Episode 1 - Paula SeniorHow far would you go? Making Conversations about Homelessness Count
Paula Senior – YMCA Fund-Raising Officer
Making Conversations about Homelessness Count #Sleepout20
In our first episode, we speak to Paula Senior from the YMCA. Paula is a fund-raising officer and is currently preparing for the annual Sleepout to raise much needed funds for the night shelter, how covid has stretched them to the limits and how they have risen above the challenges faced by the homeless.
Please donate and support Wendy’s 12-year-old daughter sleeping out: (donations now closed)
To follow and support the YMCA in raising awareness please follow these links:
You will be moved by Paula’s pivotal moment – All about a boy.
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Full Episode Transcript
Transcription of full episode –
Making Conversations Count – Episode 1
Wendy Harris and Paula Senior
November 4th 2020
00:01:43: Covid-19 and 2020
00:04:27: History of the YMCA
00:06:25: Having a conversation
00:08:47: Sleep Out
00:11:47: Sleep Out 2019 Target
00:12:06: Winter Night Shelter
00:13:05: Join Wendy, and help out
00:14:50: Paula’s Pivotal Moment
00:22:21: Wendy’s Story
00:23:12: Where do you go to the toilet?
00:26:00: Reaching out to the YMCA
00:26:49: Final thoughts
Wendy Harris: Welcome to Making Conversations Count. Our podcast where we share inspirational stories from business leaders, and they tell us all about their pivotal moment. Today, I am really excited. I’ve got Paula Senior from the YMCA joining us, to share her pivotal moment. Hello, Paula.
Paula Senior: Hi, Wendy. Thank you very much for inviting me on here.
Wendy Harris: Now, tell everybody about the YMCA and how we first met.
Paula Senior: I worked for YMCA in Burton. We are an independent charity based in Burton‑on‑Trent, which covers homelessness, people at risk of homelessness, food bank, mediation. A whole breadth of services. I do fundraising, for YMCA Burton. I am passionate about the course.
Wendy you I met about three years ago, I think now. We started talking, met each other a few times. Then we’ve had some really good conversations haven’t we, about your work, what you do, what I do and life really.
Wendy Harris: Yes, a shout out to the LoveBiz and the lovely Sue Crooks that started that Ladies Network. Certainly, I’d heard of the YMCA, but I really had no idea about the work that the YMCA does in terms of homelessness. As you know, Paula, I’ve shared my story quite publicly. It is 21 years ago now that I was made homeless with a six-year-old round my legs and I was pregnant at the time. So, had I have known about the YMCA then, things could have been different, which is why I’m happy to support the YMCA now. I am guessing that this year has been an incredible and challenging time for you at the YMCA.
Paula Senior: Yes, absolutely. I mean it’s a very difficult time for lots of people, hasn’t it? The year that Covid came and changed everything. Obviously as a charity supporting some of the most vulnerable people in the community it has been particularly challenging. Not just on the basis of keeping everybody safe. There are 71 people that live with us, which is a considerable number of people. Age range from 18 to 64, and that is men and women, all vulnerable for a number of reasons. Some with some very complex needs, so being in lockdown for them is very difficult to understand and to cope with. Without all the other complex things going on in life. You know, we’ve all felt that haven’t we, with lockdown? It’s been particularly challenging at times.
For business as well, but from a charity point of view, aside from the wellbeing side and keeping everybody safe, we’ve had a massive massive drop in income because we had ten events cancelled, which obviously brings income into the charity. Food bank donations dried up overnight, literally. Then we rely completely on the support of our community, so churches. Groups like LoveBiz, networking groups who have always supported us with food bank collections. Obviously, could not meet anymore and therefore weren’t able to have a collection and donate food. So, the flip side of that is the demand for the food parcels went completely through the roof, because children were off school and families trying to feed children, navigating furlough, navigating and worrying about job losses; just surviving.
Having children at home, some of those that would have had meals provided in school. There was a massive impact on families. So, demand through the roof and supplies completely dropped. We have struggled. It has been challenging, yes, definitely.
Wendy Harris: Yes, looking after people physically by giving them somewhere safe to stay. You are looking after them by feeding them so nourishing them, but you are also having to take care of their mental wellbeing as well, aren’t you?
Paula Senior: Yes.
Wendy Harris: Because the emotional and financial strain that perhaps losing a job and a lot of this — you can’t lay blame anywhere, can you?
Paula Senior: No, no.
Wendy Harris: It’s really difficult because you’ve got to just take what’s happening and go with it, haven’t you?
Paula Senior: Yes, and I think also you will understand this as well, Wendy, like most of us do. When people are struggling, when there’s change anyway, without it being such a massive change that they may lose their job, they’re home-schooling. Someone they knew is poorly with Covid or just poorly anyway that’s navigating life. All these things compound to people’s wellbeing and mental health, don’t they?
Wendy Harris: Yes, because it’s not just about one person neither, it can be about a family and their extended family.
Paula Senior: Yes.
Wendy Harris: It is where does it stop? It’s such a complicated situation to be in. This is why I invited you on the show. I wanted the YMCA as a UK-wide charity. Is it global, Paula?
Paula Senior: It is global. In the UK specifically are 114 YMCAs.
Wendy Harris: Wow.
Paula Senior: That is just in the UK. We are all a separate charity in our right, we are all independent and we all offer a different level of service or provision. So, it is 176 years today the global movement of YMCA.
Wendy Harris: We’re getting a history lesson as well now.
Paula Senior: When that was set up by a man called George Williams in London in 1844, he had gone to London because his family had deemed he may get into the wrong crowd, if you like. So, it was the Industrial Revolution, probably the wrong crowd means perhaps going to see girls or hitting up with friends for beers. Nothing substantial like we might deem today.
He went to London as a young Christian man and realised that there wasn’t anywhere for people to meet, to be able to meet safely and talk or just to develop friendships and that’s how the YMCA formed originally. So, 176 years on, there are 114 separate YMCA’s now. Some YMCAs don’t offer any housing, but they do a lot of youth work, so around 18 to 25 years old is their real focus. Helping them to navigate, I guess, and give them support that they absolutely need to have a good future.
Wendy Harris: Yes, transition isn’t it, into adult life.
Paula Senior: It is.
Wendy Harris: That parents sort of say, “Go learn your own lessons”, to some extent.
Paula Senior: Yes.
Wendy Harris: Some say, “I’m going to do it on my own”, but who would have thought that way back then in the Industrial Revolution that George Williams said, “We’ve got nowhere that we can have a proper conversation that counts”.
Paula Senior: Absolutely, yes, that’s true Wendy, yes.
Wendy Harris: Yes, a man after my own values then as well. Who’d have thought we’d have found that out today.
Paula Senior: Yes.
Wendy Harris: I’m guessing that you must have difficult conversations with individuals as well as some really rewarding conversations, because it is not just the negative impact of being homeless or being out of a job. The work that the YMCA does, really does transform lives and you’ve got some real good success stories, haven’t you?
Paula Senior: Yes, totally. You’re absolutely right. It’s not all negative. It may feel like that when someone comes to us for help, whatever that help is. Whether it’s a food parcel, or a family that are navigating difficult courses with relationships at home. We work around homelessness, support and prevention really. So, a family where there is young people perhaps in their teens, 14, 15 struggling at home, for whatever reason. The family’s in conflict.
We offer a mediation service which again is a free service to anybody to access. I think at any one time there’s about 12 families open to receiving that support. That is all around conversation. So, the mediator will say he holds the safe space, for a conversation to be held respectfully and openly. Because where there’s conflict, that can’t happen. It becomes a blame game and people aren’t listening and don’t want to hear; but in the space that he holds and asks the questions so that people can listen and converse through conversation clearly. That’s part of his role.
Wendy Harris: It facilitates the change in behaviour, in attitude in mindset, in approach.
Paula Senior: It does.
Wendy Harris: To everything doesn’t it? Yes.
Paula Senior: Part of that service usually, what generally happens is that a mediator would meet both parties so the young person and their parent or the parents or sometimes it’s extended family members if the young person doesn’t live with parents. So, he will meet them both separately to talk to them about what they want to achieve. What their aim is as part of the mediation. Then they meet usually somewhere independent because that also takes away the emotion.
Now, of course, Covid’s changed that as well. So, he cannot go into their home and they can’t come into our site. So, those conversations are still taking place. They are taking place on Zoom, like many conversations now, because it is still critical that those conversations take place.
Wendy Harris: Keep that communication open is really important.
Paula Senior: Yes.
Wendy Harris: I know that you have different events that you do throughout the year by going to networking and encouraging people to bring food for the food banks and I know that you have done raffles as well. We have all brought gifts and everybody wants the Prosecco.
Last year I was involved for the very first time in one of your events, because some of the ladies said, “Let’s do the Sleep Out”, and you’d launched the sleep out in a graveyard. I went, “I’m only doing it if we’re going to go extreme”. It was a real-life changing night. It really brought home a lot of things. I think a couple of weeks ago I shared the video of the morning after I’ve not slept. It’s still getting views. I think it’s really important that it’s carrying on again this year, but there’s a difference to it this year because Covid has had to allow for some changes. So, Paula, tell us. How can we get involved in Sleep Out which is tomorrow?
Paula Senior: Anybody can take part in Sleep Out. It’s an event we’ve been running for many years. It’s our twelfth year this year, Wendy, and it is a key part of what we do. The main thing is it raises awareness of homelessness, which is absolutely key and the services we offer but also it raises much needed funds for our services to continue.
So, yes, flipped on the side. This year we’re going to a whole different level and it’s going to be a virtual event tomorrow. So, we’re asking people to take part. Still give up your bed for one night only. We’re asking people to sleep in their garden, they can sleep on their kitchen floor, sleep in their workplace maybe or their drive or their courtyard, whatever. Or even to sofa surf.
Wendy Harris: Yes.
Paula Senior: Because there are many, many hidden homeless people that sofa surf night after night after night. That have no fixed address, that have no secure home to go back to and don’t know sometimes from one night to the next where to go.
So, instead of all coming together and sleeping in the graveyard like you took part last year, or at Pirelli Stadium, we’re asking you to still do that. Give up your bed for one night but do it virtually. But we’ll still be connected Wendy. We’re still going to have those conversations that we had last year with everybody about why we do our work, why it’s important, why people are helping us. The case studies for the success stories for those that have asked for help and worked with us to change their lives, because it is life changing. It absolutely is, so, yes. Tomorrow 6th November and we’re live streaming through the night so that we’ve got people talking. We’ve got a busker playing called Chris Baldwin. He’s a local musician, brilliant guy. He would be with us normally, so he’s just going to be playing some tunes as well.
Wendy Harris: Keep spirits up, yes.
Paula Senior: Yes, we still need to be connected and that is really important to us, because we couldn’t do what we do without everybody’s help.
Wendy Harris: Absolutely. I know last year you set a target and you reached it. What was the target last year? What did you raise?
Paula Senior: Okay, so last year the target was £50,000 to get from the event. We raised £50,259, which is an incredible amount of money.
Wendy Harris: I know a big chunk of that goes towards the night shelter, doesn’t it, which is open over Winter for people to just come in from the cold.
Paula Senior: Yes, in the last couple of years we’ve operated what they called the Winter Night Shelter, which opens on 1 December and runs till 1 April. It’s the harshest nights of the Winter really, where people just come and spend the night. Safe place to stay, warm, hot food.
What we have been doing the last 12 months, has been working really really hard around prevention and working with the rough sleepers. To try and get them housed and to try and get them some stability to be in a place to live independently. To live independently, safely, without risk of losing their home. So, we’ve done a lot of work with people that were sleeping rough. Also, the night shelter so everybody that came to the night shelter we worked very closely with last year.
When Covid struck and we went into lockdown, we managed to get 18 rough sleepers temporarily housed overnight, within 24 hours.
Wendy Harris: That’s going to be important job for you to get involved with this year, because of course Winter’s fast approaching isn’t it, so I would like to let all our listeners know that me and my daughter — my daughter wanted to come to the graveyard last year but she was too young. She’s 12 this year.
Paula Senior: Yes, that’s right.
Wendy Harris: She made me promise that we did it together this year. We’ve basically said we’re going to set up camp in the office, which is the log cabin in the garden. It’ll be freezing.
Paula Senior: Yes.
Wendy Harris: And she’s asked for her school to help promote with the fundraising for that. I am sure she is going to be excited to take part with everybody else on the live streaming and to hear the busking. So, we’ll share the details of how you can help. If you feel that you can put your hand in your pocket for the cost of a Costa coffee, other brands are available. Everything helps.
Paula Senior: Sometimes people think that they have to donate a large amount of money or they have to do something really significant. Actually, for example, for somebody who has no birth certificate or no ID, because it’s been lost or stolen or whatever. It’s £12 to replace that. They can’t access any services until they have some ID. So sometimes the first point of call to help a rough sleeper is to get a replacement birth certificate. They have no money.
Wendy Harris: Yes, absolutely.
Paula Senior: So, we’re paying for the £12. So, sometimes just the cost of probably a couple of days lunch that people might have paid ordinarily, or sandwiches for the week or a couple of coffees in the week will make a difference to someone’s life, definitely.
Wendy Harris: Well, if we’re going to get kicked out the pubs at 10.00pm that extra pint.
Paula Senior: A couple of pints, yes.
Wendy Harris: Just throw it the YMCA’s way. I know it will make such a huge difference to what we do.
Paula Senior: It does, Wendy.
Wendy Harris: Going back to how we met and our love of conversation, I’m guessing that there must be a pivotal moment that changed your view on life that had an impact on what you’re doing now, perhaps. Paula, share with us what your pivotal moment is, please?
Paula Senior: Just a little bit of background. I used to be a safeguarding officer in an education setting. So, we are going back now probably six years or so, and I was supporting a young man who was thrown out of his parents’ home on his 16th birthday. Really nice young lad, a few issues going on in his life, but a really good lad.
I had a conversation with him probably most days that he attended and really got to know him. He was actually in quite an abusive relationship, but he was staying with a partner’s family and not having a great time. So, I’d support him regularly. I helped him to get some finances to get things together. He had nothing, just living with this family. So, I met him in September, fast forward to November I hadn’t seen him for a couple of days, and I’d been ringing him, leaving him messages. Wouldn’t answer and he turned up at my door. It was 12 o’clock, it was a Friday, and it was the first Friday of November. He came and he looked absolutely dreadful. “Do you want someone to go and get you a drink? Have you eaten?” He wouldn’t sit down; he was very edgy. He was kind of pacing round my office and he said, “I’ve come to say goodbye, I’ve tried to kill myself. I can’t go on, my parents don’t love me, I just can’t go on with life. I’m failing at everything”.
So, I did manage to get him to sit down for a minute. He was very very edgy and when you’re talking to somebody who’s reached this point, it’s often difficult to converse anyway. He showed me what he’d done to himself the night before. He’d tried to cut his wrists, it’s the most awful thing I’ve ever seen. I said, “Right, I’ll go and get you a drink, just sit and wait”. Well, he said, “No, I’ve come to say goodbye. I want to say thank you because you’ve actually listened to me. You have listened to me every time I’ve come in moaning, crying, telling you how I feel, and you’ve not judged me. You’ve just listened. Give me some advice, what to do etc, etc. So, I’ve come to say thank you”. I said, “Just wait, just wait”, I was trying to process, “What am I going to do. I need to keep here because I don’t want him to leave the building. I can’t obviously force him”. I said, “I’ll go and get you a drink”, “No, no, no, I’m going”, and with that he was gone.
Stormed out of the office, left the building and I had to obviously follow all the processes and the protocol. I had to ring the police, I had to submit his photo. He had no relationship with parents at that point. Then if I’m absolutely honest, I broke my heart because it was a young 16-year-old lad who needed just someone to give him some stability, to listen and help him through life. There’s only so much I can do as the safeguarding officer. So, he left the building and by coincidence, that was the night I was doing my first Sleep Out. I didn’t work for YMCA.
Wendy Harris: I was going to say, it has to be the anniversary tomorrow then.
Paula Senior: Yes, I had never done sleep out before, I was doing it that year with some team friends. Off he went. I also rang the YMCA, because I’d started to develop a relationship with them through my safeguarding leads to get them to come in and do some drop-in sessions. So, young people can go and have a chat, and break down some barriers about you know what we do and the help that’s available.
I had a call about 4.30pm that afternoon to say they’d picked him up. The police had found him outside his parents’ address. He had put a note through the door to say goodbye to them too. They’d picked him up, they’d taken him to hospital, and he’d had the help that he needed on that time. He went back home to live, actually, for a period of about three weeks, but in that time, I’d also made contact with the YMCA again, to see if he could be housed at that point. If something should break down. Now, he did move in with the YMCA, three weeks after.
He carried on with his studies. He did come and see me every time he was in college. He came in every time he attended, and he got through his qualifications and did brilliantly. That was a real moment, that conversation that we had although to me it felt like it could be his last day and to him, in his mind, it was. It wasn’t but I listened to him and I was listening not to just respond but to listen to what his needs were. What were his needs in that conversation? His needs were help, support, stability and that conversation allowed me to understand that and to find that for him, I guess. Support him to access that service.
I didn’t work for the YMCA at that point and never thought I would if I am honest. So, then fast forward a little bit, I left my job, took redundancy. Via a chance conversation the day before I left I was invited to the YMCA by the mediator, who had been working with me to say, “Come and have a cup of tea, and see what we do”. I thought I knew everything about what they did, obviously, but I didn’t. I had a cup of tea and he said some, “I just have a feeling we will meet again at some point”. Fast forward six months and I start work there through a chance opportunity and I absolutely love what we do.
I believe in what we do, and I believe in the life-changing opportunities that we can give to people because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it first-hand, absolutely. I see it all the time, I see the people that come in. That feel they have nothing and leave six months later with the world at their feet. With hope, that’s what we offer, hope.
Wendy Harris: Yes.
Paula Senior: Through conversation and through support.
Wendy Harris: You’ve given me goosebumps, Paula.
Paula Senior: It was a very difficult conversation.
Wendy Harris: It’s very clear that he’d identified somebody that would understand the subtext of what he was trying to say, because at 16 that maturity of conversation hasn’t developed yet, has it?
Paula Senior: No, that is true, Wendy, yes.
Wendy Harris: There is lots of emotion. By listening to him, you knew what steps to take. Even though he’d had gone home, you were already making the next steps available to him.
Paula Senior: Yes, totally.
Wendy Harris: Before he even knew that that was what was going to happen.
Paula Senior: Yes, absolutely. I saw him, actually, not so long ago. He was around and about, and he’s got a little family of his own now. I felt a bit like a proud mum really.
Wendy Harris: Yes, I mean that is testament to your actions and being able to react and to then have the conversation with the right people to help him as well.
Paula Senior: Yes.
Wendy Harris: I love that a chance conversation with the mediator was sowing a seed in your mind.
Paula Senior: I know, we did talk about that actually when we meet up. He says, “Do you remember when you came?” “Yes, I remember.” I never dreamt I would work there. Why would I? I would never dream that I would be working there.
Wendy Harris: Now, you are there. You have been there how long?
Paula Senior: Four and a half years now.
Wendy Harris: Four and a half years.
Paula Senior: Yes. It feels like forever, I’ve been there forever.
Wendy Harris: I bet it still feels like you’re learning every day.
Paula Senior: Always. Always, because everybody that we meet has a different story to tell. I couldn’t even begin to tell you all of the reasons why people need help. There’s many. We’re all individuals aren’t we, at the end of day.
Wendy Harris: Yes, yes.
Paula Senior: So, we all have our own reasons. The people that come to us for housing, again no two people are the same, they’ve all had different circumstances. I think the message for everybody is it could happen to any one of us.
Wendy Harris: At any time. As I say I was pregnant, at the time, I’d put my first marriage behind me. Left some gap, met somebody that I thought was my next forever and overnight from going to bed to waking up I was told to leave. In no uncertain terms.
Paula Senior: Yes.
Wendy Harris: My car was packed, “You can collect your stuff later”, and that was it. It was like, “What do you do? You’re in a daze”. All you can do is get in the car, and go because I’d got my daughter, she was six.
Paula Senior: Yes.
Wendy Harris: I was just fortunate that I had somewhere to surf.
Paula Senior: Yes, but not everybody has that.
Wendy Harris: Yes, not everybody does. So, I came close. So, I say technically I was homeless, and I was, to all intents and purposes I had no fixed abode.
Paula Senior: Definitely.
Wendy Harris: But I was very fortunate that I had support and I just think of all those people that don’t. There was one of our mutual friends that said being a woman in the Winter, where do you go to the toilet?
Paula Senior: Yes.
Wendy Harris: It is the most basic of things that sleeping out for one night brings home to you.
Paula Senior: It does. I think Wendy, you will probably agree. What I took away from that Sleep Out that first night when I was sitting at 2.00am in the morning, wide awake because I was freezing cold, even though I was layered up. Just listening to the sounds around me, I was very very safe because I was in a stadium with lots of people, but I felt quite vulnerable and I would be terrible. I’d be frightened to death sleeping rough.
Wendy Harris: The compounding idea of sleeping rough was that we were sat in the church drinking tea at 4.00am because you once get up and need to go to the toilet, and you’ve got a toilet to go to, the idea of actually going back to sleep is quite hard.
Paula Senior: Yes.
Wendy Harris: So, you sleep a little on and off, but if you add that up, a weeks’ worth of sleeping like that. I was battered after one night.
Paula Senior: Yes.
Wendy Harris: A week and what that does to your capacity to think clearly, I can’t imagine.
Paula Senior: Absolutely.
Wendy Harris: Make that a month, make that a Winter, make that years of continual homelessness and you are then a shadow of your former self.
Paula Senior: Feeling very disconnected from life, really.
Wendy Harris: Yes, mental health is one of my pet passions. I will do anything to support that and anybody and help anybody, so we’d better get an early night tonight, Paula.
Paula Senior: Yes, make sure you’ve got the sleeping bag.
Wendy Harris: We’re going to need it, yes.
Paula Senior: Yes. I am sleeping on my kitchen floor, I am. That’s my plan for tomorrow.
Wendy Harris: Are you?
Paula Senior: Yes.
Wendy Harris: I wish you luck and I look forward to joining you on the livestream with Alice and everybody else that’s joining. We’ll stick the links to the YMCA fundraising page. I know it’s on Virgin Money, I think?
Paula Senior: Virgin Monday Giving that’s right, yes.
Wendy Harris: I know my personal page is the WAG Works because it’s named after the office, but you can go directly to the YMCA. Honestly, I don’t care who gets credited with the money so long as the money comes in. That’s the most important thing.
Paula Senior: Thank you.
Wendy Harris: Paula, I really thank you for sharing that pivotal moment with us. I applaud you for sharing. I’ll be thinking of that anniversary tomorrow as well. Also, sending a little prayer up to say, “Do you know what, thank goodness he’s got his own family to look after now”. That’s made all the difference.
Paula Senior: Yes. Thank you, Wendy.
Wendy Harris: If anybody wants to reach out to you, Paula, where can they find you?
Paula Senior: You can call me on 07754 045869 or my email address is email@example.com. Of if anybody needs any help which is obviously crucial as well, for anything, the number is 01283 547211 and we’re based in Burton town centre, opposite the Asda Island. We say it’s a grey curbed brick building, with flats either side. Someone’s there 24/7, the door never closes. We are always there for anyone.
Wendy Harris: If you know anybody that needs help pass those numbers on. That’d be great. Thank you again, Paula.
For those listeners that are tuning after 6 November, we survived the Sleep Out, we’re still raising funds for the YMCA so please check out those donation links if you can. A pound is all we’re asking. Anymore is fantastic.
We’ll keep you updated and if you follow us on social media, we will give you a total nearer to Christmas when all the penny counting has been done. Thank you so much.
Thank you to all of my guests for sharing their contact details. When you reach out to them don’t forget to mention the podcast show, so that they know exactly where you have come from. That will help them out.
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