Undercover boss

Recently, our CEO, Matthew Heasman, spent the night in our Transition Service, which provides emergency accommodation and support for people facing homelessness for the first time. The following is his account of the experience:

As someone who’s still somewhat new to the charity sector, I wanted to get a better understanding of what it is like for someone who is homeless or vulnerable to use our services. In order to put myself in the shoes of a service user, I decided to experience the Transition Service first hand. While this would, in many senses, only be a superficial experience, as I would stay for just one night, it would nonetheless give me valuable insight into what our service users can expect to go through.

A few weeks ago, I turned up at Shady Lane Police Station at about 9:15 pm. The station was empty, except for me and the officer at the front desk. I told her that I had had a domestic altercation at my home in Borehamwood. I had walked from Borehamwood to Watford without money or a place to stay. Having only recently moved to Borehamwood, I didn’t have a network of friends or anyone I could stay with. I had of course made this story up. Nonetheless, my anxiety was real. I didn’t have to try hard to feign distress. Buying into my own story, I worried just how I would get through the night.

The officer was extraordinarily compassionate. Her gentle and reassuring demeanour managed to calm me down. She was astonished that I had walked all the way from Borehamwood,  though I hadn’t really. After hearing my story, she rang New Hope’s Transition Service. A staff member answered the phone but told her that unfortunately the Sanctuary was full that night and there were no beds for me. She then suggested I try other services in Hemel Hempstead or St Albans. At this point, I had to come clean and reveal my actual role within New Hope, and that I was trying to get a first hand experience of the Transition Service. I was very glad that we were the only two people there, if anyone else was in the waiting room it could have been quite embarrassing!

Thankfully she took my admission in very good heart and was willing to proceed further. She ran my name through the police database to check if I had a criminal record – fortunately I didn’t! She then helped me complete a referral form, which included questions such as whether I had any addictions, or if domestic violence had taken place. As we proceeded I was struck by her pleasantness and warmth; the anxiety and anticipation I had was quickly dispelled. Afterwards I took the form and made my way to the Sanctuary through the streets of Watford on a cold Friday night.

When I got there the staff at the Sanctuary all recognised me, but I had been asked to be treated like any other service user. I went through the induction, which involved sitting down with a staff member and filling in forms. The staff were unfailingly kind and professional. The residents were also very welcoming, although they were initially confused as to why I was there even though the Transition Service was full. They may have recognised me from times when I had visited the Haven.

I sat in the communal lounge and was given a glass of orange squash. I spent the time chatting with service users. They all had their own story. There was a lorry driver who had fallen on hard times. A man who had just gotten out of prison and needed support. A woman who had ended up sleeping rough as a result of a relationship breakdown. I thought about how tomorrow I would be going home, while they would remain in the Sanctuary, or else be back on the streets, but I was comforted by the quality of service offered in Transition.

At 10pm it was time for people to set up their camp beds. There was a real sense of community and mutual support. Other transition users helped me get bedding to make my bed and I was touched by their eagerness to help.When the time came to go to sleep we said goodnight to each other, like we were on a camping trip. I felt very fortunate; the Sanctuary was warm and safe, the beds were clean and very comfortable. I slept well.

In the morning, I had breakfast, chatted some more with the residents and then left for the Haven, helping other service users to carry over that morning’s quantity of donated ‘Pret’ sandwiches. I enjoyed a superb bowl of porridge in the warm and welcoming environment of the Haven.

I took away several things from my experience:

  • A renewed admiration for the staff, who were incredibly professional and sympathetic and managed to keep the Sanctuary running smoothly despite my unexpected visit.
  • A deeper respect for our service users, who demonstrated resilience and cheerfulness in spite of so much adversity as well as a strong communal spirit.
  • Gratitude for our ties to the local police, for their patient compassion towards people in need of support.

My night in the Transition Service was an overwhelmingly positive experience and increased my understanding as well as my appreciation for the remarkable work being done through the Transition Service. I hope that this story gives our supporters insight into what the Transition Service involves and dispels some of the fears that people in their hour of need might have about reaching out or asking for help.

Alex Charlton