Striking Workers Say Homeless Charity Has Lost Its Way

‘It feels like senior management are trying to cause homelessness and destroy lives.’

by Polly Smythe

21 June 2023

St Mungo's workers on a picket line. @SMUnite on Twitter
St Mungo’s workers on a picket line. @SMUnite on Twitter

Workers at homelessness charity St Mungo’s have voted to take indefinite strike action, Unite announced on Monday. The strike is over the imposition of a 1.75% pay rise in 2021, increased to a “pitiful” pay offer of 2.25% this April – a real terms pay cut, given spiralling inflation.

One St Mungo’s worker and Unite rep told Novara Media that conversations with management had been fractious, and with a pay offer looking unlikely, “we are now in position of having to escalate as much as possible”. 250 workers had signed up to the union since the start of the dispute, they said.

But while the dispute centres on a pay deal, it has brought to light workers’ anger that the charity has lost its way. Staff told Novara Media how they were being burned out by an organisation which has increased spending on highly paid executives and fostered a questionable relationship with the Home Office – all of which is resulting in a worse service for those the charity is trying to help.

Today, the organisation provides shelter for over 3,000 people every night and runs 1,317 different projects in London, Bristol, Brighton and Oxford. Getting people off the streets, and then keeping them off the streets, requires St Mungo’s workers to take on a huge and unpredictable variety of tasks.

St Mungo’s outreach workers have to deal with medical emergencies, such as overdoses, mental health crises, substance misuse, as well as self-injury and suicide, and long term chronic, physical health concerns.

A shift could involve accompanying a client to a GP appointment, or searching for a client in withdrawal who has been spotted yelling at passers-by. In one recent incident in London, a client had been injecting into their thigh, when their femoral artery became infected and burst. By applying pressure and securing a rapid response from emergency services, staff were able to save the client’s life.

Those tasks have been made more difficult in recent years by deteriorating working conditions. When Zak Cochrane, 37, started as an outreach worker in Westminster in March 2020, there were 16 staff members working the patch. Now, despite a sharp increase in the number of rough sleepers, the same area is covered by eight outreach workers.

“In the summer of 2020, when I had clients who were denied Universal Credit, I was able to support them to put in an appeal,” said Cochrane. “Now, we just don’t have this capacity to offer that same level of support and detailed casework, because we’re covering for colleagues or getting pulled onto street shifts.”

When staff leave, their posts tend to remain unfilled, staff said. Existing staff are forced to take on the work, which leads to burnout, and an increasingly rapid turnover of staff.

As a result, service offered to clients has deteriorated. “One client said to me, ‘why should I talk to you, when you’re going to piss off after three months anyway?’” said Frances Whitehead, 24, a high support needs hostel coordinator.

“You are trying to create a relationship in which people are willing to be honest and see you as someone to invest in,” said Alex Latcham-Ford, 28, a Housing First officer. “Clients feel like professionals are summoning a kind of trauma from them, just so they can put it in their notes.”

“We’ve turned into a conveyor belt, which is terrible for clients, who are having to explain their traumatic experiences again, and again,” said Cochrane.

Despite the highly stressful nature of the job, staff feel that senior management expect them to make up for gaps in funding and recruitment with their passion for the job. “There was a senior manager that made a comment like, ‘if you haven’t burned out at St Mungo’s within a year, you’re obviously not working hard enough’,” said Whitehead.

It’s not only the struggle to recruit and retain workers that’s damaging clients. Increasingly, the recovery-focused philosophy that drew staff to St Mungo’s is being replaced by a corporate short-termism.

The rapid expansion of highly paid senior management – from seven in 2013 to 32 now – means that funds flowing into the organisation are increasingly directed away from vulnerable clients and towards six-figure salaries. The spiralling of average pay for the charity’s Mungo’s chief executives – up from £107,000 to more than £189,000 – has riled frontline workers, who typically earn around £26,000.

The St Mungo’s headquarters are at Thomas More Square, a glassy corporate building in the City of London that previously housed the News of the World.

It’s a world away from the high support needs hostel Whitehead works at. “Our services are literally falling apart,” she said. “Somebody threw a brick through our big glass reception door, and it wasn’t repaired for months. We just had to tape it up.”

“I felt like I was working for a charity back in 2016,” said Leigh Fontaine, 37, who works as a service manager for a project in Lewisham. “Increasingly, I feel like I’m working for a corporation. It feels like a tug of war between what you know the client needs, and what senior management are telling you the client needs.”

Fontaine was recently asked by senior management to serve an eviction notice to a client in custody who’d fallen behind on their rent. They told Novara Media that they had also been asked to begin the rent recovery process preceding eviction against a client who had been placed in a medically induced coma.

“I have lived experience of homelessness myself,” said Fontaine. “I used to be a Saint Mungo’s client 10 years ago. Fundamentally, this is absolutely against everything that I joined the sector to do.

“Our tagline is ‘ending homelessness and rebuilding lives.’ At the moment, it’s a joke between me and my team that it feels like senior management are trying to cause homelessness and destroy lives.”

A St Mungo’s spokesperson said they are unable to comment on “individuals’ case histories or hearsay quotes from staff.”

This tension between frontline staff and senior management isn’t new. In 2019, a misdirected email from previous CEO Howard Sinclair revealed that the charity was working with a top PR consultancy firm specialising in crisis management communications on a strategy to “stop more people joining” the union and “erode [its] support.”

Then came the appointment of Emma Haddad as CEO last November. Haddad – whose salary St Mungo’s refused to disclose when Novara Media asked – had worked as a civil servant since 2009, working as director general for asylum and protection at the Home Office.

Haddad quit her Home Office role last October, a day after a charter airline hired to remove asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda pulled out of the scheme over negative publicity. Many St Mungo’s clients are migrants; that someone complicit in an asylum system that directly impacts their lives caused outrage among workers.

Haddad isn’t the only member of the Home Office to join St Mungo’s. Sean Palmer, was hired this month as Director of Transformation, from the Home Office after a six-year stint at the department.

Workers pointed out that the appointment was particularly alarming given St Mungo’s shameful history with the Home Office. In 2018, the Guardian reported that the charity had shared information about migrant rough sleepers with the Home Office which in some cases led to deportations. St Mungo’s denied it at first, but a year later admitted it and apologised.

While the charity has allowed workers to air their grievances during a session run by the charity’s anti-racism network and Unite in January, it didn’t leave staff satisfied.

Haddad refused to meaningfully engage with questions about her past employment, workers said. “Unfortunately she shut down a lot of the conversation on her home office connections”, said Fontaine. “It was not what I would have expected from a CEO handling a difficult conversation.”

Workers say the strike will continue until they get a better pay deal. But underlying the dispute are wider concerns about the political direction of not only St Mungo’s, but the homeless sector as a whole. “If things proceed as they are now,” said Latcham-Ford, “in five- or ten-years’ time, these aren’t going to be meaningful jobs. So this is a fight for these kinds of roles even existing.”

Emma Haddad, Chief Executive of St Mungo’s, said: “It was unexpected to hear that Unite the Union has extended its period of strike action indefinitely.

“We are in the middle of discussions aimed at finding a solution and had a constructive meeting with Unite representatives on 12 June.

“Bringing an end to this unprecedented period of industrial action remains our key priority, so we can all focus on working together to support people at risk of, or recovering from, homelessness.”

Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.

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