Features / homelessness

Supporting people off the streets in the midst of a global pandemic

By ellie pipe, Thursday Jul 2, 2020

Knowing first-hand some of the difficulties faced by people experiencing homelessness, Jon* wanted to give something back and help others through challenging times.

He is one of a 55-strong volunteer team that has been working throughout the coronavirus crisis to support more than 400 individuals in Bristol who have been housed in emergency hotel accommodation run by St Mungo’s.

“For me, it’s about giving something back and generally helping people through difficult times,” says Jon.

“Homelessness and mental health are my background. I am pleased to say I am two years clean from drink and drugs as of May 1, and I’d like to give something because I have experienced some really challenging circumstances myself.

“On the whole, I really enjoy volunteering, it’s not nice to see people in pain and sometimes there is nothing you can do about it except to listen.”

The government’s ‘everyone in’ scheme was not only a vital lifeline when lockdown restrictions were imposed but has also provided a unique opportunity to help people engage with services and move on into permanent accommodation. 311 people have so far moved on into longer-term accommodation, while a further 300 remain in hotels.

The number of people engaging with services to tackle drug and alcohol addictions increased four-fold since the start of the pandemic, according to figures from Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire Clinical Commissioning Group. Doctors have said the increased stability of having a roof over their heads has helped prompt more people to reach out for support.

Yet anxiety remains about what will happen when hotels are fully back in business and St Mungo’s, along with other organisations and councils, have been calling on the government for long-term support.

The ‘everyone in’ scheme is currently still in operation in Bristol and the government has just announced an additional £105m in funding nationwide but it is not yet known how much the city will receive.

Bristol’s cabinet member for housing Paul Smith recently warned that two “cliff edges” are looming – the end of government’s amnesty on evictions and of the furlough scheme, both of which could put more people out on the streets.

He said: “We will be continuing to support those people and find ways in which their longer-term needs can be met.”

Meanwhile, volunteers from Bristol Churches Winter Night ShelterJulian Trust, One25, InHope and St Mungo’s continue to play a vital role in keeping the services running, notching up a combined 858 hours between April 4 and May 17.

Kelly says it’s hard to see people still struggling – photo courtesy of St Mungo’s

Kelly Sealey is a chef and cookery teacher by vocation and turned to volunteering when the lockdown measures came in.

“I think the best bit is chatting and engaging with people who are struggling in some way,” says Kelly.

“Whether it’s now or because of Covid-19, I think a little chat is probably the simplest thing we can offer. The worst thing is people are still struggling, regardless of Covid 19 – seeing people having a rough time is the hardest thing about volunteering.”

Kelly’s introduction to St Mungo’s was in January, when she was recruited to run cookery classes with residents at St Anne’s 24-hour shelter.

“I loved it; teaching people how to cook and sharing my love of food was very rewarding,” she says.

“Things changed once Covid-19 kicked off and the world stopped. The shelter was in a dormitory setting and therefore residents couldn’t self-isolate safely. St Mungo’s set up two emergency hotels in Bristol and I wanted to help.”

Having been furloughed from her primary job, Kelly is now set to make a career change and will be working in a new role with women and mental health.

She adds: “I got into this through cooking as it’s what I love, I never get bored of it; I love to engage with people through cooking. It puts me and other people at ease and it is a brilliant tool for engagement, and a brilliant tool for helping people.

“If you are thinking of becoming a volunteer, I’d say definitely do it, it’s positive and rewarding. Don’t sit and think about it any longer.”

Gareth Mercer, St Mungo’s manager of outreach services in Bristol, says the emergency hotels have provided a lifeline during lockdown and the focus now needs to be on working with Bristol City Council to support people in finding longer term accommodation and help them away from the streets for good.

“Against the background of an unprecedented public health emergency, our services in Bristol have been working incredibly hard to engage and support people who have been rough sleeping, in some cases, for years,” says Gareth.

“Offering safe and clean accommodation, accompanied by support for their mental and physical health, has set many people on a path to getting their lives back.

“Sadly, we know too well that the longer someone is rough sleeping the more likely they are to suffer violence, health issues and face difficulties with their mental health.”

Main photo courtesy of St Mungo’s.

*Jon did not want to give his last name

Read more: ‘Cliff edge’ looming for homeless in Bristol

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