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Life as an Outreach Worker

From its foundation over 30 years ago, Julian House has been striving to support and enable rough sleepers to move off the streets. For many, contact with Julian House is just the first step on a long road to recovery from homelessness. A dedicated team of outreach workers work with rough sleepers, gaining trust and helping them access vital services, including the emergency hostel in Manvers Street.

What’s the point of outreach and how often do you do it? 

There are many reasons why we provide outreach to rough sleepers. It is important that we are able to identify rough sleepers in the area as quickly as possible so that we can start supporting them with their housing and other support needs. However, rough sleeping also poses massive risks. Our clients are vulnerable to being attacked, the weather conditions, poor emotional/physical health and the negative impact of substance misuse. We have a duty to protect some of the most vulnerable members of our society and need to ensure that they have survived the night without a significant decline to their welfare.  

Our outreach team conduct both planned and unplanned outreach sessions. We go out a minimum of four mornings a week, one evening, and one lunchtime; three of these sessions are attended by a member of staff from Developing Health and Independence who can support clients into drug and alcohol services and on a Friday we are joined by a Nurse from the Homeless Healthcare Team who are part of the Heart of Bath Partnership. We also have a mental health outreach worker who is employed by Avon and Wiltshire Partnership (AWP). Patrick is able to provide specialist mental health support to our clients and provides a vital link between the homeless community and mental health services. 

Can you describe an average morning as an outreach worker?  

We arrive at the hostel at 6.30am to make flasks of strong, sugary coffee (it is a favourite amongst our clients) and get some snacks together. We then head out into the city to locate as many people as possible. If we have received a report from the public and there is a rough sleeper in a certain location, we will follow this up. These reports come directly to the team via a website called Street Link. We have regular spots we will visit that we know are popular with rough sleepers, such as car parks, parks, and certain shop doorways. Once we meet someone, we wake them up as gently as possible, introduce ourselves and offer them a drink and something to eat. Sometimes people want to speak to us, and other times they might just like a coffee and to be left alone. We are very much guided by our clients, as it takes time to build up trust (and not everyone is a morning person!). If someone wants to talk, we will stay with them and talk about how they are coping, housing, their hopes and options for the future, any support they might need, or appointments we may need to make or attend with them. Twice a week, DHI offers a mobile needle exchange, which can also open up conversations about any drug related injuries, harm minimisation, and access to services. 

What do you do if someone doesn’t want to engage with you?  

We understand that sometimes people don’t want to engage with us but we still want to make sure that they are OK and will always continue to visit. Some people are very fearful and mistrusting, so it is important that we are consistent. We will always leave them with a coffee and something to eat, and continue to explain who we are, and what we do. Generally speaking, most people do eventually speak to us and then we can start getting to know them and support them at a pace that they are comfortable with and is more likely to mean a move away from the streets. 

What are the obstacles you face when doing outreach?  

We never know exactly what we are going to encounter on our outreach sessions. Sometimes we are talking with clients who have experienced significant trauma and need to share their thoughts and feelings immediately. There is no privacy on the street and breaking down in public can attract a lot of attention from passers-by. We will always work to protect our clients and try to go with them to a more private space so that they can talk things through. There are times when we can encounter some hostility from our clients as they mistrust our intentions and want to be left alone. This can happen for a range of reasons and it is important that we know when to back off to ensure the safety of the clients and ourselves. We are very fortunate that we have some very good services in BANES but, even with this in mind, supporting our clients from rough sleeping and into accommodation can take a very long time. In the current climate, services – in particular housing – is limited and the demand is high; this is one of the biggest obstacles we face. 

What do you think are the main misconceptions around rough sleeping?  

That people choose to live on the streets. I have worked in homelessness for well over a decade and I have never met anyone who chose to sleep rough. Some of the people we work with have experienced some of the most horrific things life has to offer. Many became homeless when they were young and have not had opportunities to recover from trauma and learn to live in independent accommodation. Some just lose hope altogether and believe that they will never get into accommodation or dare not to take the leap into housing because they are so fearful that it will go wrong and they would have failed – yet again. We also hear from people who believe that all rough sleepers are drug users or alcoholics. This is not the case at all. Rough sleepers come from all walks of life and we have seen how it could happen to anyone. There is a statistic that says something like, we are all only two pay cheques away from homelessness. I think this is true in a lot of cases. 

Can you describe the impact of your outreach work. Why is it so important? 

We provide a crucial link for rough sleepers to access support and accommodation. We do not expect people to come to us, we will go to them and we are guided by them and what they need. Many rough sleepers feel completely invisible so to approach someone, sit with them, and work out what they want and how best we can help is a really powerful thing. Outreach work is so important because it saves lives and it supports people away from something that can be incredibly harmful and dangerous. It gives hope for the future and it supports the underlying value that we should not have anyone sleeping out on our streets. 

Can you give me a specific example of someone you’ve helped in the past. What are they doing now?  

Last week, whilst at the back of the hostel, a car pulled up and the chap inside said hello to me. It turned out to be an ex client. He was homeless in Bath, sleeping in his car. He was supported to access support for his alcohol use and referred into Julian House supported housing. He moved into one of our projects and was quite challenging due to his alcohol use and trying to come to terms with previous trauma he had experienced. We did a lot of work with him and eventually broached the idea of rehab. He was a little reluctant but got the funding and went to a residential rehabilitation centre. He detoxed from alcohol and subutex, engaged with the programme they offered and has now been abstinent for 4 years. He has continued to live in the area he went to rehab in and has developed a keen interest in hiking. Since becoming abstinent he has been hiking on mountains in Turkey, Slovenia, Belgium, Holland, and Vietnam. He is trekking the Himalayas in a couple of weeks. He has also completed an Access course and plans to go to university in September to complete a degree in Construction Management. He is very thankful to Julian House for the support he received, although I did remind him that he did all the hard work! It was amazing to see how his life has completely transformed and he looked so happy.