Marylebone Journal: The Difference Makers
Introducing the people behind Marylebone’s vital charities and community organisations: Ruhamah Sonson, acting operations manager for the Marylebone Project
The Marylebone Project is one of the largest women’s hostels in the UK. Our vision is to empower women to end their homelessness and live life to the full. We aspire to turn people’s lives around by accompanying them on the journey to a happy and independent life.
Homelessness has a very particular impact on women. It’s quite scary to hear about what they go through. They are targeted and harassed when they try to sleep rough. We hear many stories of violence and sexual harassment. Some have described having people trying to get to their belongings by going through their clothing while they’re sleeping. Even when they’re in mixed hostels, they’re sometimes propositioned or made to feel unsafe. Women’s homelessness is rarely raised as a specific issue, though. In part, that’s because it’s quite hidden – women are generally not as visible and in-your-face as men.
Many of the women we support have experienced significant trauma. Some have been affected by domestic abuse or human trafficking, for example, while others have had their children taken into care for various reasons. Many have no recourse to public funds and are essentially destitute. Recently, we are seeing an increase in women who are struggling with the rising cost of living and have been unable to maintain their housing. To deal with their trauma, some women sadly turn to drugs and alcohol. Some will engage in sex work to fund a drug habit. Everyone’s story is different. Everyone’s story is complex. But whatever their story, we aim for the same ending, which is self-esteem, employment and independent living. And we do this by providing shelter, educational opportunities, activities and events in a welcoming and safe environment.
The work that we do is underpinned by four values: hospitality, empowerment, resettlement and spirituality. Hospitality means providing a welcoming environment, bringing women into an inclusive, safe, secure space. Empowerment is about equipping the women to make informed choices and giving them a voice. We encourage them to get involved at every level of the organisation, whether that’s by sitting on interview panels, helping us write policy or even delivering workshops for other service users. Resettlement means encouraging and supporting women towards independent living – last year, we helped over 200 women move into more stable accommodation. And spirituality means we provide a range of activities with the aim of giving each woman the hope they need.
At the Marylebone Project, which is run by Church Army in partnership with the Portman House Trust, we have 112 beds and provide a resettlement service for women who are ready to live independently. We also have the Sanctuary, a drop-in centre for women who are homeless or at the point of crisis, where they can get housing advice and be signposted to relevant professional services. They have access to a shower, food and laundry facilities. The Sanctuary also provides four emergency beds. And the beauty of this service is that you don’t need a referral. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. You can walk in off the street and immediately be in a safe space.
Our in-house team offers accredited courses such as childcare, health and social care, and we have a contract with Westminster Adult Education enabling us to deliver a range of adult learning courses, including English and IT. We had 10 women recently take part in a Training the Trainer course, which gives them the skills they need to lead their own workshops internally.
To complement these courses, we provide opportunities for the women to develop their vocational skills and experience by participating in our Made in Marylebone social enterprise. This has two distinct arms, and the women get involved in running both businesses. With Space in Marylebone, we hire out meeting rooms, and this gives women the chance to build their administrative and customer service skills. Munch in Marylebone provides a range of catering services, and the women can gain catering skills and qualifications. We can also link them in with different placements, usually at local hotels, to gain invaluable work experience. As part of Munch in Marylebone we’re going to have a stall selling cakes and cookies at the Baker Street Quarter food market.
To address some of the significant trauma that the women experience, we provide a range of therapeutic activities such as counselling, massage, body realignment, voice expression and art therapy. We also run regular pampering days. The team from Selfridges came in and treated the women to facials and nail painting. A range of health services are available on site, so women can, for example, access a nurse clinic and have substance misuse support. There’s a lot going on here!
Our biggest challenge is trying to fund everything. The council commissions a very small part of our work, but for the majority of it we rely on fundraising, donations and sponsorship. That is always hard, but particularly so in the current economic climate. As well as financial donations, we’re in need of food, clothing and toiletries, which can be dropped off at our reception.
The Marylebone Project partners with amazing organisations and local businesses who help us to enhance the activities on offer. For example, we work with Barclays Bank and Selfridges, whose volunteers run a range of workshops including CV writing, interview skills and public speaking. We also work closely with the Baker Street Quarter Partnership. They oversee 200 local businesses and link us up with them to provide opportunities for our service users. They also provide volunteers for fundraising or to help us in the activities.
Volunteers play a crucial role in supporting our work and delivering activities to our women. As well as the corporate volunteers, we have individual volunteers who approach us with ideas around how they’d like to use their skills to help our women. We currently have a fantastic volunteer who is running a knitting class, which is one of the most successful and well attended classes that we’ve ever had here.
As the acting operations manager, I’m essentially responsible for overseeing the general day-to-day running of the Marylebone Project, which includes putting systems in place and ensuring that the processes are being followed and that our teams are facilitated effectively.
I oversee the incredible managers who run the key areas of the Marylebone Project. My aim is to give them the tools they need to lead their teams effectively, so that our women are supported to the highest standard.
I love seeing our service users being empowered. The biggest inspiration for me is seeing their journey. When they first access the service, many women feel disillusioned, rejected, ostracised and have low self-esteem. During my two years working here I have witnessed so many of these women have their lives completely turned around.
I actually have a lovely quote from a service user who stayed in one of our emergency beds, which I think sums it up perfectly: “Thank you so much for giving me this amazing and special opportunity to be in your beautiful home and to be in a safe place. This is such a blessing and a gift from God. I felt so safe as soon as I got here. I felt cared about and respected. Everyone has been so kind to me. I slept very well and had a lovely breakfast and shower. I feel so happy. I feel positive and confident. I feel like I have got my life back. I feel like I can achieve anything. The world is my oyster and I can now reach for the stars.”