Wintercomfort admin
Published: 7th May 2024

A trained Fitness Instructor, Sarah joined Wintercomfort as our Sports Project Worker in 2019, with a focus on helping people to engage in fitness and understand the importance of exercise for both their physical and mental health. Over time she found that sport became a great way of opening the conversation to wider issues.  In 2022 she became Senior Tenancy Support Officer and has been providing an outreach service at the local food banks in the city. I caught up with her to discuss her work and find out more about the people she supports in the community.

What attracted you to the role at Wintercomfort? This often comes as a surprise to people, but I have experience of homelessness myself. My parents separated in my mid-teens and due to several difficult circumstances, I ended up with nowhere to live. At fifteen I was sofa surfing at friends’ houses, living one day at a time. It was extremely challenging, but I never got involved with drink or drugs, I can understand why people are drawn to that lifestyle as a way of coping, but thankfully, I kept away from that. I managed to get my life back on track and felt for many years that I was almost running from my experience. When I saw the job at Wintercomfort it all made sense to me. I saw the role as an opportunity to help others to make a similar transition from homelessness into a happy and fulfilled life. I really do understand where the people I talk to come from and that helps build trust, I get it.

What does your role involve? I provide ongoing support to people to enable them to maintain their tenancies. People often think that just securing housing is the end to homelessness, but it is often only the start of the journey. I meet people with addiction issues, people who may be mentally unwell, and managing their health on top of their tenancy, utility bills and benefits is very hard. It is extremely overwhelming to adapt to life within four walls, often with no support network. People often move into accommodation with nothing, no furniture, utensils, nothing at all. I can help them to apply for grants for basic furnishing packs and help people to make their house a home. I also support them in managing feelings of loneliness and help integrate back into the community. 

How do you work in an outreach capacity in the community? I attend the weekly food banks in Cambridge held at St Paul’s Church, Chesterton Methodist Church, and The Church of the Good Shepherd. This allows me to engage with the local community and identify people in need of support who may not attend the day service at Wintercomfort. I provide support to adults who are single, homeless or have been homeless and are currently at risk of homelessness.

‘We feel very lucky to have Sarah alongside us at our Thursday food bank. Working with Cambridge City Foodbank, we are able to provide emergency food for people in great need, but Sarah’s presence offers so much more.

Sarah is able to listen to people’s concerns around housing and homelessness, and offer real, practical advice and support in a field we know little about. I see numerous people every week come away from a meeting with Sarah feeling more reassured and relieved, with a plan to go forward, knowing that they have someone in their corner who can help them navigate the stresses and complexities of housing precarity.

Just this morning I was speaking to a woman* in our community who first engaged with Sarah on her first visit here. Sarah helped her to avoid eviction after a family tragedy some months ago. She is now rebuilding her life. Things could have been very different had it not been for Sarah’s presence and the expert support she brought.’  

Kristian, Church of the Good Shephard 

What differences have you seen at the food bank over the last couple of years? The vast number of people we see each week is shocking, and it is increasing all the time. The busiest time for us was the lead up to Christmas where I was meeting around 20-30 people in each two-hour session, at every session each week. I have also noticed an increase in the number of people we see who are mentally unwell and in need of help. I recently qualified as a Mental Health First Aider as I am often the first person they open up to. I listen, which is hugely important, and I can signpost to other support services.

What support can you provide? I can help people manage and understand their council tax, rent, benefits and utility bills. Often bills can feel very overwhelming to people, and I make them feel more manageable. I can coordinate counselling sessions at Wintercomfort, as well as support for addiction issues. I am someone they can trust and with that trust they are more likely to seek further help and support.

What do you find surprises people about your job? People are often surprised by the many faces of homelessness. Homelessness looks like you and me. People can be living a relatively straightforward life and in a ‘click of a finger’ something changes. It could be a relationship break-up, a bereavement, it could be the loss of a job, an accident at work that has resulted in the use of pain medication which has led to addiction. I see many veterans suffering from PTSD who are no longer able to function, they feel they are undeserving to have survived when others haven’t. People who have been absolutely fine up until the point that their rent has doubled, and they can no longer afford to keep their home. I have seen people of all ages, from 18 to 78, no circumstance is ever the same.’