Bringing hope where there is despair
The Whitechapel Mission daycentre has been offering services to the homeless for more than 135 years, from the basic physical needs of food, showers and clothing, to advice and advocacy with a huge emphasis placed on empowering people to leave the streets and start a new life. These sessions are predominately male attended and is quite intimidating for women to feel comfortable or even walk through the door to access the services we offer.
Having a "Women's Centre" helps solve this problem and this service attracts different groups of women of different ages, cultures and social backgrounds - people who are homeless, street prostitutes, addicts and others who feel lonely and are trying to live on a basic income.
They come together every Friday from 12 noon - 3:00pm and work with each other, building a strong community within themselves. It is THEIR day, they are encouraged to have an input into the menu, the activities and how the group is steered, with gentle guidance from the all female staff team.
It gives them a chance to be themselves, to be women without having to play up to and flatter men; bonding with each other to achieve a sense of well being, self worth and value. It empowerers them as a group, giving them dignity and self confidence whilst helping each other to succeed.
We start at 12 noon with a hot cooked lunch around a communal table, chatting about the week that's gone and welcoming the week ahead.
At 1pm we begin our 'get living' programme, maybe its Jewellery making, or making thumb pots or greeting cards. The activities have to be simple but effective; simple so they don't feel as though they have failed "yet again" but effective so they feel they have achieved something worthwhile.
And they love their Bingo which they insist on playing once a month with great enthusiasm!
There is an opportunity to discuss individual problems with professional staff, both from our own staff team and from outside agencies are about to assist people with sorting their problems. The aim is not to sort the problems, but to assist the individuals resolve their problems themselves.
Many of the group were denied the attention of Mum throughout their childhood; a good example of this - we made Fairy cakes one week, the type of activity where you would have mums attention when you are young; the recipe instructions began with "cream together the butter and the sugar". Several of the ladies came and said, "sorry we can't do this, we haven't any cream". Hence we now check and change any instructions to put it into their language.
The staff team get a fantastic experience from working with the ladies and are constantly learning and building new relationships each week. Ladies day is about feeling free, escaping the harsh realities of their normal day. We have fun; we sing and dance whilst doing the activity, pure escapism. Don't get me wrong, it is not all fun, sometimes they drive us insane with the tantrums, but hey, that's life for you.
At 2pm the ladies help to pack away, clean down and we then start the clothing session. The clothes have been donated by people from all over the country and have been sorted, folded, hung onto rails and each item labelled.
The ladies then do what we ladies do best… SHOP! They can choose what they want. Not need, not what gets given to them. This is about choice - giving the ladies the chance to choose for themselves what they would like to wear. People who are homeless very rarely get given choice;
This is not conducive to building self confidence or self worth. We make the clothing session like a shopping trip, we take the time to make sure the clothes on the rails are clean, pressed and tagged just as you would find it in a shop. We also discuss choices and whether something looks good on the individual.
During the last year the group has grown from a set of insular, selfish individual women into a self supporting community. Recently, one of the group - a lady well known for being the "class bully" died aged 39 and although she was described in a negative way by the group, she was accepted. On her death they cried and reminisced - good memories and bad - they didn't turn her into a saint in death. They made cards, a wreath and her funeral was well attended by them. This showed us just how far they had come and the massive progress they had made.
Ladies day is such an important part of Whitechapel life, we laugh together; we argue together, we cry together… We're a family.
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