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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Caseworker Sarah Scully reflects on the challenges and rewards of her work. Originally published by St Martin in the Fields Frontline Network.


On 7 November we opened our church-based shelters for the winter with more churches signed on then ever before. Glass Door, the charity for which I work, has been growing slowly but steadily. This year, we’ll have three shelters in operation on any given night, thanks to our partnership with 25 churches across West and South London. The churches take turns hosting shelters, so that the burden is not too great on any one church.


With the expansion, we’re now hosting about 90 individuals every night. Yet demand continues to outpace supply: the shelters are operating at full capacity, and the waiting list grows daily.


Three weeks on, 172 individuals (ranging in age from 21 to 76) have found shelter for at least one night. Twenty-four of these guests are women.


For most of our guests, the only way off the streets will be to find work and save up enough for a rental deposit. It can sometimes feel like a Herculean challenge for someone without anything: no shower, no safe storage, no clean clothes, no access to computers. Finding the next meal can be a full-time job in itself.


This is where we come in. After guests are rested and have had a chance to establish a routine in the shelters, myself and the six other caseworkers in our team help guests put together CVs, open bank accounts, apply for lost IDs, fill out forms to access benefits, connect people with other services, help them access job sites in our computer facilities, and help them find housing.


Some of our guests already have jobs and just needed shelter, and they’re the first to have moved out of the shelters and into more stable accommodation. So far, we’ve managed to get about ten individuals into the private rental market, for which we’re really proud. It’s early days, and I’m sure many more of the individuals we’re working with will find a way off the streets by the time our shelters close in April. But sometimes I worry if we will ever be able to keep pace with the number of people who come to us.


The formula we have for providing shelter works: by partnering with churches, we can make good use of their wonderful resource: free space in Central London. And an army of volunteers cook and provide a warm welcome. The challenge of moving people on is where the bottleneck happens. Demand is increasing, and options for moving on seem to be decreasing.


The biggest challenge we face is the lack of affordable housing in the private rental sector. The Central London rental market is prohibitively expensive on the types of salaries our guests are hoping to gain. Jobs delivering food, cleaning streets, or working in recycling plants simply do not pay enough to afford rent in most parts of London. Many of our guests have no choice but to search for options with shared bedrooms.


Of course not all our guests are ready to work. Many have mental health problems. But by and large, most of our guests want to find a way off the street. Once they are rested and have a bit of stability, that's when motivation kicks in. Then they just need a bit of a hand up and some time to put the pieces together.