Wintercomfort admin
Published: 5th March 2024

Today is International Women’s Day, and what better day to celebrate the wonderful Alison, our Senior Women’s Project Worker at Wintercomfort. Over the past two decades, Alison has worked in a front-line role with people experiencing homelessness in Cambridge.  I caught up with her to discuss her time at Wintercomfort, and the work that she does with homeless and vulnerably housed women in the community.

How has your role at Wintercomfort changed over the years? I first started working at Wintercomfort part-time by providing Maths and English lessons as well as life skills. At this time there were very few women using our services. I was conscious that I could achieve more with the people I was supporting if I became full-time and so I became a full-time Project Worker. I did that for over fifteen years. We were starting to see more women accessing our services and five years ago I was asked if I would lead the Women’s Services here. After spending more time speaking to the women and getting to understand their situation, I just knew it was where I should be. I have been heading up the Women’s Services for the last five years and we started our women only evenings almost two years ago.

What motivates you? I don’t think you can work in this sector without feeling passionate about it.  I feel so passionate in supporting our women, they keep me motivated. I am constantly amazed by the strength they have, that of course, they never see themselves. They are lovely people and have such a terrible time of it. Also, it’s never boring!

What are some of the shared experiences of the women you support? Every woman I’ve ever spoken to has gone through abuse. They are often experiencing poor mental health, depression, anxiety (which is the result of the abuse) lack of self-worth and addiction issues. They tend to have little or no family support network and many have been in and out of the care system as children. 

‘They just have no self-worth from such a young age. But they have an immense strength, all of them.’

Why are women often considered the ‘hidden homeless?’ Women often live with their partners and will go from one violent, dysfunctional relationship to another. Covid really highlighted this. Suddenly these women were being thrown out of their homes because of the increasing tension caused by the lockdown. I would have so many calls from women who had been beaten and had nowhere to go. I spoke to forty different women during that time.

There is then the issue with temporary accommodation, you will find incredibly vulnerable women living alongside men which is extremely triggering for women who have experienced past abuse. 

‘A lot of the time women return to an unsafe situation because they feel it is safer to be with one violent man then be alone and vulnerable to everyone.’

How many women are we currently supporting at Wintercomfort? We saw over 174 women last year including 50 – 60 women who accessed the women only sessions. That’s the most we have ever seen, and the numbers are continuing to rise.

What support do you and the team provide? We discuss personal safety and explain that any violence, whether emotional, sexual, or physical is never acceptable and not their fault. We signpost them to mental health and addiction support services and help with their accommodation needs. We will also accompany them to doctors’ appointments if needed and advocate for them. We will apply for Street Aid grants on their behalf and assist them in financial budgeting.

And what are the dedicated women’s evenings like at Wintercomfort? We are a mixed bunch, all different ages, and it’s almost a family dynamic where the older women will try and support the younger ones. They look out for each other. It’s a safe, women only environment which is so important. It’s the support network they don’t have elsewhere. One of the young women who attends regularly never used to say her ‘please’ and ‘thankyous’ and she was picked up on that by an older lady and has since made much more of an effort! They are valued here, and we show them that by giving them a safe space. We had a woman recently open-up to us about a breast lump and because she was in a supportive environment, she allowed the Nurse from the Cambridge Access Surgery to take her to a private room and examine her, which provided much needed reassurance. She had kept that to herself for over a year.

There’s always nail painting, all the women love to do their nails, and as they are sitting side by side with one another they find it easier to share issues. We cook a meal together, lots of crafting we’ve done embroidery, tie dye, sewing. Change Grow Live drop in regularly and are on hand to discuss addiction support services available. We confirm that their feelings are valid and that it’s not ok to be treated badly and they do deserve better. 

‘When the women first arrive, they feel undeserving. Our aim is to empower them to boost their confidence and help them find self-worth, and with it we find that positive changes can be made.’