Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Night Shift

I arrived at work yesterday around 7:30 PM for my first late night shift. It was a shift with London Street Rescue (LSR), which is not the outreach team I normally work with. If you look at the map below, the pink dot is the borough I work in with the Tower Hamlet Street and Outreach Response Team (THSORT). Thames Reach has some specific SORT teams in boroughs like mine as well as LSR which covers 20 boroughs. Any borough in white below does not receive services from Thames Reach. (The green dot is just to show where I live for anyone who is curious - I am a 5 minute walk from King's Cross and St. Pancras station.)


My shift was specifically a No Second Night Out (NSNO) shift. This is a pilot project in London, a scheme to end rough sleeping by 2012. The main objective is to have no individual arriving on the streets sleep there for a second night. According to their own blurb, other projects exist to support those already rough sleeping. NSNO aims to prevent someone new to rough sleeping from spiralling downwards into a long term life on the streets where they are very vulnerable to crime, drugs and alcohol, and at high risk of serious illness, and potential early death.

Currently the focus is on Camden, City of London, Tower Hamlets, Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, Lambeth, Brent and Southwark. If the pilot goes well, it will be extended to the rest of the London boroughs. Of course, it's all a little convenient to have this date set just in time for the summer Olympics. However, at the same time, whatever gets a project funding and contributes to helping people not become entrenched in a cycle of rough sleeping is valuable in my books, political motivations or not.

A major problem in London is that many new rough sleepers are not from Britain, but rather from Central Eastern European (CEE) countries. Since 2004, 10 CEE have joined the European Union, this makes it a lot easier to cross borders and start lives over in the UK. However, the problem is many do not find legal work and sometimes have drinking problems all which lead to rough sleeping. It is a difficult problem to address, because if you just moved here but will not be working, it is not fair to expect welfare services to provide for you. At the same time, you have to wonder about people who would rather sleep on the streets in the rain in London than go back home, and your heart sort of bleeds for what you're sending them back to. Quite often though, many do not speak English fluently, and communication between outreach teams and the clients are challenging. Sometimes I do wonder if they would not be more comfortable in their home country, where at least language would not be a barrier

NSNO works with mostly CEE clients, as that is the population that is generally becoming homeless. If the clients have worked legally in the UK and paid taxes, they can qualify for benefits and NSNO will help set up appointments and things with resources like job centres to help them. There is a separate team called Reconnections that works mainly with CEE clients to help find their way back home. They can connect clients to services in their home cities, find family members and facilitate the process of going back. It is a really tough situation, especially when there is a language barrier and people are rough sleeping to know what is the most appropriate course of action. Quite often though, the reluctance to be "reconnected" (or I supposed "sent back" depending on how you want to look at it) is quite high. Sometimes there is embarrassment at the thought of going back, and other times they still feel there are more opportunities here, or they have nothing to go back for.

Last night we met a Polish woman in Hammersmith. She was lying on a doorway when we went to the sleeping site. We only go to sites that were referred to us on these NSNO shifts, and so we knew that this was a location she had been seen at. When we found her, she was drunk and sleeping. She did not speak any English, and trying to communicate with her was was very challenging. For NSNO, when we find a referral, we take them back to a place ominously called The Hub. Here they receive an assessment interview in their native language to see if they can be connected with resources here or want to be reconnected back home.

Trying to explain to her that we wanted to take her to a safe place because rough sleeping is dangerous is most definitely one of the most taxing experiences I have had here so far. I felt horrible for her because she had no idea who we were or what we were trying to say. She was drunk and confused, and we were trying to convince her to get into a van with us. I mean, thinking of it from her perspective, that in itself (getting into a van with strangers) must have felt more dangerous than sleeping in the doorway.

She was upset, and she loudly sobbed. I wanted to pat her on the arm, but I do not think physical contact is allowed. After using many hand gestures and repeating simple words like "safe place," "sleep" and "help you" we convinced her to come into the van. As she was sobering up, she was getting more annoyed at not knowing where she was going, and calming her down was not an easy task. We could not really offer the support she wanted, so we called a coworker who speaks Polish to communicate with her and explain where we were taking her. After the phone call, she cried for a bit longer, but then it was as if she forgot the conversation and she started asking where we were taking her all over again.

The difficult part was not just the communication barrier, but also that she was very intoxicated. At times, I felt bad and at other times I would get frustrated and to be honest, at moments I would feel quite annoyed. I felt horrible, but when she shouted "please give me cigarette," it bothered me that that was a phrase she knew but words like safe place were not in her vocabulary. However, my emotions were all over the place with the whole situation, fluctuating between concern and annoyance. I did however want to know that she would be okay. From the phone conversation with our coworker, we knew that she had been here for years and years, had paid legal work and previously a flat and should be eligible for benefits. This did ease my concerns, as I know reconnection is quite often the only option for CEE rough sleepers who do not speak English or have work prospects here.

The rest of the night was spent looking for referrals we could not find. I do not think I will ever get used to the incapacitating smell of urine and alcohol, that is quite often in some sites where some rough sleepers sleep. Doing the night shift really affected me more than the day shift, because at night, rough sleepers seem more vulnerable, when you're catching someone at the end of their day. I'm not sure how I feel about NSNO just yet but I am hoping to get to do one more shift before I leave. I think it is great that the plan is help rough sleepers before they become entrenched in this lifestyle, but I do wonder about the places clients are leaving from and what their life must have been like before that returning seems unfavourable. It's difficult to find someone and not see them through to the end, but there are different workers involved at every stage and this is probably what keeps things orderly and systematic.

I cannot believe I have only 2 and a half weeks left here, and then it's back home and to the Mississauga Food Bank. I've really grown to appreciate the programming side in a new way. It's very humanizing. I wonder how it will be being on the fundraising side once again when I return home.    

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