There is no such thing as a ‘typical day’ working for a homeless charity.
My day job is fund raising, handling the website and social media accounts, giving talks at school assemblies, delivering collection buckets and attending events to raise awareness of our work.
But there can be days where people are knocking on our door with donations all day – single duvets, food, pillows and money (which is fantastic) – as well as homeless people who might need some sort of assistance.
Chelmsford City Council funds our Winter Project, with some additional funding from CVS for operational costs. This runs for four months from 1 December, is open to anyone sleeping rough and offers a bed from 10pm to 8am in a local church. Last year we provided emergency accommodation for 76 individuals who would otherwise have been sleeping on the streets.
We set up an outreach service for rough sleepers in Chelmsford, Braintree, Epping Forest, Maldon, and Rochford – providing sleeping bags, snacks, bottled water and warm clothes, and have engaged with 85 individuals since it began in July 2019.
If you do see someone sleeping rough and are concerned you can report this through Streetlink www.streetlink.org.uk. This will issue a referral to our outreach team who go and visit the individual and see what their immediate needs are and if they are ok.
People can think all we do is provide a bed and a meal but that’s such a small part of what CHESS does. For our nine-bedroom night shelter, someone would complete a referral and then have an initial chat so we can find out what their needs are, and if it’s more than just homelessness they need help with.
If they get accepted, it’s a 28-day rolling contract that continues as long as they need the room. We have a zero tolerance policy on drink and drugs but they get a support worker who will work with them to sort out any issues – if they need counselling, getting them registered with a GP, sorting out housing benefit, help with addictions, and so on.
It’s a programme of change. Once we feel they can function independently, we have five other properties they can move into, and they get their own door key.
Each programme is unique to the individual and available for as long as it takes. Some people don’t stick with the programme and come back three, four or five times – it depends on what they are ready for. But it’s the relationship with the support worker and staff that really carries them through.
There are many reasons for homelessness. We have people with drink or drug problems, or who are homeless because of family breakdown. We show compassion whatever the reason.
The biggest challenge we face is the rising number of homeless people, and the increasing complexity of their needs, including mental health issues, drugs and drink. These require another skill set, which means training for staff or taking on staff qualified in those areas. There are also funding cuts and difficulty accessing services like mental health to contend with.
The one thing that would make a huge difference to our work would be greater availability of suitable, affordable housing for homeless people who are ready to move on from our properties.
We had our annual fund-raising Sleep Out at Chelmsford Cathedral in November, and Peter, one of our former residents spoke there. He had issues with alcohol and had a particularly bad family upbringing. He came in initially through the Winter Project, stayed at the night shelter, and we supported him through EMDR Therapy (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy).
He left us a few weeks ago, moved into his own accommodation, and has started to write a book about his life. He is just a really humble guy.
“If I had just been offered a bed, it wouldn’t have been enough – I would probably have been dead by now,” he said at the Sleep Out.
“It’s the relationship I had with support staff and the help I got from therapy that made me realise I wanted to move on, that I’m not an ‘invisible person’, and that I deserved and wanted a life.”
It was very moving and a good motivator for us to carry on doing what we do.