Staff Spotlight: Kalwant, BAME Tenancy & Outreach Support Worker

What do you do?

I support and empower people from BAME communities to engage with local organisations and community leaders. I help them develop confidence in accessing services they need across the health and wellbeing sector so they can sustain a tenancy. This helps to reduce homelessness, isolation, issues with mental health and benefits and any barriers they may have to access services they need.

What impact does your work have on someone who is at risk of or experiencing homelessness?

My work primarily impacts positively on the mental health and wellbeing of people I support. I work with members of the BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) communities who are dealing with frustration, depression and stress. I often meet people who are already vulnerable through mental illness or a relationship breakdown. Giving emotional and mental health support is a huge part of my role.

I understand how the system works, as well as the cultural issues surrounding these challenging areas, particularly how they inter-relate. When English isn’t your first language, you can easily become stuck in the system. I speak Punjabi and can understand Hindi and Urdu, so I can help people to navigate through the complex housing, benefits, mental health and support systems, which can be complicated and confusing.

Often my clients don’t fully understand the laws around their situation and feel they can’t explain what is happening to them. It’s my job to listen and get a full picture of their needs, so that I can speak to the right people that can help them. I bridge the gaps that other services are not able to and I try to access services, departments and organisations if they don’t respond to my clients. This advocacy work makes the difference between someone being heard and action being taken.

Twenty years ago, I was a single mum with three children. I suffered from depression. I tried to get support from social services but I didn’t meet their criteria. I have first-hand experience of trying to do something yourself and know how hard it can be when departments and services do not listen or get back to you. I want to make sure that people have someone to support them and give them the emotional support that they need. I wasn’t able to access this kind of support and I didn’t know how or who to help me. I feel that I am here due to my determination.

Can you give an example of a difference that you made to someone who accessed the services at Emmanuel House recently?

Forty four year-old Asim* was referred to a private housing project due to being homeless and because of his ongoing support and mental health needs.

There was a fire in Asim’s ground floor flat, which meant he had to move to one on the third floor. When he was referred to Kalwant, she could see straight away that this flat was unfit to live in. There were a number of health and safety hazards, no working electrics, no fire escapes or smoke alarms, an unhygienic bathroom and the electric hob wasn’t sealed. His mental health was really suffering. He felt he couldn’t move on with his life because of his dire housing situation.

Asim had contacted other agencies but had received no response. On his behalf, Kalwant contacted the fire brigade and Safer Homes to do an assessment on his flat. She is currently supporting him with his housing application and referred him to welfare rights to support him with his debts, council tax, PIP (personal independent payments) and housing payments. She also referred him to a drugs and alcohol service for additional support.

“Kalwant has always been available for support and for me to speak to. She always answers my calls, if not at the time she always returns my calls and apologises if she has missed my calls and explains to me why she couldn’t take the call. She always liaises with me when she has made contact with anyone, copies me into emails that she has sent to other agencies, and lets me be involved in any outcomes or issues that she is dealing with.”

Kalwant is also providing Asim with emotional support throughout the complex process.

“Whenever I am upset and stressed about anything, I will call Kalwant and she calms me down and very politely explains how to handle the situation, giving me the right advice. She has a calm, polite, understanding support approach, good listening skills. Thanks to Kalwant’s support, things are looking positive and moving forward.”

Twenty one -year-old Leo* has had mental health issues since he was 16 years old. When he was first referred to Kalwant five years ago, at their first appointment, which he attended with his mother, she could tell that he was suffering from a psychosis.

Leo’s mother: “I have known Kalwant in a professional capacity for five years, since she first started supporting my son with his housing application, accommodation and benefits. He had no money coming in and has had mental health issues since he was 16. He was previously involved with his local council’s mental health service, but she has enabled him to be able to support himself in the community.

When my son was 16, he was well and had a very good community psychiatric nurse, but when he left it went downhill and I was at my wit’s end. I was suffering from depression as no one was listening to my concerns about my son. As a black Caribbean woman I felt all the doors were closing in on me.

Then, thank God, I met a friend while out shopping. They saw the worry on my face, we got talking and I told her about my son and she referred me to Kalwant. Thank God she did. Kalwant answered the phone and was very understanding, polite, professional, she listened and didn’t give me any jargon. She explained how the referral works and arranged an appointment to see my son at my home. I was so relieved I made the contact.”

At the appointment, Kalwant explained the assessment process and did all the paperwork with them present. She explained that first she was going to liaise with the local mental health team and would support him with his PIP application, which had been going on for over a year. She filled out a Homelink application on his behalf to get him on the register for his own accommodation. She also explained why it was important for him to take his medication as she could tell that he was suffering with his mental health.

Kalwant tried to speak to the other professionals involved about his mental health, but she felt that no one listened.

In 2019, Leo was arrested with possession of Class A drugs and went to court. His mother said he really needed help and wasn’t well at the time of the arrest, but wasn’t listened to. Kalwant challenged his solicitor as they didn’t think he was being represented well enough. Kalwant also referred him to BACIN, a drug & alcohol recovery service for BME communities. Together they worked with him and ensured he was staying in a more stable temporary accommodation. After she insisted on a psychiatric assessment, it was concluded that he was mentally ill during the incident and should be in hospital, not prison.

After various attempts to reapply for PIP payments, working with the Welfare Rights team, Leo received all his back-dated payments from the previous year and is now receiving regular PIP payments.

“She engaged with me and my son, helping me to get the correct benefits for him, and helping him with his medication.”

“Kalwant is very encouraging and is able to motivate my son, when previously he was not engaging with other support from other agencies. She has built the trust with my son; she does not see any barriers in her work and does what she says she is going to do. She has good communication skills – she keeps in regular contact and gives you lots of reassurance in what she does. Kalwant is supportive and has such a caring and positive nature. She has understood my concerns around my son’s health and has given me coping strategies which I still use today.”

Kalwant also referred Leo to a local recovery college to support him with his mental health, a project that enabled him to engage with college, work and football. She continues to work with him, setting up assessments with doctors and, where necessary, speaking with his solicitor.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.