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Archive for November, 2008

My work background is pretty varied.  I first studied IT at university but dropped out to look after my husband, Chris, when he got ill.  I eventually graduated with a 2:1 in Archaeology and Prehistory from Sheffield University and spent some time on digs in this country and a few months in Greece.  After that I kind of fell into IT work and became an IT Security Analyst for a multi-national pharmaceutical company.  I stayed with IT work, mainly for the money, although I was getting very disillusioned with working for such large corporate organisations and was beginning to lack motivation.  I decided it was a time for a change so started volunteering at a local advice centre because, as clichéd as this might sound, I wanted to feel good about the work I was doing.

I had been volunteering for about 7 months when I applied for the job at Leeds Simon Community.  When I saw the advert I had a look on the website to make sure it was the sort of organisation I wanted to work for and the more I read the more I agreed with the whole ethos of the organisation.  Part of the interview process involved going out on outreach with 2 workers, Jen and Jamie, to see what it was all about.  What struck me straight away was that all the people we spoke to on the streets were really pleased to see us, everyone spoke about Leeds Simon Community in a very positive way and while we were out I got to see Jen and Jamie doing some work with the people we met on the streets.  Some of it was practical work, arranging to take someone to the housing office, and some it was emotional support, spending 10 minutes with someone who had just been discharged from hospital and was feeling pretty low.  Because the service users are on the streets, if you go out and see them on the streets they are much more likely to engage with you than if you ask them to keep appointments.  Being in a set place at a set time can be quite difficult when you take into consideration the chaotic lifestyle that a lot of our service users live.

I’ve been doing the job so far for 7 weeks and it’s been pretty full on, I’m learning a lot from Clive, Jen and Jamie, and also from the service users.  It’s tough when you see the conditions that people have to endure every day, being on the streets clearly brings with it a lot of associated problems.  I’ve accompanied service users to doctor or hospital appointments where they’ve been told that they are at a massive risk of overdose or that they are going to die within 6 months if they don’t cut down the amount of substances they use.  That’s difficult to hear but what I find harder is that quite often the service user’s say they don’t care, they are so low in mood, motivation and self esteem that they seem ready to give up. This is sad but it’s also extremely frustrating when you can see so much potential in people.

Sometimes service users just want to chat about their problems and what’s going on for them and, even though they don’t expect us to offer a solution, it helps to be able to talk.  Quite often service users have little or no positive emotional support in their lives so if you can take time to sit down and have a cup of tea and a chat then it gives them that outlet for their problems and shows them that somebody cares about what’s going on in their lives. This also helps build up the relationship which means the individual may be more willing to engage in a discussion about more difficult issues such as drug and alcohol use, housing and relationships problems.

So far I’ve found the job to be pretty much what I expected, I’m enjoying the challenges and although the job can be emotionally tiring, frustrating and at times quite hard going, it’s also extremely rewarding, challenging and very varied. Looking forward, I hope to keep developing my skills as a support worker at Leeds Simon Community and helping to raise awareness of the issues surrounding homelessness.

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The Simon Soup Run

The Simon Soup Run

I started working with the Simon on the Streets Community in April of this year. As a new worker your first weeks consist of trawling around town and getting your face known. The most visible group of people we work with wear fluorescent orange vests and sell the big issue. Through my daily chats with these vendors I learned a lot. I’m sorry to say that it was also through them that I was exposed to the harsh realities of what can come through living a street lifestyle.

Neil was one of the first people I was introduced to. He was a pleasant and talkative guy in his twenties. The last time I saw him was on a Friday afternoon outside the coach station. He’d been suffering with what appeared to be a bad cold for weeks and I remember that he was doing his best to ignore a bunch of school kids who were hurling abuse in his general direction.

The following week the rumour didn’t take long to get around. A phone call confirmed that he had died at the weekend. Most of his friends found out at roughly the same time as I did. I remember seeing one of them marching down the street crying shortly afterwards. The death of a friend under these circumstances carries with it everything people normally  go through during bereavement but also a brutal reminder of your own vulnerability. Through this trying time our support made a real difference to those people directly affected.

Four of Neil’s friends were particularly shaken by his death. Over the following weeks our team offered them support in a number of ways. It was important to them that they should be able to pay their respects and they turned to us to help them. We got hold of suits, shirts, shoes and ties for them to wear at the funeral. We paid for their haircuts, accompanied them to the funeral and offered a shoulder for them to cry on.

We stuck with them through a difficult time and I’m dubious as to whether they could have participated in the grieving process in the same way had it not been for the support we offered. At such a challenging time our efforts can be  invaluable.

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Rough Sleeping in Leeds

Rough Sleeping in Leeds

I have been a volunteer with Leeds Simon Community since March 2007. I first heard about the Leeds Simon Community whilst running a project through Leeds University called Homed. Homed is a project that aims to increase the awareness and involvement of health care students in the field of homelessness. It works in 2 hostels in the Leeds area providing support and information to residents on a weekly basis. I had been involved in this project for two years when I first heard about the Leeds Simon Community. I became interested in the idea of being able to provide support to rough sleepers and people living on the streets, something I had no previous experience of at this time. I learned more about it and consequently became involved.

Since joining the Leeds Simon Community I have been involved in Street Outreach and the Breakfast Club. I have volunteered on street outreach for both their morning and evening sessions. I enjoy it because every session is different and you can never anticipate an outcome. The timings of outreach sessions aim to access those in need of most support, which is somewhat difficult to predict.

These sessions are both a challenge yet incredibly rewarding, and I feel that through continuity and determination there are excellent results. For example to see the small adjustments, concerning an individual’s attitude to their current situation is fulfilling in itself.

At the Breakfast Club I have been able to meet many service users more intensively engaged with Leeds Simon Community. These sessions allow full time Leeds Simon Community workers and volunteers to engage with service users in a more structured manner. These sessions have been an eye opener to the long term practical and emotional support required regarding individuals. Leeds Simon Community may and do work with some individuals for months or years before they feel ready to even consider making changes to their current situation.

Leeds Simon on the Streets community comprises 3 full time members of staff and a small group of volunteers. I feel the success of work carried out by Simon on the Streets lies largely in its strategy and approach. Workers and volunteers demonstrate a genuine interest to get to know individuals on the street and to provide support in a reliable and dependable manner.

Volunteering with the Simon on the Streets has reemphasized to me the large number of issues faced by homeless people on a day to day basis, including drug issues, mental health problems, and difficulty obtaining adequate housing benefits and health care. Being able to offer my support to individuals during outreach sessions over the past 7 months has been an entirely rewarding experience and I am proud to be part of such a hardworking and committed team.

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Rough-Sleeping

People sleeping rough or bedded down in the open air (such as streets, in doorways, parks or bus shelters) people in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as barns, sheds, car parks, cars, derelict boats, stations or bashes). The definition does not include people in hostels or shelters or other sites used for recreational purposes.

Street Homelessness

Ninety per cent of counted rough-sleepers are white males, who tend to sleep most visibly. Street homelessness is more inclusive. It includes vulnerable people who may have somewhere basic to sleep at night, but who can be on the streets during the day. It includes people therefore who stay in derelict buildings and squats. It includes people sleeping outside of city centres and those who stay in hostels. It also includes street based sex workers who are vulnerable and homeless, but not visibly sleeping on the street. Street homelessness includes higher numbers of homeless people from BME groups and women.

Homelessness

Homelessness is defined in a number of ways. You are homeless if: You live with no kind of shelter, for example, on the streets. You have shelter, but nowhere to call home. You are living on a friend’s or relative’s floor.  Or you are living in a hostel.

The definitions around homelessness are quite complicated. It means that a person could be homeless their whole life without ever having slept rough. And also a person who is not technically homeless, who has their own tenancy for example, could be a rough-sleeper. This could fit some of the people we know who sleep rough occasionally with friends who are long term rough sleepers but have their own tenancy.

So why do we as an organisation focus on rough sleepers? Our ethos is about supporting the most vulnerable people who can’t or won’t access other services. Rough-sleeping for any substantial period of time is potentially very harmful and therefore in itself will make individuals vulnerable. Rough-sleeping is also usually a good indicator that people are not accessing other services and that they have high support need

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Jimmy came to Leeds from another city.  He had friends in Leeds who he was staying with, he needed to get out of the other city for reasons he doesn’t go into.  The friends he was staying with were drug users, like Jimmy was.  It wasn’t long before the inevitable fall out over money and he found himself with nowhere to go in a city where he hardly knew anyone.

Jimmy moved into a lifestyle of sleeping rough and begging to support himself.  His coping mechanism for this lifestyle was heroin and crack cocaine.  He describes the drugs as the reason for the situation he was in but simultaneously as his saviour, the thing that made him forget how bad it all was.  “The worse things got the more gear I did,” he told me. 

Jimmy remembers quite clearly when he first met Leeds Simon on the Streets outreach workers.  At the time he wondered, “why would they take the time out to bother with people like us.”  I was interested in the phrase ‘people like us’ and asked Jimmy how he would have described himself at that time, he thought carefully for a while and replied, “I thought I was a useless, good for nothing, tapping toe rag!” 

Much of our work focuses on the realisation that people cannot effect change in their lives when they have these kinds of self images.  We work hard at trying to get alongside people, building a trusting relationship that can help to empower them to make positive changes.  Jimmy remembers the soup run as a place where these relationships were on offer, “there was food and blankets but there were the people; nice easy going people who had time for you.”

With support from us and other agencies Jimmy finally got to grips with his drug use.  He has not used illegal drugs for over four months.  He is currently living in a hostel and is soon to move into his own flat.  In September he will start a counselling course which is the first step toward his ambition of getting into some kind of support work.  His ideal job would be working with drug users or people who are homeless.  His driving force is to try and put something back and offer the kind of positive support that he was able to get when he needed it. 

Jimmy is already putting something back into the Community, once a fortnight he makes the soup for the soup run.  Remembering the days when he used the soup run Jimmy said, “I can’t believe I used to go for days without eating anything.”  I’m not sure that the soup Jimmy makes tastes any better than any other we serve at the soup run but I’m sure it has the extra ingredient of the passion of someone with first hand knowledge of what a good job it does!

So how does Jimmy feel about himself now?  “I’m a positive, happy go lucky, healthy, stable, average Joe.  And that’s how I’ve wanted to feel for a long time!”  So there has been a remarkable change in Jimmy, and he’s worked incredibly hard to make it happen.  It would be easy to say Jimmy is now a different person, because that’s how it seems.  But if you knew him back then, in the not so good days and you were prepared to look hard enough and be patient you could see happy go lucky Jimmy busting to get out!

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Catherine is a part time volunteer with Simon on the Streets.  She takes part in the weekly soup run and also gets involved in some street outreach work.  As a student who had moved to Leeds she first got involved with Simon because she had some spare time that she really wanted to put to good use.  Her initial contact revealed that the Community is not an organisation that views people who are homeless as passive beings in an active world who need to have things done for them.  The fact that Simon want to support people to do things for themselves is precisely what drew Catherine to us.

So why does she do it?  To begin with it was simply the idea of wanting to support improvements in the lives of people with many complex needs.  As time went on, although this would always be at the heart of why she volunteers, Catherine realised there were many different reasons to continue.  “I enjoy the challenge of engaging with a client group that can be very difficult to work with” – this can range from trying to get a very quiet and depressed man who refuses to engage with anyone to simply share a few words in conversation as a very gentle beginning to an engagement process, to seeing behind the loud aggressive shouting and swearing of a very angry woman and getting to the root of the behaviour.

“It is also hugely satisfying to work in an organisation that is well respected; and not just by other agencies but also by the people who really matter – our service users!  We strive to ensure that the person is put before the ‘piece of work’.  Service users understand we see them and then their issues and not a set of problems that needs to be solved.  Our method always allows the person to drive the work and decide on what is to be done, our role is to offer support in this”.

Part of Catherine’s interest in volunteering was to see if it was a field of work that she wanted to get into.  Her time with the Community has helped her decide that it is.  One of the reasons for this is, “the people we support are such fantastic individuals with great stories to tell who are often, once you get to know them, very good company.”

Catherine has now made the move forward and is soon to start working full time in a related field.  “if you’re interested in this type of work as a career it’s great.  All the time you’re volunteering you are gaining the training, knowledge, skills and experience that you need!”

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He’s in his early twenties. I’ve been warned that he has a history of violence towards workers and that he’s been banned from most services in Leeds at some stage or another. He’s not really engaged with any agencies at all – he’s exactly the kind of person we should be working with. I’ve been asked to try and get to know him. This requires firstly that I suspend my initial impressions and that I don’t judge him based upon what I have been told. Secondly, it requires patience and letting the process take as long as it needs to.

 

He’s incredibly suspicious to begin with. The first few weeks amount to “hello”, “goodbye” and my offers of a cigarette, which he occasionally accepts. Then we move on to moaning about how rubbish the weather is. It takes a long time for people to get their head around the idea that you don’t have a hidden agenda – that you’re not after something. I eventually win him over one evening when I shout a warning to him across the road and he avoids being unnecessarily arrested for begging.

 

I suspect that by this point I did develop an agenda of my own – a curiosity about how he got to be this way. The tabloids readily condemn drug addicts as though everyone’s lives were played out in some neutral space – a scientific vacuum where we’re all afforded the same opportunities. In reality you have to appreciate that this isn’t the case. We aren’t given the same chances and often our options decrease rapidly as time goes on. In my experience there’s usually a good reason behind these things.

 

One day I’m on my way to visit someone in St James’ hospital and I bump into him outside. He’s come into some money and doesn’t have to beg today. I put the hospital visit off and spend about four hours with him chatting and wandering around town. It’s raining heavily so we spend most of four hours looking for shelter, walking through shopping arcades mocking the ornaments that wealthier people than ourselves waste their money on. As the afternoon moves on my curiosity receives a partial answer from a boy who seems as though he hasn’t spoken to anyone properly in years. He was young when he was taken into care after being on the receiving end of some serious beatings. He developed temper tantrums – one foster carer dealt with this by tying him to a bed and whipping him with garden canes. She recorded the sound of him screaming to play back to him as a threat – he was seven years old at the time.

 

One evening I was walking home and recognised his black and white jumper lying in the street. I took it home and washed it. When I returned it to him the following day he started having a go at me about how the clean jumper was going to spoil his begging routine. Then we both burst out laughing, I don’t remember seeing him again after that. In the time I’ve worked for Simon numerous people I’ve known have died but there was something that particularly disturbed me about his death. His body was found in the street soaked through with rain. He’d died from an overdose. The coroner’s office contacted his next of kin who refused to identify the body. They said that they were glad that he was dead. He was in his early twenties and it didn’t seem like he’d ever really been given a chance. The tabloids always leave that part out.

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