A Day in the Life of a Housing First Project Worker
A Day in the Life of…a Housing First Project Worker
As a Housing First Project Worker, I work with women who have experienced gender-based violence and street homelessness, supporting them to access stable homes from which to rebuild their lives. Housing First is predicated on the belief that housing should be a right, not a reward for engagement, or for what might arbitrarily be defined as ‘good’ behaviour – and therefore, when our clients feel ready, I nominate them for tenancies through our housing association partners. Once housed, the clients have complete choice and control over what our work together looks like – including whether they want to continue working with me at all! If they do, I am available for anything from practical help to trauma-informed, personalised support; from spending hours on the phone with Universal Credit to helping clients identify and work towards their goals. As you will see, my role usually ends up being a blend of all these elements.
A typical day
Give a group of late risers choice over when to meet, and you’ll usually end up with free mornings and busy afternoons. Today, I use the quiet hours to get through some office-based work. One client has expressed an interest in returning to college to get her early years certificate, and I look into different courses and funding options for her; another client has gone missing, so I fire off emails to contacts across the different outreach teams to find out if anyone has seen her. Someone responds saying that she was spotted in her old sleep site last night! Tangible worries replace intangible ones, and I experience the familiar mix of relief and concern.
It is not uncommon for our clients to have periods of rough sleeping even after they have been housed – something which shocked me when I first encountered it, but which I now understand better. Many of the women we work with are still in abusive relationships, and perpetrators will follow the women indoors or push them back outside according to what suits them. Mental illness can also drive women out of the safety of their homes, with one of our clients recently fleeing all the way to Wales.
More complicated is the role which loneliness plays. Again and again, I hear how disorientating the transition from homelessness to housed-ness can feel; the discomfort which many experience when they first move inside, the paradoxical sensations of claustrophobia and vertigo, as the only person in a huge, empty apartment. The feeling of having cut ties with their old community, their old support network, without having anything or anyone to take its place. I worry that the new lockdown will make building these crucial relationships all the more difficult.
Long discussions with my line manager lead to an idea: creating some kind of space where our clients can meet virtually and support each other. Today, we have a zoom call with a worker from a different project, who has years of experience running support groups for women experiencing multiple disadvantages. With her guidance, our rough idea takes a more concrete form: a weekly informal art group which our clients can drop into, as and when (and if) they please.
Like all good discussions, ours overruns – and, before I know it, the quiet morning is over and it’s time to pack my bag and head out to the afternoon’s visits.
First up is Lila*. A year ago, she was street homeless, hiding out from an abusive ex-partner under a false name, and using heroin and crack heavily. She was destitute, but reluctant to engage with services due to her long history of trauma. Today, she opens the door to her beautiful one-bedroom apartment with a big smile and a fresh tan. Over coffee, she shows me pictures from her holiday abroad with her family (with whom she reconnected after moving into her home). She tells me she wants to get a calendar to track her progress; registering with her GP, going on script for her heroin use and reducing her script down significantly, the weight gain after stopping crack – this last mostly due to mother’s home cooking, she confides with a grin! Next, she wants to re-establish contact with her child, who was adopted at birth, and so I jot down some details from her: the child’s birth name, date of birth, the borough she was living in at the time.
After seeing Lila, I link up with another worker from my team for a joint visit to one of her clients, Vicky. While we hold independent caseloads, we often meet clients together when there is a perpetrator involved, hoping that the presence of a second person will help us to stay safe. These personal risk calculations are difficult – what is an acceptable level of risk? How do we balance our own safety with that of our clients? We discuss these questions together, during our weekly team meetings and daily check-ins, and the discussions are part of what draw us together as a team.
Today’s visit is difficult: Vicky fears that her ex-partner is going to kill her once he is released from jail, and feels betrayed by the services she trusted to keep her safe. Poorly trained police officers have repeatedly put her life at risk by disclosing her calls to the perpetrator, and the legal system has treated his strangling her to the point that she loses consciousness as common assault – this despite the fact that non-fatal strangulation can cause Traumatic Brain Injury, and that it is the single greatest predictor of later homicide (this is currently being changed in law). What can we say? Vicky is entirely justified in both her fears and her frustrations. We try to strike the balance between validation and containment, exploring her past experiences and safety planning for the future.
I finish the day by meeting a new potential client, Tanya, who was housed during the first lockdown in March. Before this, Tanya spent twenty years caught in a revolving door between the streets and the prison system; she tells me tales of unimaginable abuse and institutional injustice which leave me internally seething. Tanya just laughs and shrugs: What’s the point in dwelling on what can’t be changed? All she wants, she says, is a home with an oven, where she can bake fresh bread for her friends and neighbours: ‘There’s something about being able to do something nice for someone else, even something small like just baking them a loaf—because everyone likes a loaf, don’t they? Nice, warm loaf straight from the oven puts a smile on your face. Ohhh I want to be that person that can do that, just being able to put a smile on someone’s face.’
Outside our small coffee shop, the wind howls, whipping streaks of rain against the windows. Tanya continues: ‘I saw the weather today, and I thought: how fitting! Today is a day that would have been so difficult out on the streets, it’s a day where you just want to be home. And today, today is my first step to getting a home.’
I finish my day humbled, frustrated, exhausted – and deeply, deeply inspired.
What I love about what I do
There is this feeling that we experience when we see someone in desperate need, the visceral I wish I could help. What an extraordinary privilege it is, then, to be in a position where I can actually help; where I can meet brilliant, funny, intelligent, loving women with so much potential who have suffered unimaginable hardship, and support them to secure a safe, stable home from which to rebuild their lives.
One thing I wish I’d known when I started out
I ask my colleagues this question, during our weekly team meeting.
‘Don’t beat yourself up,’ says one, ‘you can only do what you can do.’
The others agree:
‘If the client isn’t ready, the client isn’t ready. All we can do is be there.’
‘You’re only human! Don’t try and be superwoman.’
‘There’s only so much you can control.’
All excellent advice.
‘What about you?’ asks my line manager.
I think back to my surprise when I first heard that one of the women we had supported into housing was sleeping out again. I thought I knew. But I didn’t know. Thinking I knew made me upset, frustrated, angry, disappointed; accepting that I didn’t left me open to understanding what was actually happening – and, I hope, to helping.
‘Don’t make assumptions about what’s going on,’ I say, ‘stay humble – and, above all: keep your mind wide open.
*Names and any identifying details have been changed in order to preserve client anonymity.