The first in a new series of case studies about our projects and services. This case study features our homeless day services.
A day with The Society of St James’ Homeless Day Services
On an overcast Monday morning I find myself walking along Milton Road – a long, busy main road that leads to St Mary’s Hospital. I’m trying to find the Homeless Day Services centre, where I’ve volunteered to spend the day and write about for the Society of St James. According to Google maps, it’s a twelve-minute drive from Gunwharf Quays – Portsmouth’s popular shopping and dining centre – but Milton feels a long way from the hustle and bustle of socialising and bargain hunting. But where exactly are the Homeless Day Services located? I think I’m lost.
I walk past a nondescript door set into high redbrick walls, not giving it a second look as I search for my destination. Before I know it I’m at the hospital and I’ve missed where I need to be. I scan Google maps again and find myself having to retrace my steps back to that door, which had been so easy to miss. So easy to walk right past. But this time, when I approach, I see two men dressed in jeans and sweatshirts pressing a buzzer to be let in and I guess this is the place.
And that’s my first impression of Homeless Day Service. Just like the people they help, they are easy to miss. But take the time to stop and really look and you might find something extraordinary. And that’s what I came away with after spending the day here; an appreciation for the unseen extraordinary work that goes on right under our noses.
Inside the red brick building I’m introduced to Jordan, who gives me a warm welcome and invites me on a tour of the facilities and services. The first thing I find is that The Society of St James‘ Homeless Day Services operate out of just one long corridor. Rooms lead off left and right to various rooms: the reception, offices, recreational area (where breakfast is available until 11am), kitchen/laundry area, assessment rooms, locker room, toilet and shower block.
It’s narrow and when there are more than three of you everyone has to squeeze by one other. Jordan tells me that about 60 people will come and go throughout the day and most of these (around 50) are at the centre first thing, between 8 and 9am, when they arrive to access services and try to get a bed for the night. I was asked to arrive at 10am, so I miss the rush and can only guess what it’s like trying to support so many people within this small passageway. And there’s only five members of staff.
It’s reasonably quiet while I’m there, save for one short yet heated confrontation between two service users that I witness just before I’m due to leave. But seeing this encounter is enough for me to realise that the staff here are doing their job in often fraught situations, as they try to help individuals living in the most chaotic and difficult conditions.
Facilities and Services
On the tour I learn about all the different ways the service helps those coming through the door each day. First and foremost, there’s the work finding beds for the night which are provided by the night shelters and become available from 9pm. Anyone new is assessed, which takes around fifteen minutes and aims to pinpoint what specific and immediate help they need. It involves some form-filling, but these assessments will link people to essential services. And it’s the start of a relationship aimed at understanding what an individual needs and making sure they get the right support. I find out that people are referred to them by outreach programmes, the local authority, the hospital, other services or they come direct after reading about them on the internet.
One of the main purposes of the centre is to help homeless people meet day-to-day basic needs that most of us take for granted. It’s where you can eat breakfast, take a shower and use the toilet. There are washing machines for doing laundry as well, which are in constant use and fill the place with the soapy smell of washing powder. Individuals are assigned lockers to keep personal items. If none are free, things are stored in reception or the office – anywhere there’s space.
In the kitchen there’s a fridge and cupboards with a few items of mostly donated food, from places like Sainsbury’s and Lidl. There’s a paved yard at the back with benches and hanging flower baskets where people can hang out, chat and smoke. It’s near Hope House the night shelter, but there’s standard residential homes nearby too. When I ask about any issues with neighbours I’m told that there are complaints about noise sometimes. But this doesn’t strike me as any different from most neighbourhoods, especially those with a high student population.
I’m shown a room where they store donated clothes and opposite that there’s the well-being room – a quiet place where people can go to be alone, get some space and have a rare moment of peace. We’re being ever so quiet because inside a man is sleeping. I think about how easy it is for me to find a quiet and safe space to sleep every night compared to this person, who has this one rare opportunity to experience the same.
Jordan tells me that the dentist, doctor and foot specialist are regulars at the centre, helping people with basic health care. There’s also a clean needle exchange offered too. This can be a contentious issue, but there’s a strict rule about not using drugs at the centre. The exchange helps users stay safe and also enables staff to assess how much individuals are taking. I learn about the Recovering Hub, which comes once a week and offers alternative therapies, and the ReFit centre where service users can take part in activities like biking, boxing or archery. Jordan explains how these therapies and exercises help improve fitness and well-being, and create a routine; an important step in getting back on track.
Stories and Issues
During the tour I discover more about Jordan’s story. He’s 29, has been at the centre for 10 months and worked in the construction industry for 13 years before deciding to change careers. I later discover that Bev, who currently runs the centre, is his mum. And it makes sense that seeing a parent dedicate their life to the welfare of others would be fantastic inspiration.
It’s Bev who explains to me how homeless people are required to build up what’s called a ‘local connection’. That this means having to be in one place for a period of time before being able to access benefits and services. And this is why it’s difficult for anyone from outside an area to get what they need to move forward and why they often need help from Homeless Day Services.
Bev explains to me that most service users have complex mental and physical health problems and these issues can make simple tasks very difficult. But it’s the small successes – like seeing someone learn to cook pasta or make a phone call – that give her and her staff so much satisfaction. However, alongside these victories are the constant challenges. I hear a story about a woman who came in one time and spent the entire day in a highly agitated state, shouting non-stop. It was disturbing for everyone and she was obviously in need of help. But because she knew who she was and wasn’t posing a risk to herself or others, she couldn’t be sectioned and receive the care she needed. Instead she was left at the centre. But with no mental health training it’s tough on staff and stressful for other service users. So I’m unsurprised to learn that staff turnover is high. However, Bev remains optimistic. She feels, that to work in a place like this, you just need to care – that everything else can be taught.
Someone who fits that description is Michelle. She’s a 20-year-old social work student in her final year at Portsmouth University who is at the centre on placement. She helps with all kinds of tasks, such as assisting with CVs and job applications. She says, before she started, she was worried that the people who use the centre would be aggressive and moody. And how, in reality, everyone has been nice and welcoming. It’s a lovely example of how first-hand experience can dispel common myths and prejudices.
And then there’s Brad, who’s popped in from the night shelter where he works. He tells me his story, about how he became homeless after getting heavily into drugs and how staff at the centre helped him get back on his feet. He believes everyone can get off drugs and out of homelessness, but admits it’s a long road and less likely to happen without the help of services like these. Brad’s story is inspiring and it’s amazing to see how he’s turned his life around. But it’s speaking to some of the people in the centre who are still very much at the start of the journey, that makes it clear to me just how important these services are.
Like Lloyd, who’s 53 and been homeless for about a year. Who tells me how his son committed suicide earlier in the year, that he had to get away from where he lived after a run-in with neighbours dealing drugs and how a spine injury is giving him constant pain. And 28-year-old Emanuel, from Portugal, who desperately wants to find work but is struggling with complex mental health issues and needs regular medication. I can’t begin to understand what it would be like to deal with just one of these issues from the safety of my own home, let alone imagine what it’s like to experience these troubles while homeless.
Listening to everyone’s stories, from the staff and volunteers to those who need the support, it’s clear that these services are not just important, they’re life-saving. I leave the centre that day with a greater appreciation for the work that goes into helping vulnerable people, like Lloyd and Emanuel, so they can build confidence and move on, in the same way that Brad has. And how this is made possible thanks to The Society of St James and its dedicated staff like Jordan, Bev and Michelle.
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