St Mungo’s: a sanctuary for Bristol’s most vulnerable

St Mungo’s: a sanctuary for Bristol’s most vulnerable

With a background in education and care services, Simon Dyer wanted to find a way of bringing his skills and experience to work with people affected by homelessness. He finally found his calling at St. Mungo’s, Bristol – a charity he had long-admired – as Recovery College Coordinator. Here he tells us about the vital service the Recovery College provides to some of Bristol’s most vulnerable people, and how our new partnership with Square Food Foundation is set to change things for the better.

Simon’s role

On a day to day basis, my work at the college entails running a series of groups, courses and workshops to help people learn new skills and improve their wellbeing. I also manage our employability and gardening programmes where we help people back into work and to achieve qualifications in horticulture.

It is extremely rewarding work; one of my highlights was when we held a community open day last year for the end of the Recovery College summer term. It was lovely to see members of the local community and our clients mixing and playing games together. To see socially isolated people come together and have a good time was a real validation of the work we do.

Humble beginnings

 St Mungo’s has a long history of supporting people affected by homelessness. In 1969 a small team of people began feeding the homeless in London. They pushed flasks of hot soup around in an old pram  and helped people who were rough sleeping find a life away from the streets. We’ve developed into a national charity, and in 2009 St Mungo’s took over the street outreach service based at the Compass Centre in Stokes Croft, Bristol. Since then we’ve developed 22 projects in Bristol including complex needs and mental health services throughout the city. We offer a holistic approach to recovery and getting people safe off the streets is the start of that process.

The Bristol challenge and opportunities

There’s a great need for services like ours in Bristol. The city is facing an unprecedented rise in homelessness; as Bristol thrives and house and rental prices rise, more and more people find themselves locked out of the housing market and on the streets or in insecure accommodation. Combined with the reductions in funding for housing, substance recovery and mental health services the city is seeing more and more people stuck on the streets or facing crises, unable to locate the support they need. Our aim is to locate and develop services that meet the needs of the city’s most vulnerable people and help them towards independence. We believe that rough sleeping is dangerous for individuals’ health and causes a complex of issues. We seek to help solve the problems that lead an individual toward homelessness and prevent them from returning to the streets, running a variety of services to tackle the issues.

We run a rough sleeper service, night assessment centre and guardianship schemes to help people off the streets. We also run five complex needs hostels to house people while they access more secure housing. The Recovery College supports clients to work on their wellbeing and improve their resilience so they can have the best chance of not returning to rough sleeping. To complement this we run floating support services to help those with mental health issues or a history of offending to move on and live an independent life. Our mental health services include: the Men’s Crisis House, which gives short-term residential respite to men suffering mental health crises; the Assertive Contact and Engagement service (ACE), which helps link socially isolated people with mental health support services; and the Sanctuary, which provides out of hours support to those experiencing mental health crises over the weekend.

It’s really exciting to be involved in a project using food and kitchen skills as a solution, as I’ve seen the positive effect this can have on clients. We previously ran a food service for rough sleepers that was staffed by client volunteers. One of these volunteers was a former rough sleeper who started working in the kitchen to help his recovery from homelessness and alcoholism. Being in a busy and supportive environment helped his communication skills, and being responsible for cooking one meal a day for the clients not only gave him knowledge of new recipes, but a new found confidence and focus. He ended up moving in a volunteer role in outreach helping to support others who had similar experiences to himself.

A better future

Moreover, I’ve been keen to open a café at the New Street centre using the skeleton of an old Day Centre kitchen already here. What we have lacked is the capacity to train people in cooking skills so we can start getting people in to volunteer. I am passionate about occupation and training as a recovery pathway. So I would love to see some clients learn cooking skills and then apply them in our café, hopefully one day running it as a mini social enterprise.

It’s great to have an organisation like Square Food Foundation involved too. Any training that people can access that comes from specialists and professionals from outside our organisation is always really well received. I think this project will give clients the skills and confidence to prepare their own food and look for volunteering or work opportunities in catering.

I’ve got high hopes for the future. If this project can allow us to get our café plans off the ground we could welcome more people into the Recovery College and give our clients and students a viable space to gain first-hand working experience in a safe and supported environment. It would add an extra vibrancy to the space, offering somewhere for people to meet and for our clients to engage with the wider community.

I might even drop in on the training myself when I get the chance, although some of my closest friends are chefs, one of whom lived with me for a while last year, so I would say my skills are better than they were! My sausage, chilli and fennel pas never fails to please the hungry crowds.