50th Anniversary: Helen's Story
Volunteering at the winter shelter
In 1998, roughly October time, the set up and training for Centrepoint's winter shelter began. We were given a big, unused office building and opened for the young people between 1st December and 31st March.
Within the winter shelter, there was a central point or social lounge space and a basic kitchen, so we could offer cooked meals to the young people. There were dormitory rooms for them too, and a dormitory for the volunteers. We used to volunteer overnight; I clearly remember going home in the early hours when most other people were beginning to start their working day.
We’d start late in the afternoon when the young people started coming in, and then usually go to bed about two or three in the morning to be woken around 6.30am to help with breakfast. Centrepoint's paid staff would remain awake overnight to support the young people.
Almost all of the young people were using drugs or alcohol to help cope with their situation. A lot of young people came in intoxicated – they weren’t allowed to use inside so they’d use beforehand. That could be a big issue regarding keeping young people safe. Volunteers would do quite practical things like setting up beds and preparing food, but there was also a lot of sitting with intoxicated young people. Young people who came in having used heroin would then be the concern of staff in case they overdosed. I remember several evenings sitting with young people who had used – you just had to keep them semi-awake, and monitor their vital signs to keep them safe.
At the time, Centrepoint also had staff street teams who would go out on the streets and find homeless young people, to try to encourage them to come in to the winter shelter. It could be heartbreaking work. I’d just graduated from my psychology degree and I was just starting to build up my clinical experience, so it was extremely eye-opening for me.
Treating and tackling trauma
After the winter shelter closed, I did further voluntary work in a drug rehabilitation service, before eventually going back into the NHS and prison service to complete my clinical and forensic psychology training, focusing on working in forensic mental health.
This involves working with a demographic which includes homeless drug users and offenders who have severe and enduring mental illness, and who have also committed serious sexual and violent offences. Without a doubt, almost every person I saw had been given multiple opportunities to engage at different points along the way but had never been able to do so. It was heartbreaking. Sadly, I think the statutory system is not very good at recognising trauma – they’re very quick to label it as psychosis or depression or a personality disorder. It’s all about fitting people into the statutory system that we’ve designed. It's very take-this-pill-and-you’ll-be-fine rather than dealing with the causes of the problem. I think if we deal with the trauma early enough, things could be very different.
Returning to Centrepoint
I’ve now come full circle. When I saw this job advertised at Centrepoint, I thought it would be something I’d really like to do. Having that experience at Centrepoint 20 years ago really made me realise that I wanted to spend my psychology career working with so-called ‘complex’ cases. I have also realised that it’s so important to reach young people before they hit crisis point. It’s catching them when they leave young offenders' institutes, as they leave the care system, before they get onto the street. It’s much harder once they’re on the street. It’s about showing young people there are other options.
Working with vulnerable people is all about building relationships and developing trust. We’re all human and need to form attachments with others, however for many young people in our services, those relationships with their families have broken down. Having a safe space not just physically, but also mentally, is vital to forming new, trusting relationships and having the opportunities to reach their potential.
I am really excited about my role in Centrepoint, which is to implement and facilitate psychological thinking and evidence based practice across the charity. We are using a psychologically informed environment approach (PIE), which is gaining traction in the homelessness sector due to its positive impact on both staff and those using our services. A PIE will involve offering staff training on the importance of relationships (or ‘attachments’) and the impact of early trauma; offering staff space for reflective practice; considering the physical environment in our services from a psychological perspective; and ensuring we evaluate our practice to drive up quality and inform future policy about youth homelessness.
You can follow the Centrepoint PIE journey via my weekly blog on www.medium.com/@DrHelenMiles.