A day in the life of an On Street Support Officer

Published: Thursday, 22 December 2022

Meet Paul Byrne. Paul is a hero. He doesn’t wear a cape and run into burning buildings to rescue people.

No, Paul is one of the many unsung heroes we read so much about during the Covid 19 pandemic - a key worker who spends his time with some of the most vulnerable in society.

Paul is an On Street Support Officer, working with rough sleepers and homeless people in the borough.

We spent a day with Paul to see how he helps rough sleepers on one of the coldest days of the year, when the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) was activated last week (15 December 2022).

The severe weather emergency protocol, or SWEP, provides accommodation for rough-sleeping, street homeless when temperatures are predicted to fall below zero for an extended period.

Paul Byrne has lived in Romford for 14 years and worked for Havering Council for over two years. He is part of a small team of dedicated professionals, co-funded by Havering and the Greater London Authority (GLA), who deal with rough sleepers within the London Borough of Havering. 

Our day starts with Paul speaking to Sharon, the team’s admin support officer. Sharon reads through the rough sleeper inbox each day and advises Paul of the locations where rough sleepers have been reported.

Anyone can report a rough sleeper either through a dedicated mailbox or via Streetlink – a London-wide rough sleeper network that helps support local authorities in helping to get homeless people off the streets. 

Once we have a list for the day, we travel with Paul to these locations, where he can assess any street homeless person he might find to get them off the streets and into a safe temporary shelter. 

Paul tells us “Many of the people who are street homeless or rough sleeping have complex needs, such as drug or alcohol addictions, troubled backgrounds, mental health and physical health conditions.

"Some people are broken, life has given them a kicking and they have sometimes made poor choices, we just need to lift them out of that situation”.

“Many of the people who are street homeless or rough sleeping have complex needs, such as drug or alcohol addictions, troubled backgrounds, mental health and physical health conditions."

When asked what it is that makes him want to go out in freezing temperatures looking for people, Paul answers: “It’s about doing the right thing, becoming homeless is much easier than people think.

"In fact, many people are just a couple of pay packets away from being homeless themselves.

"Add to that an addiction or poor mental health and it's easy to see how some people end up on the street. 

“My job is to lift them up, build a relationship and do what I can to get them into accommodation and supported by the rest of the team. Sometimes it can take two or three visits just to get them to talk to me”.

Paul explains that there are several barriers that make it more complicated for us to house individuals. They must have a link to the borough and must be eligible for public funds. 

Things become more complicated when there is no local link or public funding eligibility, usually in cases such as a foreign national.

“Despite what you might hear in the media, the idea that an asylum seeker is automatically given a house when entering the country is a myth,” Paul says. 

“Sometimes, where there is no local link, it means referring them to another borough or a charity. In most cases where we establish that someone has no right to public funds, it becomes an issue for the Home Office, not the Council.

"We will refer them to a homeless charity that supports foreign nationals with no access to funds, and they will usually act on their behalf with the Home Office.”

“Not everyone who is eligible for help wants it” says Paul

Paul speaks with passion and pride in his role. Havering has one of the most effective rough sleeping teams in London, working closely with partner agencies such as the NHS, Police and social landlords, helping some of the most vulnerable in society.

The Council not only tries to get them off the streets but helps them to manage their complex needs, sustain their tenancy and build up their confidence and self-respect.

Unfortunately, it’s not an easy task at any stage of the process. “Not everyone who is eligible for help wants it,” says Paul, “our job is to offer support, gain their trust and build on our initial engagement.

"We then hope they see that life can be better, that life can be different. Unfortunately, some people don’t want to change and don’t want to engage. 

“The vast majority of the people we deal with have complex needs, they can’t maintain the accommodation we provide and end up back on the streets - despite having key workers who engage, advise and support them.

"Those are the complex needs cases and it takes the whole team to support those individuals.”

As we walk in the sub-zero temperatures, we speak about some of the frustrations Paul comes across in his role – specifically around the issue of street beggars.

He says, “I see people I’ve worked with, who I know have accommodation and are in receipt of benefits and who are being supported by our team, still begging in the street.

"They are taking advantage of the generous folk of Romford, who give them money when they can’t afford it. 

“I just want to scream at them ‘noooo!’ Giving them money can be like giving them drugs or alcohol because that’s what many will spend it on. And that’s before you even consider professional beggars – those with a home to go to, who prey on unsuspecting members of the public.

“So we shouldn’t give money to the homeless?” we ask. 

“No, I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is by giving it directly to the person begging, you may be inadvertently paying for their next fix, their next drink.

"By doing that, you’re preventing them from accepting help. Unintentionally, you’re enabling them, stopping them from starting on the cycle of recovery. 

“Listen, I’m not having a go at generous people, but there is a need to educate them on how to give responsibly, so they understand the consequences of good intentions.

"They mean well and even our team spend their own money on drinks and food for some people, especially after we hear what life has thrown at them. What I’m trying to say is there are better ways to help and our team is looking into ways in which the public can feel involved.”

So how can we help? 

There are lots of ways to help without giving money directly to the individual, such as making a donation to homeless charities such as Crisis at Christmas, the Salvation Army, and Hope 4 Havering to name a few. 

If you have the time, you could volunteer at one of the charities, which support homeless people, or even with the Council directly.

“We have a whole department in the council who coordinate volunteers,” Paul says. “Even just buying them a sandwich and a cup of tea is better than giving them money. By giving them cash, you’re potentially killing them with kindness”.

After a cold morning of walking around Romford town centre, we parted company. The rest of Paul’s afternoon is taken up by appointments with vulnerable clients who he has already helped to get off the streets.

After just a morning in the cold, it is clear that there is much more to caring for rough sleepers and street homeless than first meets the eye.

We don’t see all of the support workers that are there to support the person under the blanket, or the individual circumstances that led them there in the first place.