Homeless people are among the most vulnerable groups in society – indeed while the average person in the UK can expect to live well past 75, the average rough sleeper in Britain will be lucky to live to celebrate their 45th birthday.
For St Mungo’s worker Martin*, who’s been working in the sector for several years now, helping the homeless is a labour of love – one that he persists with despite the extreme levels of stress he and his colleagues must deal with on a daily basis.
‘Crisis after crisis’
“You start with a plan for the day, and it never turns out according to plan,” he explains to UniteLive. “Every day, we’re dealing with crisis after crisis that we have to respond to immediately.
“You may have a client who has a history of severe mental health issues who needs to be in a psychiatric hospital but has gone missing so we have to go out and find him. Or you get a call from a client who is suicidal and says he’s going to kill himself imminently. Or a woman who is in a domestic violence situation who needs to be brought to safety immediately.”
Martin says he and his colleagues must respond to such crises while also doing daily outreach shifts, which involve making contact with rough sleepers who’ve been referred to the charity by members of the public.
“Our outreach rotas start early at 6am. We’re given an area with a list of maybe 10 or more people to target as well as visiting people already in our system. As a co-ordinator of an outreach team, I also have to do follow-up work, liaising with other parties such as local authorities and allocating clients to different staff, among other duties.”
The job in itself is challenging, Martin explains, but it’s been compounded by increasing workloads.
“We’re dealing with caseloads of 40 or more per team member – in a previous homeless charity I worked with, I never had more than around 20 cases at a time. It’s got to the point it’s nearly impossible to do the sort of follow-up work that’s vital for supporting our clients. You come to work some days and you’re just paralysed by all you have to do.”
Still, the work he says can be immensely rewarding.
“When you work with someone who’s finally secured accommodation and they’re crying they’re so happy; or when a client beats their addiction – it really makes the job worth it. It’s a really gratifying feeling to know that our work very literally saves people’s lives.”
But while Martin and his colleagues go the extra mile day-in and day-out to support our most vulnerable, they’re failing to get support in return from their employer St Mungo’s.
Punished for being sick
“The job is so stressful that we at St Mungo’s have some of the highest rates of people off sick in the sector,” Martin explained. “But even if we do become very ill, many of us are afraid to take sick leave because we’re effectively punished for it.”
St Mungo’s onerous sick policy means once staff reach what’s called a ‘level 3’ sickness absence, they may be dismissed.
“Personally I’m nearly at a level 2 already. I’m genuinely worried about being sacked if I become ill again.”
The charity’s sick policy is only one of a number of issues that have prompted St Mungo’s staff to take unprecedented strike action next week from Monday, March 16.
Another major problem, Martin explains, is the way in which St Mungo’s management tore up a Unite-negotiated agreement meant to protect pay, terms and conditions, and also help run an effective service.
Called the junior staffing cap, the agreement limited the ratio of junior staff to more senior staff, to ensure that the service they provide is safely run by experienced workers.
“When you hire more and more junior staff at lower pay, what happens in practice is these inexperienced, often younger workers end up informally taking on some of the work of senior staff. They’re totally out of their element and they’re certainly not motivated to take on senior-level work being paid so little.”
“It’s blindingly obvious that this is a cost-cutting measure meant to be a race-to-the-bottom for all of us.”
A moral issue
For Martin, it’s not any one specific issue that’s motivated him to vote for strike action but rather management’s unrelenting tactics that have completely destroyed his trust in them.
“It’s as if all they care about is their brand and not the actual service and staff. They don’t listen to us. They spend tens of thousands of pounds on PR, have an executive team earning £700,000 between them, then they try to cut costs everywhere else. They have taken a very heavy-handed anti-union approach amid this dispute, banning union meetings at work. And then on top of everything they punish us for being sick.”
Highlighting the 2018 scandal, where it was revealed St Mungo’s management passed on details of its migrant clients to the Home Office to facilitate deportations, Martin said the dispute has also become a moral one.
“After the story first came out, in effect dragging our names through the mud, management repeatedly denied and denied the allegations. And now months later they admit it and apologise. Now we have clients who simply don’t trust us anymore; who don’t want to engage with us. It’s had a huge impact on staff morale.”
Martin urged management to see sense and meet their very reasonable demands.
“We’re not asking for much at all,” he said. “We just want to be listened to. We want to run a safe, effective service and we want the support to do this. Many of us who are striking are doing so for the first time. We’re nervous and taking strike action doesn’t sit comfortably with many. But we’re even more scared to imagine the future of the service if we don’t stand up and fight.”
*Name changed to protect privacy
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