Every week I hear stories and get updates about people who St Mungo's outreach teams are trying to help off the streets. I also try as much as possible to meet people myself so I can see first-hand how things are working and understand more about the issues that homeless people face, and the challenges for our outreach colleagues.
Recently I heard about Peter*, a 45-year-old man from Poland. Peter had lived and worked in Poland and then the Netherlands with his partner for many years before moving to London with hopes of work and a better life here in the UK. However, once in London things didn't work out as he hoped. After working in construction as a machine operative, his life was turned upside down when relationship with his partner broke down and she returned to the Netherlands.
Peter dealt with his sudden loneliness by drinking and then moved onto using cocaine. Eventually he lost his job and soon after his accommodation. He, like many others, in a similar situation ended up sleeping rough on the streets of London.
Our outreach team met him on the streets and offered support. Initially Peter refused to engage with us. We didn't give in though and kept visiting him on a regular basis. Eventually as winter and freezing temperatures set in he became more willing to talk and think about what to do.
Peter began to talk about returning to Poland and getting help with his alcohol and drug use. He realised he could not "get clean" without support and that he couldn't access treatment in the UK. He hadn't considered that he might be able to get the treatment he needed in Poland. Through our supported reconnection service, we worked with Peter to make this option a reality.
My colleagues told me that Peter completed his treatment in Warsaw and is now in full time skilled employment assembling electrical components. Just days before my outreach colleagues met up with him again in Poland he had finally been helped into his own flat. Peter was proud to tell us about his work and show us pictures of his flat where he enjoys having his friends and sister visit him. As they chatted, he reflected on the moment he arrived at the treatment agency in Warsaw and was met by his sister who had gone there to welcome him back.
You might wonder why we couldn't help Peter to get the help he needed in the UK? The simple answer is he, like many others, had become stuck on the streets. Government policy meant he wasn't eligible for housing or publicly funded support services in the UK. This situation has led many people to become destitute and eventually very unwell on our streets. We know of some who have died.
In London about 57% of people sleeping rough are non-UK nationals. That means their options are legally limited when it comes to accessing housing, treatment services and any other welfare assistance that is possible for UK citizens. Our Routes Home service, funded by the Mayor of London, works with vulnerable people like Peter. Last year, the team helped over 60 people who had really complex and high support needs to voluntarily return to their home country into accommodation and treatment with the support and assistance they needed.
When we met Peter he didn't have many choices. We didn't want him to die on the streets of London. We wanted him to have a second chance. That meant persevering with him, and working with many different agencies and being realistic about the legal and practical limitations he faced.
When our outreach teams meet people who are sleeping rough but have no support needs and are able to work, our focus is on helping them to find a job as the only way to stay in the UK and resolve their homelessness. Where people have physical or mental health needs or have issues around substance use, we work with partners in the UK and in people's home countries to ensure they can receive appropriate housing and support, often through our Routes Home service.
When they have complex immigration issues, we also support people to get legal advice through Street Legal, our partnership with migrant charity Praxis and Refugee Action UK.
Working with migrants who are sleeping rough is challenging and complex work. We often get asked about the approach we take and the partners we work with, in particular what our relationship is with the Home Office in such cases.
In terms of our approach, our first response to non-UK nationals sleeping rough is always to offer help and support, ensuring people understand their rights and entitlements and, where possible, are provided with assistance to take up options in the UK including work and housing. Where this is not possible, and people are not eligible, St Mungo's will offer services to provide treatment and housing options in home countries through supported reconnection like Routes Home.
In areas where local authorities have decided to engage the Home Office to take action against individuals or groups of rough sleepers, St Mungo's outreach teams work alongside the Home Office teams to provide support and advocate on behalf of vulnerable individuals. This decision to be present on the street during such operations means we can ensure that the best solution for vulnerable people is sought and that any work being done with individuals to resolve their homelessness is not jeopardised by Home Office interventions.
I am very clear about our approach, which has been developed over many years and is based on the realities of what we face out on the street every night working with people sleeping rough, often in extremely desperate conditions. Our position is clear: our role is to support and advocate on behalf of people sleeping rough so they can move on with their lives and leave homelessness behind them.
*Peter is a pseudonym but he is happy for us to share his story.