Improving housing for people recovering from drug and alcohol dependency in Westminster

In 2021, Dame Carol Black’s groundbreaking independent review of drugs recognised that:

“the public provision we currently have for prevention, treatment and recovery is not fit for purpose, and urgently needs repair.”

Her report’s 32 recommendations set out an agenda for reform across all levels of national and local government and across many different departments. In particular the report recognised the need for other parts of the system to support people in recovery, with housing being central to this:

In spite of the positive work being done to tackle rough sleeping, for other people in treatment and recovery we need clearer understanding of the level of housing need, and the gaps in housing-related services, so as to form a strategy to address them…. We recommend that MHCLG and DHSC work together to gain better understanding of the types and levels of housing-related need among people with a substance misuse problem, with early findings feeding into the next Spending Review.”

As part of the government’s response to Dame Black’s report Westminster City Council has secured a Housing Support Grant 2022-25 from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID) to deliver a ‘test and learn’ programme which aims to increase the proportion of people recovering from drug and alcohol dependency who are in stable and secure housing.

The Westminster Homelessness Partnership (through Dom Williamson Consultants)  is supporting the programme to map current services and joint working arrangement, analyse feedback on what works well and where gaps exist, identify ongoing changes in the system, and make recommendations for quick wins and further development work.

In April and May we engage partnerships across the borough, carried out stakeholder mapping, and consulting widely via an online survey and one-to-one interviews. We are now pleased to publish our report setting out our findings. These are summarised below:

What works in the current system

Westminster is a complex setting with large numbers of services, initiatives and developments. Existing websites already attempt to provide up-to-date mapping of services and multi-agency forums, so in this report we outline only the key ones relating to the programme.

We have identified significant areas of good practice, particularly around multi-agency working, the high regard professionals have for each other, drug treatment, and long-term consistency of support. Support works well for people at the sharp end of homelessness: sleeping rough and in hostel accommodation.

We also found arrangements that are working well but could be applied more widely, or where improvements to systems are underway but haven’t been fully embedded. This includes providing person-centred support that is appropriate for different client groups, peer support, and some mental health support. The need for better support to people in temporary accommodation, while presenting challenges, was seen as well understood and in progress. Challenging housing problems are seen in two categories: relating to the client and their needs, and relating to barriers created by housing services and providers. These will require different responses to resolve.

Areas seen as not working well include support for people with a dual diagnosis (also referred to as  co-occurring mental health and substance use needs) and access to alcohol treatment. In terms of housing, professionals want more training on housing options, more preventative work with people at risk of housing problems, and more appropriate accommodation to be available. In particular, the lack of move-on from hostels/supported accommodation, debt, and “cuckooing” were seen as the biggest challenges.

Particular groups of people in treatment face additional barriers to achieving stable and secure housing. These include people from outside Westminster, those with particular histories (criminal offences and problematic past behaviour), those with dogs and people who have limited reading/writing skills.

Improvements planned

The key gaps identified in applying for this grant are support for: people placed in temporary accommodation out of the borough; more assertive support for people moving rapidly through settings on a treatment journey; more peer support; a service to enable social activities for isolated people with communication needs; and specialist housing advice located within treatment providers. It was also recognised that a strategic post would be needed to join up the various initiatives and developments taking place.

To meet these gaps, the programme in Westminster includes the following:

  • Specialist floating support (for people in temporary accommodation out of the borough, for people needing a more assertive approach, peer support and a buddy scheme)
  • Specialist housing support caseworkers (one dedicated to advice for treatment services, the other supporting people in temporary accommodation)
  • Strategic posts (WHP time for baseline research, a post to oversee the work, and a part-time data coordinator)
  • Training, personal development and workforce support (accredited substance misuse training)
  • Personal budgets
  • A weekend recovery social club and in-reach to housing settings.

In addition, there are a number of forthcoming changes and developments taking place across housing, health and treatment. These are all positive and contributory and we outline them in this report.


The analysis reveals that lots of the gaps/areas for development are already being addressed either through the programme or other developments. Of the remaining areas, most could be addressed (or could be made explicit) as quick wins by ensuring that focus is given to:

Floating support services targeting people who are moving rapidly through transition points in treatment

Floating support services intentionally seeking clients who may be at risk of housing problems, particularly those who live in private rented, privately owned or general needs social housing

The strategic post taking responsibility for working with partners to reduce barriers caused by the housing system and providers, develop options for better mental health support, and mapping where additional housing training is required.

The dedicated specialist case workers taking on responsibility for providing housing options training to partners.

One area – the need for a more assertive approach to engage people with alcohol treatment – does not appear to fit well with existing plans for the programme and will require further thought and development.

Progress towards delivery of the programme is moving at great speed, with operational teams in place or recruitment underway. To ensure it is able to deliver against its stated aims, further work would be useful to:

  • Ensure the differing elements can work together effectively by clarifying the roles of new services and communicating expectations across services
  • Co-create with funded providers a protocol setting out how people who could benefit from support will be identified and engaged by the most appropriate support offer
  • Establish methods for continuous learning, performance metrics and a process for reporting on outcomes and learning to local partners and OHID.

The full report is available here.

Roma Experiencing Rough Sleeping in Westminster

By: Dominic Williamson – WHP Partnership Manager and Facilitator

On 15 June 2023, WHP hosted an event at the Westminster Archives to launch a new research report we had commissioned on the experiences of Roma people sleeping rough in Westminster and the impact of the services working with them.

The independent report, Roma Experiencing Rough Sleeping in Westminster and Beyond: Evaluating New Approaches, was written by Maria Dumitru and Dr Solvor Mjøberg Lauritzen of the MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society. It sets out the findings from interviews with Roma people who have experienced rough sleeping in the borough and with the professionals working with them. It also makes some recommendations for action, which the WHP will be considering in the next few months.

Importantly, it also provides some of the context of the communities that people come from, including the poverty that has resulted from centuries of slavery, oppression and genocide.

This history is the background that has brought some of the poorest people in Europe on to the streets in some of the richest areas of Britain.

In recent years the number of people who are non-UK citizens sleeping rough in Westminster has risen and now make up the majority of people found on the streets. Among this diverse population, the largest group are from Roma communities in Romania, accounting for around 20 to 25% of those on the streets.

Since 2016 efforts have been made to improve the way that services work with this group and there is now a dedicated Roma Rough Sleeping team, run by St Mungo’s and funded by the GLA, which works in Westminster and other boroughs. This employs Roma Mediators who speak Romani and Romanian, and can engage with the community in their own language. There is also a Roma clinic offered at the Great Chapel Street NHS surgery. The report sets out that these have transformed the relationship between services and the Roma population.

At the launch we discussed several important insights from the report:

  • Migration is a major driver of levels of rough sleeping in Westminster
  • Responses by WHP partners are constrained by restrictions on entitlements, employment etc
  • Roma people have experienced a history of discrimination, slavery and genocide and come from some of the poorest and most marginalized communities in Europe
  • Important to recognise diversity of experience, migration stories, motivations and intersectionality
  • Roma people experience harassment and feel safer in the busy streets of Westminster – they were not attracted here by the offer of services
  • Health issues, fear and barriers to work and accommodation are key
  • The mediators in the Roma Rough Sleeping Team and the Roma clinic have been able to engage and build relationships with Roma people
  • Narratives of “organised begging by criminal gangs” need to be challenged
  • Importance of forming a Westminster response to government plans on ASB

We also explored the principles that we think should underpin our efforts to continue to improve the response to the Roma population aligned with WHP’s mission to work together to end rough sleeping in Westminster:

  • Human rights
  • Focus on enhancing dignity, health and wellbeing
  • Safeguarding of vulnerable people
  • Build engagement and trust in culturally sensitive ways
  • Involvement of people with lived experience
  • Engagement of all stakeholders, including local communities
  • Challenge antigypsyism
  • Recognise the rights and responsibilities of all stakeholders
  • Challenge responses that seek to merely displace people
  • Evidence, evaluation and learning.

Over the next few months WHP’s strategic group will be considering the recommendations in the report and will use these and the principles above to prioritise an action plan to ensure we keep making progress to reduce rough sleeping among this population.

Please read the report and let me know what you think.

Finally, I would like to thank everyone who has made this work possible, especially Maria and Solvor, who were brilliant to work with throughout; the other researcher Michal Mižu Mižigár; Fernando Ruiz Molina who designed the report; World Habitat and London Housing Foundation for funding; Petra Salva (St Mungo’s) and Jenny Travassos (The Passage) for support; Becky Rice, my predecessor who originally commissioned the report; Nicoleta Bitu (St Mungo’s) and Rosa Ungpakorn (Great Chapel Street medical centre) for speaking at the event and everyone who spoke to the researchers, commented on drafts or contributed to the event.

Making progress on tackling rough sleeping

Image credit: Alexander Baxevanis/Flickr

Today the government published the annual statistics on rough sleeping in England. This contained some good news: the estimates of the number of people sleeping rough on a single night in November is down 9% on the previous year and 49% down compared to 2017.

Below the headline, progress has been made in lots of areas, including in Westminster, where the autumn count was 23% lower than the previous year.

These stats are always debated by commentators. Some point to the fact that the national figure aggregates a mix of street counts and intelligence-led estimates. Others highlight how these figures do not give an idea of the number of people who experience rough sleeping over a year (in London we have a better idea of this number through the GLA’s CHAIN reports). Or that rough sleeping is the tip of a ‘homelessness iceberg’, with thousands in temporary accommodation or sofa surfing.

I have long argued that despite its limitations, the count methodology does give an invaluable indication of the relative level of rough sleeping over time and between areas. So we can know, as the release makes clear, that rough sleeping remains 38% higher than it was in 2010, when the revised methodology was brought in.

In Westminster, outreach teams carry out regular intelligence street counts throughout the year, so we always have a good idea of the number of people sleeping rough.

The important message from these figures is that the measures being taken by the government, local authorities and their local partners are working. They show that with political commitment and investment, we can bring down the numbers on the streets. More will be needed to keep up momentum, and so the government’s commitment to a three-year funding deal is welcome.

But there is a third essential ingredient: partnership. By this I mean councils, charities and communities working together. Rough sleeping is a complex issue and there are no easy answers. One solution does not fit all, and people face a diversity of needs and circumstances. In Westminster, huge efforts are made day and night by charities commissioned by the city council to reach out to people on the streets and to move them into and on from accommodation. NHS teams, drug and alcohol workers and specialist migration workers are all part of the joint effort. Once a person moves off the street, years of work – invisible to the public – goes into helping them get their lives back on track, so their vulnerabilities do not lead them back to the streets in future.

These challenges were discussed at recent meetings where Westminster City Council consulted the members of the Westminster Homelessness Partnership (WHP) ahead of their submission for funding under the government’s rough sleeping initiative. This funding will be crucial. It will enable the council and providers to enhance their efforts to get people off the streets while increasing the focus on preventing people ending up there in the first place.

As I read over todays stats, I stopped to think about the individuals that they represent. Near where I live, a woman who had slept rough for several years had died recently. She had apparently refused many attempts to persuade her to come in.  But I can’t help wondering if there was more that could have been done, perhaps finding someone to work with her who had a better understanding of her cultural background or spoke her mother tongue.

As the number of people living on the streets comes down, we hope the number of people who die while homeless will reduce too.

So todays stats are welcome. But until rough sleeping is very rare, very brief and never repeated, we must keep working to do better.

Street Count Reviews

In our latest blog, Becky Rice, WHP Coordinator, reflects on the work of the Practitioner Leads group and their ‘street count by name list’ initiative.

The Practitioner Leads group of the WHP consists of the senior member of staff with overall responsibility for service delivery in Westminster at several of the WHP organisations, its currently attended by Connection at St Martin’s, St Mungo’s, The Passage and Turning Point. They are a great group to work with – always keen to explore ideas for working together more effectively, recognising and ‘working with’ the complex landscape of services in the area. One of the things the group reflected on was how to make sure that street counts make a difference to our work together, and go beyond data gathering.

Street counts are a regular feature of the work of outreach teams and local authorities with high levels of rough sleeping. They provide a particular measure of ‘visible rough sleeping’ – a snapshot at a single point in time.  It is agreed that they show a partial picture of the overall levels of rooflessness and street homelessness. In Westminster fairly regular ‘intelligence’ counts are undertaken by the commissioned St Mungo’s Street Outreach Service, in addition to the annual official ‘street counts and estimates’ prescribed by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC). Information from street counts is used alongside a wide range of other information, for example CHAIN reports, to inform commissioning and service delivery priorities.

As street counts are overseen by St Mungo’s with the council’s involvement other agencies didn’t always get involved very much; the outreach team had them covered. They do, however, take up a lot of time, and they are relevant to all the agencies in represented in the Practitioner Leads group who share the goal of ending rough sleeping in Westminster. So, it felt like there was more potential. The Practitioner Leads from St Mungo’s, The Passage and CSTM decided that they would convene a meeting after the March 2021 street count to go through each client ‘by name’ and ensure that across the agencies gathered as much as possible was being done to support the person.

The initial meeting was a success and it has been decided to continue. Some of the learning so far is:

  • The approach is time consuming and tiring with meetings taking several hours, but is found to be worthwhile by those attending and helps ensure a targeted response to individuals.
  • There are often times when more than one agency is working with someone and by linking this work up services can be more effective, for example where a client of a day centre would be able to access accommodation through the outreach team but this is not known
  • Having Turning Point, who provide the Drug Treatment services in Westminster, attend the meetings has proven very useful – engaging substance misuse services as a key part of the picture for some people experiencing rough sleeping is critical.
  • It works best to have a senior member of staff present from each organisation and more than one staff member to ensure that the meeting is a space where there is accountability and authority to decide on actions
  • The meeting is a safe space for discussing accountability and exploring where things have not worked and a different approach could be taken to support someone; trust between those present at an individual and service level is really important.

Some of the things to consider as the project develops are:

  • Monitoring the impact of the group and gathering information that can be aggregated to provide a ‘birds eye view’ of the work of the group
  • How best to facilitate the group; so far St Mungo’s have undertaken this but also being of the lead service delivery agencies makes this a huge task so the next sessions will be chaired by the WHP Coordinator.
  • How best to use this very targeted by name approach to identifying and escalate barriers to assisting people discussed to leaders in homelessness, adult social care, substance misuse, health and other services.

This multi-agency group scrutinising and reflecting on street count information is providing a focal point for partnership work in service delivery and increasing the impact of street counts. It was an idea that emerged from a group of leaders working together and identifying a practical way to move forward. Our responsibility to work together goes beyond people who are seen on street counts and applies to those who are at risk of or experiencing rough sleeping overall. The spirit of action, accountability, rigour and shared purpose within the Practitioner Leads group, is something that will impact our service delivery far beyond this initiative.


The Bridge

The Bridge opened its doors in October 2020 to provide a safe place to stay for people who are rough sleeping in Westminster and waiting for a permanent home. Partnerships are key to The Bridge’s approach – as are kindness and learning. We spoke to Ian Scott, Manager at The Bridge, who told us more about the service and also provided some feedback from people staying at the service.


The Bridge is run by the Connection at St Martin’s (CSTM), part-funded by Westminster Council, to provide accommodation to people waiting to move into a permanent home through the Housing First scheme. The waiting list for Housing First is long, so people need somewhere stable to stay in the meantime. The Bridge “is a hotel that bridges the gap between the streets and independence.”


What’s on offer?

The model is based on the emergency hotel accommodation provided during the ‘Everyone In’ initiative in 2020. The Bridge offers 31 rooms (currently fully occupied) in a four-star hotel, with en-suite bathrooms, cleaning services and meals prepared by CSTM and delivered to the rooms. Meeting people’s basic needs quickly is an important part of the service: “We meet people’s basic needs very fast. Drinks, snacks – they sound like small things but are actually very major.”


That’s only the start – The Bridge offers 24-hour staffing, access to healthcare, and an extensive in-reach programme (where services come into the accommodation rather than clients having to attend their offices for appointments), including a psychologist, substance-use support, language therapy, art therapy, podiatry, benefits advice and immigration support. They also provide support with accessing training (one client is currently doing a creative writing course) and finding employment.


And of course, the ultimate goal – but without pressure and in the client’s time – move on to a permanent, independent home. The Bridge sees itself as a transition service, supporting people as they move off the streets and adapt to life indoors. The Bridge is proud of its success in working with people who have experienced rough sleeping for many years: “We have a very low eviction rate. People who have been long-term homeless for 20 years are actually staying.”


The approach – psychologically-informed environments (PIE) and partnerships

Ian explained how the people accessing The Bridge have been “severely traumatised over many years,” which means that compassion, tolerance and kindness are critical to success and central to the approach. The Bridge adopts a psychologically-informed model, developing relationships with people by listening and understanding them – and working together with them to help resolve the challenges they face in moving away from street homelessness. A psychologist provides a twice-weekly in-reach service supporting clients making the transition to being inside and also providing support to staff.


Partnership working is integral to The Bridge and something that has developed out of the response to the pandemic: “Partnership working is one of the most successful things to come out of Covid-19 for us – working more closely with other organisations.” One of The Bridge’s key partners is Westminster City Council, a relationship that Ian described as “a really good partnership.” The Council works with The Bridge to create and follow up move-on plans for residents. The Homeless Health Team also provides an in-reach service at The Bridge, as well as training to staff and organising the monthly multi-disciplinary team (MDT) meetings. Other key partners include Turning Point who provide in-reach drug services. Ian explained how in-reach services improve engagement: “If services come to people, then they will access those services. It makes it easier to solve problems.”


Great Chapel Street GP are another “outstanding” partner, who attend the Bridge’s monthly MDT meetings via Zoom. Ian highlighted this as another example of learning and progress through the pandemic – the digitalisation of meetings allowing partners to attend more often and more efficiently. The regular MDT meetings bring all partners together to discuss clients and formulate plans.



Overall, the Bridge offers a client-focused and holistic model of support, working in partnership with many other agencies: “Our approach is to be kind, understanding and compassionate and work with partners.” It sounds simple, but it’s changing lives – as reflected by this thought on the service from Angie, a resident at The Bridge who had been interviewed by staff:

“The way you’re treated here by the staff actually reflects really well on the staff and on their own characters and personality. It’s not just me that’s changed I’ve seen other people come in, and I’ve seen them slowly start to change too.”

Jenny Travassos – The WHP and me

Jenny Travassos - The WHP and me...

My name is Jenny Travassos and I was the Head of Rough Sleeping for Westminster City Council for 6 and a half years and a proud member of the Westminster Homelessness Partnership (WHP).  When the notion of the WHP first came to my attention, I genuinely thought that it was just another ‘thing’ to do and boy, was I wrong!

For me, the WHP has come to mean collaboration in its truest form and more importantly, breaking down barriers to honestly communicating positions and acknowledging the differences and strengths between all of us. For me, the group became my touch point to check ideas and make sure what we wanted to do was actually achievable, as well a rare opportunity for a giggle in the midst of chaos.

Prior to late 2019, we often operated in a manner where the council commissioned services and developed policy where we often would have lengthy discussions on how to reduce duplication and increase joint working amongst our delivery partners, but given we had a big mix of commissioned, non-commissioned services, health partners AND the largest number of rough sleepers in the country… it felt like we were pushing uphill. The market type conditions that procurement and commissioning created almost felt like a barrier at times to genuine partnership and communication but when working in local government, procurement is necessary and the framework for delivery.

We knew we couldn’t continue in the same way and we decided to move forward because, frankly, we had to try something different!  At this time the Westminster Homeless Action Together Group – WHAT – was being refreshed to become WHP and wanted to boost its strategic and leadership work. WCC, including me, decided to really get on board, deepen our involvement and commitment and contribution to the partnership.

Since WHP started this new phase of the partnership journey, we have all had to change due to the pandemic.  As we have come to know one another as people, better understand all of the partners’ super powers in delivery and planning, the communication and sharing of information has increased, as has collaboration at an operational level.

The Core Group of senior managers met every week during the pandemic and we shared policies, resources, intelligence, operational plans and future plans – the important ingredient of this core group is confidentiality and it never wavered. Everyone in the group is equal in their importance and voice so there is no posturing or competition, it is just about getting the best results possible for the thousands of rough sleepers seen each year.

For me personally, I have developed relationships that I value and have come to depend on and professionally, I have well and truly signed up to the fact that true collaboration is the only way to navigate the times we find ourselves in.

Westminster’s response to rough sleeping is a something that needs to be agile and flexible; we cannot stand back and say a model is in place because it is consistently changing, and the WHP enables a dynamic response.  It also allows for policy development as a group as we all know how to shout loudly – but our voices together are even stronger.  Because of the transparency and willingness to hear other views and ideas, it is a framework to continue to build upon.

Overall… I was a cynic but I am now a true believer!

Outreach in partnership: Westminster’s Compass Team

Outreach in partnership: Westminster’s Compass Team NEW

The Compass Team, run by St Mungo’s, is a real partnership effort, comprised of staff from St Mungo’s and The Passage. Working with people who face many barriers to moving on from street homelessness, the team is a vital part of Westminster’s services. We asked Lindsay Rushforth, Service Manager of the team, and Angela Blair, a Compass Outreach Worker, to tell us more – and then checked in with their commissioner!

 What is the Compass team?

 Lindsay Rushforth (St Mungo’s): The Compass Team is a specialist outreach service. We are a team of eight and support about 100 people in Westminster. We work with people who have been on the streets for a long time and often have multiple and complex needs around mental and physical health, drugs, alcohol, learning disabilities and [immigration] status issues.  The Compass Team is very person centred and there is an emphasis on through care i.e. we continue to work with clients when they are housed for as long as they need our support.  Case workers manage their own time which allows them to be more flexible to the needs of their clients.

Angela Blair (The Passage):  I have a background in generic outreach but Compass is more of a complex needs team, the main difference being that we have the time to work more closely and intensively with clients. Our work is very client centred, we take the lead from our clients. The people who we work with tend to need extra time and care.  I work with about 15-20 people at any given time. We review the people we case work every six months so that we can take new people on but will only close cases when people are ready to move on from the support that we offer.

How does the partnership approach work?

 Lindsay: The team is a mixture of staff from St Mungo’s and The Passage.  People are seconded to the team from both organisations.  St Mungo’s get the funding from Westminster and reimburses The Passage, who pay their own staff.

Angela:   I work for The Passage and I think the coming together has worked really well.  Everyone in the team has so much experience in the field.  One colleague once worked out that we had about 150 years’ worth of experience between us!   As a team we may have different ways of working but we all have a common goal.  In this team I don’t particularly feel part of The Passage or St Mungo’s – I just feel part of Compass.  I think this feeling starts with the manager who sets the tone and culture which seems to filter down through the team…. It’s a really supportive team.

What are the benefits of having the partnership?

 Lindsay: The team has developed its own approach.  We can access different resources from across the two organisations:  day services, food stores, clothing stores, benefit advice services, access to an immigration lawyer.  Overall there is more collaboration: for example, The Passage staff have access to Mungo’s training.

Angela:  I wasn’t a stranger to many of the team when I joined so felt that the mutual respect was already there. In Compass we work closely together and seem to have an agreement and understanding about what we are doing.  I find the whole team helps to make it work.  There is mutual support and lots of helping each other out regardless of which organisation we work for.  You have to be motivated to maintain momentum.  But I think we are all spurred on by each other’s support and successes…  Our managers know and trust us to form realistic and achievable support plans for our clients, and know that we’ll come to them if there is a problem or need advice.

How did COVID-19 change things?

 Lindsay: We had to reorganise to create capacity. In March and April the Compass team worked alongside the Westminster SOS team to ensure support for the Everyone in initiative. It was all hands to the deck. The Compass team staff turned their hand to everything: street shifts, hotel shifts, food deliveries, whatever was needed at the time. As more people moved into the Covid-19 hotels the Compass team supported the case work. Our workload increased as we continued to case work our Compass clients both on the streets and in accommodation, whilst also case working individuals who were not Compass clients in the hotels.  The new clients needed intensive attention to prepare them for move on into other more permanent accommodation.   It was challenging as we felt like we had two hats on. Things have now settled a bit, and we are nearer to where we were.

The team is now mainly working with our own Compass clients again and 80% of these people are now indoors, which is amazing.  Overall the pandemic encouraged us to work more closely with the SOS [Street Outreach Service] team in Westminster, which is a really good development and both teams are learning a lot from each other.

Angela:  A lot more people are now indoors.  The challenge now is to support and encourage people to remain in.  If they have been on the streets for a long time and suddenly a council tax bill arrives, this can throw up a whole new batch of anxieties and problems.  It is then that there is a real need for a wraparound support service and also a shift in how we can make this work.


After hearing from the team, we touched base with their commissioner from Westminster City Council, Victoria Aseervatham who is a passionate advocate of the Compass team’s approach. She explained:

“The Compass Team is like a stick of psychologically informed rock – PIE [Psychologically Informed] through and through from every email, interaction, telephone call and case conference… always on their clients’ side, wondering and reflecting on how best to …help their clients build a life away from the street.”

Learning from the Covid-19 response in Westminster

Learning from the Covid-19 response in Westminster

WHP Coordinator Becky Rice’s blog first published on the World Habitat website on 7th September 2020.

Becky Rice is a Co-ordinator at Westminster Homelessness Partnership – a group of organisations working together to end rough sleeping in Westminster, London. The partnership is part of the World Habitat European End Street Homelessness Campaign (EESHC).

During the initial emergency response to COVID-19, leaders from Westminster Homelessness Partnership met each week to discuss the most pressing issues – much of this centred on hotel provision for people sleeping rough during the pandemic and the situation for those still rough sleeping.  The group included St Mungo’sThe PassageConnection at St Martin’s and West London Mission, as well as Westminster City Council (WCC) who led the initial response and hotel programme.  As we moved on from this phase there was concern that the rapid learning and insight from these critical weeks could be lost in the face of new challenges.

So to capture the vital learning from the initial phase, we organised a ‘Learning from COVID-19’ online workshop with Collaborate – a think tank and consultancy which specialises in partnership working. We were able to secure a small grant, quickly, from the World Habitat EESHC Innovation Fund, which enabled us to pay for skilled facilitation input from Collaborate. The meeting was held online with the use of voting tools, break out rooms and plenary sessions.

Despite the pressure that everyone was under, we were delighted that 28 people from 14 organisations attended. Sectors represented included homelessness, health and mental health, drug and alcohol services, public health, and commissioners from the Council.  Although there were no attendees of those experiencing rough sleeping or hotel provision at the time, or those working in the local network of faith and voluntary services; we recognise that learnings from these groups will be critical to planning the future of Westminster’s systems.

Firstly, we explored ‘what we did differently during the emergency response’. Three clear processes emerged.

1. Rapid adaptation – flexibility, commitment and innovation.

  • Self-contained accommodation provided ‘free at point of access’ regardless of access to public funds. A ‘really dignified offer’ as one delegate put it.
  • Drug and alcohol services taking an ‘in-reach’ approach – going to hotels rather than people going to services.

2. Collaboration – working together as a ‘system’.

  • Working with a galvanising common purpose – everyone motivated to work together and play their part. One delegate described, “One team for Westminster services, with each organisation just one ‘branch’ of it.”
  • Role of health: specialist homeless health services took an active leadership role, which was welcomed, with focus on triage and harm reduction.

3. Communications – increased flows, more informal and regular.

  • Horizontal communication across the sector including daily calls and online meetings.
  • Vertical communication providing services contact with national as well as local policy makers.

We also considered ‘what made the new ways of working possible?’. Some of these were ‘hard system conditions’ – these are areas that are fixed, and often depend on central or local government. This includes additional resources from local and central government and changes to policy which meant that people not eligible for public funds could be accommodated.

Other developments making the new way of working possible were ‘softer’ and may be more in the control of organisations represented. For instance, there was urgency to act around a clear purpose; adopting a health and public health lens to addressing homelessness; a better, more immediate and dignified ‘offer’ increasing engagement with people experiencing homelessness; and flatter hierarchies and positive risk taking.

The group also explored ‘what we wanted to preserve from the emergency response’. The following are some actions the group want to retain in the future.

  • Mindset: the sense of purpose and rough sleeping being a solvable problem.
  • Ways of working: partnership and collaboration; quick decision making; fewer barriers and ‘gatekeeping’ in services; and enhanced communication.
  • Models of practice: quick access to self-contained accommodation for all regardless of eligibility; ‘in reach models’ (where services go directly into places where people are staying, rather than providing appointments elsewhere, e.g. a clinic) to get services to where people need them; use of hotel or hotel style accommodation for some; and rapid rehousing with support.

Things people are keen to restore from the pre-COVID world included more face-to-face contact with clients, reduced burden on staff, and a better response for new people arriving on the streets.

What’s next?

The challenges facing people who are rough sleeping and working with them are huge. New people did not stop coming to Westminster – at the last estimate we have over 200 people sleeping rough, after reaching record lows in the early stages of the emergency response.  In a poll, workshop attendees were uncertain as to whether the last few months will change the face of our homelessness system for the better with most feeling ‘the wheel is still in spin – there is everything to play for’.

The ideas from this group will influence the future as we feed findings into a review by Westminster City Council, and will also be used by WHP to inform the future of our partnership work.

Partnership in action: food provision in a pandemic

Partnership in action: food provision in a pandemic

WHP organisations have been working throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to help as many people as possible get off the streets and into hotels and other accommodation. A critical part of supporting people during this time was providing food. Two of the WHP organisations, the Connection at St Martins’ and The Passage worked together to meet this need – providing a lifeline to those staying in hotels. We spoke to two people centrally involved in this scheme: Megan Coker, Head Chef at Connection at St Martins, and Claudette Dawkins, Head Chef at The Passage’s Resource Centre to find out more…


How did the project start?

Megan: I had just taken over as the Head Chef at Connections, providing breakfast and lunch for people who attend the day centre.  When the lockdown hit, this all had to stop.  There was immediately a rush to get clients into hotels.  The government were very keen and we placed 80 people in hotels in the first ten hours!  But we were worried about food.  We only had a small kitchen and were not sure how would we get people food across a wide range of hotels.

So everyone started talking to each other.  The Passage had a massive kitchen and big halls so we agreed that they would lead the food distribution.  Our chefs went into The Passage kitchen and other staff were redeployed to help get things done.

Claudette: When lockdown hit, the Resource Centre was unable to see large numbers in the building and instead staff were supporting people to get off the streets and into accommodation quickly, and then supporting them once in that accommodation. Then the senior team said what about opening a food hub to help people in that emergency accommodation?  We thought about how to get hot meals to people and decided the best idea was a hot meal in the evening with a snack bag with fruit, crisps, chocolate, cereal, milk, bread, cutlery, napkins, salt, pepper, mayo, jam.   We had our own van and had additional support from companies who had vans they weren’t using.

We spoke to Connections and they said … their staff were able to get on board and help the whole project.  Megan came over with about six others, they all helped out with the prep and whatever else was needed.  And as others joined they took on a greater role.  The project expanded and took over the whole floor of the day centre.

How busy was it?

Megan: Within the first month we were getting hot food to 300 clients every day.  We had 15 volunteers working with The Passage and Connection staff to get food into boxes, then packed together into larger boxes to be collected by volunteer drivers and delivered to the hotels.

 What was the outcome?

Claudette:  I think it was a really positive thing.  Some clients have very complex needs and struggled in the contained environment; having hot food delivered helped.  Food meant that people stayed rather than leaving, and a good diet also helped people reduce harmful substance abuse. By the end of the Food Hub, we had prepared nearly 62,000 meals!

What worked and what didn’t? 

Megan: The logistics were very complex, and communicating with clients about what they wanted was tricky, with every hotel different.  And of course the overall environment of the pandemic, with changing and sometimes confusing messages from central government, added to the challenge.  For our teams of staff and volunteers it was also a mental challenge; travelling in on the tube was strange when the messages were all about staying at home.

How important was it to join forces and work in this way rather than working as separate organisations? 

Megan: It made complete sense to do it this way.  There was no time to worry about inter organisational agendas or politics; people just got on with it.  The Passage really led it but Connections made a difference and played a big part.  On the ground everyone worked well together.  It was just the natural thing to do; The Passage had the resources in place and it simply made sense to do it from there. It was good to work together. Barriers came down.

Claudette: We didn’t see it as “The Passage”; it was the Food Hub.  And everyone came together with one purpose – to provide food for people in the hotels.  So there were no organisational agendas and things just sort of fell into place.  We had 20 volunteers, plus the connections staff; Megan headed up the cooking with my deputy and the other Connections staff just helped wherever they were needed.  Everyone was very flexible.  The team said they really enjoyed working with us.  It was good to build new partnerships and friendships.  We need to keep the lines of communication open and we are already in touch by text etc.

What did you learn about each other’s organisation? 

Megan: Interesting to see how another organisation does things – especially food prep.  But everything was unusual as the situation was unusual.  It all just happened!  There was no steering group or formal governance.  Client needs were the priority and so there was no time to think about it too much!   Although we didn’t have time to plan the partnership, it worked well.

Claudette: This was the first time that I have worked with other centres!  I always wanted to but never had the time.  Everyone just mucked in and although it was a serious and worrying situation, we had a laugh working together.  It takes special people to work in this sector – and this proved it.

What lessons do you think we need to take away from this experience?

Megan: Working with other organisations and using each other’s resources – if someone has an excess resource we need to offer it around.  We all need to be more forthcoming with offers and requests.   And we must maintain the networks and relationships that have been built up so we can contact others much more easily.

Claudette:  We had to make quick decisions and welcome new ideas.  We just said: what is you want and then we went away and sorted it!  Then we knew what we needed and get on with it – so given the resource and got on with it.  And it is really interesting that the partnership work grew as the demand increased.  We just followed the needs. The need was sudden and obvious – so we had to do something.