Here at Shelter, we help millions of people every year struggling with bad housing or homelessness. But, what does that look like? I shadowed Shelter’s front-line staff in Sheffield to find out.
Getting people off the streets
At times, what we do looks like a forgotten cup of tea. Jamie, a Shelter support worker, who likes bulldogs and Britney, is finding Jade a place to sleep tonight. Jade is sleeping rough after fleeing domestic violence; and, in the time it takes for Jamie’s much-needed tea to go cold, she achieves so much to help get Jade’s life back on track. She orders a copy of her birth certificate, arranges for emergency medication to be sent to a more convenient pharmacy, sets up an email address so she can apply for Universal Credit, and secures a bed for her.
Jamie safely stores Jade’s belongings, all contained in a couple of plastic bags, in Shelter’s reception. This means she can go to her Jobcentre appointment without having to lug all her stuff with her. Later, Jade returns to collect her things and leaves behind a thank you card and box of chocolates.
‘A lot of what we do looks like this,’ Jamie murmurs an hour later, nodding to a phone that’s playing a tinny 30-second loop of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. We’re sitting in the living room of another of Jamie’s clients – Danni – while her baby sleeps in the corner. Jamie’s helping her with some necessary but nerve-wracking tasks: completing a child benefit form, and calling the Department for Work and Pensions.
Months of anxiety, postnatal depression, debt, and various agencies all demanding money, have threatened Danni and her baby’s home. In just under an hour, Jamie has prevented them from becoming homeless. As well as helping Danni apply for child benefit, she helped her to organise her Universal Credit payments, called the local council to check the council tax payments are correct, and called a debt management service to ensure that Danni isn’t left short. She looks so relieved when Jamie tells her she’ll have an extra £90 this month.
‘Yeah, it’s a lot of being on hold, dealing with systemic faff, jumping through hoops, writing strongly worded emails… it’s not as glamorous as it looks,’ she smiles as we pile back into the car. We sing along to Britney as we head off to meet the next client she’s protecting from homelessness.
Other times, our work looks like a light bulb switching on in someone’s head. That’s what Ciara inspires in the people she helps. She’s an advice, support, and guidance worker, giving face-to-face legal advice. People arrive with worried expressions on their faces and bundles of paperwork they’re not sure they understand.
Ciara asks lots of questions and jots down lots of notes; a detective solving a mystery. She calmly explains people’s rights and options, lays things out in plain terms. She separates the legal from the emotional – as in, ’emotionally, you might feel you’re being evicted from your home; but, legally, the method of eviction is invalid’. Or, ’emotionally, your landlord feels this is their home and they have the right to bring their friends over with no notice; legally, that is not the case.’
You can see the moment people realise they have the power, tools, and support to improve their situation: a clarity-filled glance exchanged with a family member or advocate who’s come with them. Eureka.
Sometimes, our work looks like stretches of calm punctuated by flurries of activity. At the Advice Centre there are no set appointments. Advice assistants like Yasmin often have no idea who will walk through the door, what kind of help they will need, or how urgently they’ll need it.
After an hour or so, a person walks in sheepishly, opens their mouth to speak, but breaks down in tears. Yasmin ushers them into a private room. ‘I hadn’t planned to come here,’ they croak, bewildered. ‘I didn’t even know you were here. I’m on my way to the doctor.’ Until recently, they’d been sleeping rough to escape their abuser. They met someone a few nights ago who took them in, but the situation has become unsafe: ‘They make me do things I don’t want to do.’
Within 10 minutes, Yasmin has sorted them out with a safe bed for five nights, given them toiletries to last until their things can be collected safely, and arranged for them to come back the next day for more help.
Another spell of calm until, 30 minutes before closing, a mother with four children walks in and silently hands official-looking letters to Yasmin. The mother doesn’t speak English. But Yasmin figures out that the family has fled another city following threats of violence and their beds for the night have just fallen through – it’s all hands on deck. More advisers rush down from the office, all working together to make sure the family has somewhere to stay and to get the council to accept their homelessness application.
This is just a tiny fraction of what we do in one day to help people. Last year, we gave information, support, and advice to millions of people facing homelessness or experiencing bad housing. We helped 41,192 households through our emergency helpline, and 52,939 households through our hubs and prison services. We also had 41,508 conversations with people over webchat and social media, and 4.3 million people visited the advice pages on our website, which have a range of useful tools and videos alongside information and resources. We’ve not done the maths on what that looks like in forgotten cups of tea.
If you need help with a housing or homelessness issue, you can get help here.