Wednesday, June 22, 2011

5:30 AM

This morning, I woke up at 4:00 AM. I had a sore throat, runny nose, congestion, slight fever and was running on exactly 2 hours of sleep. I was tired but I knew I did not want to miss my first 5:30 AM shift, and let me tell you, I am so glad I made it.

The taxi driver came early, so I arrived outside of the office at 5:15 AM. I walked around the empty neighbourhood that is normally so busy. I work in East London in a borough called Tower Hamlets, which is an area that has a history of being one of the poorest in Britain. However, it is also rife with culture. It is now an area of predominantly Bengali people and stores, though in the past it used to be mostly Jewish. I work minutes away from the famous Brick Lane, known for its curry houses. Walking around the area so early felt like a scene out of a movie, maybe like 28 Weeks Later as it was bare - just me and the birds. It was beautiful and a completely different London than what I've come to know in the last 10 days and really, just a good start to my day.

At about 6:00 AM I was briefed about how the day would work. We were going to go to "hot spots" where groups of homeless people rough sleep together as well as check out some of the spots where we were told people would be sleeping. We usually get referrals (via email or phone) with the names or descriptions of rough sleepers and the areas they were noted bedding down. Bedding down literally means where they were setting up to fall asleep. Once we verify that they have been rough sleeping, our team can work towards finding ways to help these individuals.

When we arrived at the first spot, it was empty. There were some pieces of cardboard, often used as padding to make rough sleeping more comfortable. There was no one rough sleeping though and I thought maybe it would be a slow day.

But as we started travelling through the borough in our van, and stopping at other spots, we found people sleeping on ledges, under bushes in the gardens, under awnings in less populated areas and on pavement by the gardens. We would generally go up to where they were sleeping and wake them up with a gentle good morning, and let them know we're from outreach. Not all are excited about the early morning wake-up call, some ignored us, some were in deep sleep and didn't hear us. We generally start a conversation, asking questions about their name, how long they've been rough sleeping and where they're from. Based on their answers we suggest they meet with us to further discuss options for how we can get them off the street. Some are known rough sleepers and we are really just checking in to see how they're doing.

It was unlike anything I have ever experienced before, finding people in these spots and talking with them. It was my first shift so I played more of an observer role and watched a coworker interact. I am so impressed with the team of people I work with, they are compassionate, helpful and knowledgeable in ways I would love to and hope to be. Watching these interactions was eye-opening, learning about people and how they ended up where they are. Most of rough sleepers we met were Eastern European, and the services offered to them first and foremost would be "reconnection" (a project I will delve into sometime in the coming weeks) if they hadn't worked here legally. From one to the next, all the interactions were different, and all of them pulled at my heart strings in new ways. I am still trying to wrap my head around the circumstances which puts people on the streets.

We met with clients who lost their jobs and couldn't make rent, clients who've worked here illegally, and ones who couldn't work because of injuries. We met clients who didn't want to talk to us, or give us their real names and clients who were smiling and ready to chat with us even though it was so early in the morning. Many had been drinking the night before. One gentleman wouldn't make eye contact, and another kissed our hands. It's a different world than anything I've known, but the experience makes you realize what we all have in common. With or without homes, we're people- in different situations, and junctures in our lives but it doesn't make us any less human.

The services offered really depend on their circumstances, and for some of the people we met, options are limited. Some are stuck without really any way of finding peace, and these situations are dealt with all on a one by one basis. I like that individual attention is given, and that care is taken to learn someone's name and circumstances. It makes everything so much more real, more than statistics. I still have so much to learn about this sector, and the efforts taken to deal with homelessness in London but I feel like I'm finally grasping the process of how outreach works and am getting ready for more responsibility on the job.


  1. This all sounds so great! I am really proud of you and your determination despite being sick. You're doing great things, Mimosa!!

  2. Thanks Eliza! That means a lot :) I know you are too, I want to hear more about it!

  3. wow! what an amazing experience, i can't wait for more stories when you come back =)

  4. Faith Hanna (Jeff's Mom)June 26, 2011 at 12:01 PM

    Hi Mimosa! Jeff told me about your internship in London but I had no idea what wonderful work you are doing. What an experience! I wish you all the best and continued success!

  5. Thank you so much, it means a lot. It's a completely changing experience - I can't believe I'm actually here and seeing it! Hope all is well with you :)