Spring 2019

I am humbled and honoured to become the CEO of WLM. I have spent 20 years volunteering and working in the charitable sector following redundancy from a trader support role with Credit Suisse bank in March 1999. I had spent the previous 5 years following university working in financial services in the UK and Australia. Yet city life was truly not for me. I felt a calling to help those that I had walked by so often on my way to work. People living on the streets in the most challenging of circumstances. I used my redundancy to change sectors and change my life.  

My first permanent charity role was as Campaign Manager of Business Action on Homelessness, a Business in the Community Campaign. This coincided with a significant move by the new Labour government to tackle homelessness. The Rough Sleepers Unit (RSU) was developed and headed by the former Deputy Director of Shelter, Louise Casey. The main commitment of the RSU in 1999 was to reduce rough sleeping in the UK by two thirds by 2002. I spent two years engaging businesses in this agenda, looking at ways in which the corporate world could be motivated to end homelessness.

In order to get closer to the people I wanted to help, I joined youth homelessness charity DePaul Trust in 2001 and also became much closer involved in supporting the work of the RSU. The initiative took a very direct role to shake up the sector.  Most importantly it galvanised engagement between government, local government, the charitable sector and the wider public. This whole society approach focusing on improving systems drove the initiative and got people around the table.

After a lot of long days, hard work and challenge the reduction of two thirds of rough sleeping numbers by 2002 was achieved. This was significantly down to the leadership of the RSU but also everyone committed to ending homelessness. Conversations began at that time in the sector of getting to no one sleeping rough in the UK with the establishment of the Homelessness Directorate following the RSU at the then Department for Communities & Local Government.  

However as with so many targets that are achieved, once the initial goal has been hit the energy and motivation dissipates and the circumstances are not the same. Other issues in society come to the fore. I continued to support young people into accommodation and employment at the rebranded DePaul UK becoming their national Head of Services in 2005.

Energy of a very different kind came in the form of Boris Johnson becoming London Mayor in 2008. He declared in February 2009 than he would end rough sleeping in London and linked this with the coming Olympics in 2012. In June 2009 I joined The Passage as Deputy CEO.

A number of initiatives were started at this time by the GLA but perhaps the one that resonates to this day is the concept of ‘No second night out’ (NSNO). This developed an approach to ensure that new people coming to the street did not spend a second night out. They were able to access a centre called a HUB through the outreach teams where their needs would be assessed.

At The Passage our outreach team worked closely with NSNO and further work was developed by Westminster City Council to ensure that tailored responses were developed for those new to the street, returning to the street following a previous experience or long term and established in their street based lifestyle. We wanted to ensure that our responses were as unique as those we met.

The wave of positivity that 2012 and the Olympics brought to the UK did not extend to the mission to end homelessness. The financial crisis of 2008-09 and the new austerity-focused coalition government meant that the resources that might have helped the UK to move towards no people rough sleeping were either exhausted or withdrawn. The Passage experienced significant cuts.

The battle to respond to the needs of an ever growing street population defined my time at The Passage. Rough sleeping in the UK has grew by 170% 2010 to 2018 according to government street count figures. Behind every statistic individual people were experiencing incredible hardship.

At The Passage during this time we focused on a casework approach to develop options for everyone we met including more often than not providing a reconnection route away from central London. Our focus was to try and end each individual’s homelessness and not just manage it by trying to reduce their need to visit our day centre and not create long term relationships. With those people who we could help relatively quickly we focused on supporting into work or volunteering and placed in backpacker hostels. For those with more complex needs we established a month-long stay centre funded by Westminster to work on a permanent route off the street. It was only the long term rough sleeping individuals that the slow journey away from services was reviewed each and every day.

This growth in people on the streets has been to a number of factors but of course people fall hard when the safety net in society is removed. During my time at The Passage we felt the reduction in available services for addiction and mental health particularly acutely as well as the impact of spice (synthetic cannabis). The charity developed mental health and dual diagnosis specialisms to respond to those coming through the doors each day as we experienced more incidents. The daily challenge of the work culminated in a major incident in June 2018 where an individual under the influence of spice was responsible for extensive damage to the centre and assaulted members of staff before Police intervention. This was the most challenging day in the almost 40 year history of the organisation but is a stark reminder for us at WLM to ensure that the safety of staff, volunteers and the people using our services is the foundation to everything that we do. I am committed wholeheartedly to this. 

Despite the distraction of Brexit, the need to tackle the numbers of people on the street now has some movement in government with the establishment of the Rough Sleepers Initiative at the now Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Led by Jeremy Swain, ex CEO of Thames Reach, there is again a target with the government’s commitment to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it altogether by 2027.

Through the Westminster Homeless Action Together Day Centre Collaboration project WLM will be working closely with The Passage and The Connection at St Martin’s to see where WLM Seymour Place can be most impactful on supporting this commitment from 2019 to 2022 and beyond. Our mission at WLM is that we empower people affected by homelessness poverty and trauma to live more fulfilling lives. This is incredibly relevant for the challenge ahead.  

All of our services prevent homelessness for people be it through advice, accommodation, supporting people with addictions or through high-quality counselling.  WLM has the opportunity to join the movement just as so many did in 1999 to make these targets collectively owned so that no one has to sleep on the streets in the UK. If we can learn from the past then the future should be about committing to make our contribution. I will give my all to the role of supporting WLM to ending each individual’s homelessness as part of this movement. This time it should be for good.

Roger Clark