Aggie has a wealth of experience in the homeless services sector. Starting as a volunteer at Wintercomfort seven years ago and subsequently working as a Project Worker, she was recently promoted to Services Manager. We sat down to chat about her work, the people she supports and what she considers to be the main challenges we face with homelessness in Cambridge.
What first made you want to work at Wintercomfort?
I was studying Sociology and working part-time as a Teaching Assistant. One of our modules explored the social class system, particularly in reference to homelessness. A friend mentioned Wintercomfort, and I immediately applied to become a weekend volunteer and then a paid weekend Locum. It just interested me, and I wanted to get first-hand experience working in the sector, rather than just studying it in a book.
You have been here for seven years; tells us about your journey from volunteer to Services Manager.
Whilst working here on the weekend I knew it was for me and I left teaching. At the time there were no part-time roles at Wintercomfort so whilst continuing with my weekend work, I got a part-time job as a Support Worker at another organisation that provides supported housing. I wanted to fill in all the gaps in my understanding and learn and understand everything I could about the sector. I was offered a part-time role as Project Worker at Wintercomfort and that eventually became full-time. Later, a position became available as Services Supervisor which I was asked to go for, and I did that for three years before my recent promotion to Services Manager. I have learnt so much here and love supporting people and making a positive change to an individual’s life.
When you are supporting someone, you can see change happening before your eyes. Our priority is to help people to get off the streets and into a secure tenancy and from there, they can flourish. We build up a level of trust with the people we support which enables them to keep coming back. We get to know their past and their trauma and put the correct support in place for them to make positive changes. There are often frustrations along the way. It can be a rocky road and sometimes we will have to reflect and try a different approach, but I see people grow and that it so nice, to witness a positive change in someone.
”Success is different for everyone, but to have someone say ‘I’m happy, I’ve moved away from my past and I’m living now and not just existing’ is extremely rewarding.”
What have you found surprising about working here?
There is a stereotype of a homeless person that is just not true. It can affect people from all ‘walks of life.’ We have people accessing our services that are well educated, have had a stable upbringing, have come from a lot of money but either through a past trauma, family conflict or addiction have found themselves in a situation where they no longer have anywhere to live.
What is your opinion of homelessness in Cambridge?
Cambridge has a big problem with homelessness and there is often a huge misunderstanding in the city about the problems we are facing. There is a massive wealth divide, we have extreme poverty and extreme wealth living side by side and because of this the education and employment opportunities are not equal. It creates a class division which is very visible here and creates a huge problem in society.
Have you seen a rise in the amount of people accessing our services over the last few months?
Yes, drastically. We are seeing about fifteen new people a week, and that is terrifying.
”On average about forty people are accessing our service specifically for rough sleepers each day. This number doesn’t even include the people we support out in the community.”
Why do you think so many people come to Cambridge to seek help?
Cambridge is a safe city in comparison to a place like London and there are many brilliant services here to support people. For example, we were recently helping a man who had been living in Wales, he had grown up in Cambridge so had a local connection and decided to move back to the area. We helped him to find accommodation and access medical support as he was sadly very unwell with cancer. He died in hospital, but he died respectfully with people around him, and that would not necessarily have been the case if he hadn’t been here.
What is the hardest part of the job?
When people die suddenly, you never get used to that. We often work with people over a long period of time. Once they are in accommodation, we still provide support for them in maintaining their tenancy and help them to access other services they may need along the way. But, unfortunately due to either age, or poor health (which is often the case for people who have spent time living on the streets) death comes too often. We saw too many people die last year.
What can people do to help?
Do not give money to people begging on the streets. I know people want to help but often all this is doing is indirectly funding their drug addiction and it does way more harm than good. There is a huge amount of help available in Cambridge, at Wintercomfort but also, we work very closely with so many wonderful partner organisations all of which are full of enthusiastic people trying to help support the lives of people living with homelessness and battling addiction.
People can easily make £250 in a day begging on the streets of Cambridge. Indirectly funding drug addiction allows people to continue in that lifestyle and does not empower them to change and seek help. Outreach workers talk to these people daily and try and help them to move away from their situation and seek help, and we are always here, every day of the week.
”It’s not easy, but giving money is just perpetuating the problem further. My advice would be to support the charities that support the people and not give money directly.”