often you’re the only person they speak to, if they don’t have family or friends. They have street friends, but it’s dog eat dog out there so they aren’t real friends. Giving someone that personal connection even just by having a cup of tea with them can be so helpful to a rough sleeper. 

I used to work in sales and marketing before I started outreach work, so I didn’t really know what to expect. My friend had set up a small charity handing out food in Bradford and Leeds, and I loved helping her out, so I applied to do outreach work. I was really naive to how complex this work was going to be. Each person that you support has suffered so much trauma in their lives. Nobody wakes up one day and decides to go and sleep on the streets, it’s traumatic events that have left that person with no other option. Some people’s stories are utterly horrific. It’s always important to remember that this is someone’s child, or parent, or sibling, and we do get calls from distressed family members asking if we’ve seen their loved one. Obviously we can’t say anything because of client confidentiality, so that can be very heartbreaking. We’ve had people pass away, and we have to deal with the aftermath of that with their families. We’ve had quite a lot of deaths this year, three people we’d been working with died on the same day which was unbelievably tough on the team. Unfortunately it comes with the territory. The average age for a male on the streets is only 45 years old. Every case is completely different, and each person’s needs are unique to them. It’s just important to be empathetic and treat people like they’re human beings, not problems to be dealt with. 

If people come to this country as an immigrant from Eastern Europe, they have to have what’s called “settled status” before they can access benefits and housing. A lot of the homeless people that we are working with are people who have been exploited or trafficked into this country, and had their passports taken off them and been made to do hard labour for miniscule pay. Because they don’t have the correct documentation, they cannot access government help. COVID and the Ukraine conflict have meant that all applications have been backlogged for about three years. We’ve had some amazing news this week, as three of the guys we’ve been working with who have been very ill for some time have finally been granted settled status. This means that they can finally get housing which is a phenomenal result that has taken such a long time to achieve. In Leeds, Simon on the Streets deal with a lot of those clients who commissioned services can’t work with, so we have quite specialist knowledge in that area. It’s also amazing when we see a client who initially refused to be housed change their mind and finally get their own place. We’ve just housed a few people in the new accommodation run by St George’s Crypt who are all doing brilliantly. One of our workers is going to check on them next week for a final handover, so the Crypt workers can pick up their support. It’s not like we’re never going to see our clients again once they are housed, we will always be there for them if they need us. It’s a good sign when we don’t hear from the people we’ve housed for a while, because that means they’re doing well and they don’t need our help. 

Success in this work is not just about housing someone, because when you house someone that’s when a lot of problems actually start. If you’ve been living on the streets, you might not know about things like how to cook and clean for yourself, how to pay bills, and all the tiny factors that come with retaining a tenancy. Our clients are often really surprised at how much everything costs when they move into housing. So we carry out a lot of welfare checks on the people in housing as well, helping them to cook and clean and getting them involved in their local community. It’s so difficult to maintain a tenancy if you haven’t tackled any of your issues. If they’re in a new home and they’re sat there with all their thoughts it can be really overwhelming for people. We really encourage them to get back into the community and be social. Housing is not a quick fix for everyone, for some it’s a very long process. We also want to empower those we work with to be independent, we don’t want to just go in and do everything for them, we want to teach them to be self-sufficient so that they can stay off the streets. 

I’m so grateful to everyone who supports Simon on the Streets. The dedication of our team is phenomenal, and it’s so great to spread awareness of the great work going on in the city. We don’t get government-funding, so any support that anyone sends our way keeps us going and allows us to do this vital work that we’re so passionate about.