"Without a safe place to live, it’s hard to stay healthy – mentally and physically. If you are rough sleeping, you’ve got so much to contend with. There’s hydration, food, safety, stigma, staying warm. The list goes on.
“There is a marked difference in how different genders experience challenges related to homelessness. That’s why it’s so vital that MASH is part of the Greater Manchester Housing First pilot, so we can bring our gender-informed expertise,” says Bianca one of MASH’s Greater Manchester Housing First (GMHF) Workers.
MASH is a small charity in Manchester which provides non-judgemental support around health, safety and wellbeing to women who are sex working, may become involved in sex work, and who are experiencing multiple disadvantages.
Bianca is one of an experienced team of three based at MASH. In 2020, MASH joined the GMHF pilot to offer its expert gender and trauma-informed support to women experiencing homelessness.
Housing First is all about securing someone a home first and then addressing other support needs around that stable base. Sam, Ciara and Bianca support women to be in charge of their own recovery. Based at MASH, they build up trusted relationships with women, encourage them to set goals and put these at the centre of the support they offer.
Why MASH and why this role?
Bianca added; “Ever since I discovered MASH I have always wanted to work here. There are some great initiatives which are being developed to tackle homelessness and its root causes but often they don’t consider how homelessness impacts different groups in different ways.
“I previously worked in Vancouver at a women’s refuge and on a crisis line.
And ever since I’ve always been driven to support women including those who are involved in sex work. They’re often forgotten about and not included in decisions. They experience a lot of stigma.
“It is vital that there is specialist women’s support as part of the GMHF pilot. I feel very fortunate to be part of the pilot and to be able to speak up for and support women. I am a feminist and I see this role as a form of direct action I can take to challenge the status quo.
“This is my dream job!” says Ciara. “I’ve always been passionate about working in the homelessness sector. This can be a challenging role that requires a lot of determination and grit to overcome barriers. I’m not someone who gives up easily! And I think that’s key.
“The women I work with are in some extremely challenging and precarious situations. Trying to navigate complex systems on top of that and access lots of different services can feel impossible. Life just feels completely overwhelming and chaotic.
“I build up that trusted relationship with them and provide the reassurance that someone is here who really cares about them. I’m not going anywhere. And I can help untangle things and tackle challenges bit by bit. As Housing First workers, we can help women to recognise what they are capable of.
Sam is the third member of the team. She said; “I was previously a volunteer at MASH for three years, supporting women in MASH’s drop-in centre and on van outreach. So I had that first-hand experience of getting to know women who are at the sharpest end of inequality. Women who were surviving with no support, living with untreated mental ill health and women who were victims of male violence.
“I did a health and community degree based around services for women at university and went on to be involved in the pilot which preceded Housing First. Part of this work was supporting people who already had homes, but were struggling to maintain their tenancies or cope with the big changes to the lives they had known.
Following this, I worked with Housing First specifically supporting victims of domestic violence. It was evidence to show that the approach worked. And I could see how vital it is that women can access targeted, specialist support. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach out there.
“As soon as I saw that MASH were joining the pilot I jumped at the chance to apply.”
Why is the Housing First approach needed?
Sam continues: “If you don’t have certain formative experiences early in life, you don’t develop the skills. For instance, if you’ve never seen how a home is run before, if you’ve never had a bank account or managed bills. Or, if you’ve never seen someone cleaning or cooking meals, this will influence your life. We can sometimes take these things for granted.
We can help women to grow in confidence and develop some of these skills so there will come a time when they won’t need to call us for help anymore.
“We need to create strong boundaries, too. Our aim is not for people to become too reliant on support. The ultimate goals are independence and confidence.”
“It’s the honest truth that women experience the world differently,” says Ciara. “There are so many barriers and challenges they are up against and, because of all our collective experience, we understand what these are. For instance, all the people we work with are on Universal Credit and they are struggling to afford living costs.
Some women are eligible for Personal Independence Payments and we are waiting months and months to get them sorted. What are they supposed to do in the mean time? The system is very difficult to navigate. Part of our role is to keep pushing and jumping through hoops.”
Bianca adds: “Many women we work with have unmet mental health needs and are also using drugs and alcohol. These two things cannot be tackled in isolation but often people are in a chicken and egg situation. They’re told their mental health can’t be treated until their addiction is managed and vice versa.”
“One of the most game-changing aspects of GM Housing First is having our own dedicated Dual Diagnosis Practitioner,” adds Ciara. “She is a specialist in dealing with both mental ill health and drug and alcohol use. She is an advocate for the women we’re working with and will help us to bypass red tape and barriers, make referrals and build links with services so women can get the help they need to move forward.”
Sam continues: “When we hear people say that it was someone’s choice to take drugs in the first place, this just isn’t accurate. All the women we are working with have experienced significant trauma in their pasts. They are traumatised, struggling to cope, don’t know how to access support and are self-medicating to survive. These things are not separate issues. This is just one aspect of life, too.
“Women are also navigating physical ill health, poverty, violence, low confidence etc. The Housing First approach means we have the space and framework to work with women for the long term and understand how all these things interlink. It takes time but we all deserve to be well, be safe and to achieve our goals. We are all constantly in awe of everyone we work with, their strength and their resilience.
“A home is the stability a person needs to begin to address these challenges gradually. Without this, you can imagine how difficult it’s going to be for that person to thrive.
“Our role is so incredibly varied and we have to be ready for anything.
Sometimes the smallest thing can make the biggest impact on someone’s day – for better or worse.
“It’s challenging but we can see how Housing First, delivered with MASH’s gender and trauma-informed expertise, is changing people’s lives.”
For more information about MASH visit www.mash.org.uk