Home 5 Good Business By Doing Good 5 From homelessness to hope: An interview with Denise Vilanou at Thames Reach
The image shows Denise Vilanou of Thames Reach and David Whelan of ELF holding a charity award.

From homelessness to hope: An interview with Denise Vilanou at Thames Reach

by Madeleine Stonehouse

30 April 2024

In this insightful interview, I had the privilege of speaking with Denise Vilanou, a lead worker at Thames Reach. Denise shares the organisation’s mission, her role within the team, and the special partnership they have with Ecovis London Foundation in supporting people in need.

In this insightful interview, I had the privilege of speaking with Denise Vilanou, a lead worker at our Ecovis London Foundation partner charity Thames Reach. Denise shares the organisation’s mission, her role within the team, and the various services they offer to support people in need. She also discusses the challenges they face, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the importance of digital skills in today’s society. The conversation further explores the partnership between Thames Reach and Ecovis, shedding light on our collaborative efforts to help individuals transition back into employment. This interview provides a profound look into the compassionate work being done to support vulnerable individuals and strive towards a society where no one is forced to sleep rough.

 

What does Thames Reach do?

Our aim at Thames Reach is to create a society where street homelessness no longer exists and where no one ever is forced to sleep rough on the streets.

As an organisation, for us, it’s about never giving up on people. Holding the highest of aspirations and deep respect for our service users. From our point of view as staff, it’s about having compassion and acting with integrity and professionalism. It’s also about being committed to supporting our people.

We all work together to end street homelessness, believing passionately in achieving trust and mutual respect between not only our clients but between colleagues as well.

 

What is your particular role within the charity? What does your day to day look like? 

I’m a lead worker within the employment and skills team. Within our team we have several services and projects that we oversee. I oversee the IAG service [information, advice, and guidance]. Really, I am a conduit for the whole organisation plus some external contacts, receiving referrals for people looking for support around education, training, and employment.

My main objective is to support people to up-skill and access education, training and employment. It could be that they need help with ESOL (English as a second Language), or digital skills for example. We know that those two things are really needed. Unfortunately, there aren’t really enough services locally to provide those things. If you struggle with English, it’s not just finding work that’s difficult, it’s everyday life. It’s really going to impact you.

At Thames Reach we always knew how important digital skills were, but it was actually something the pandemic really highlighted. People were expected to go online and update their journals or update other records.

There were two main problems with this. One, people just didn’t have the skills to be able to do those things by themselves. Two, people didn’t have the facilities to do it. They may have had a phone, but it might have been a phone without internet access.

Now especially, a large part of what we do is supporting people to access digital skills. We have a fantastic tech learning hub at the Employment Academy where we have a drop-in service. People who are struggling with technology, can’t access certain things or don’t know how to do things, can come in and get help and learn. We have many different ways of supporting people, including loaning devices like tablets and phones or topping up data.

My role particularly within the IAG is to help people to access this.

Another thing I support people with is accessing industry qualifications. If they want to work in construction, they need to get something called a CSCS card, I can support people in getting that. They might want to work in security, there’s a badge they need to get, an SIA, I can support them in getting that.

Another element of my job is helping our clients secure general employment. We work with a lot of partners who offer training which can then lead into employment. That is something that’s fantastic for many of our clients. Obviously, each client and case is different.

For some people, if they have been homeless for a long time, been out of work for a long time, the transition back into employment can be quite difficult. If that is the case, we work with them to get them back to where they need to be. It’s not just about hard skills, soft skills are important too.

Building up things like; their confidence, their motivation, helping them believe that, yes, they do have value, that they do have things to offer. My work encompasses all of that.

 

Do clients find it difficult living in a society that is so tech reliant? 

A high proportion of the clients I work with are of the older generations. Technology is not something that they’re used to. In today’s society, technology is everything, you can’t do anything without technology. Things like phoning the doctor, booking an appointment, sorting out bills. Everything!

An important part of my job is enabling people to access these services otherwise they will struggle.

In terms of the work we do, it’s about trying to put that person in a good place. It’s giving that person the skills they need to feel like they’re ready to start looking for employment.

 

Are there any particular challenges that you face with the work?  

The COVID period was a big challenge.

We had to think about a different way of working because we couldn’t see our clients face-to-face. That was an obstacle because for a lot of our clients, those face-to-face meetings were really important. Right at the beginning of the pandemic, we did a welfare check with everyone (which you can imagine was a lot of people!). I would call people and they would say things like “You’re the first person I’ve spoken to in the last month.”

We have to assess people we work with. The reason for doing this is to really get the conversation going with the client about any barriers they may have. It’s really important to get to know them a bit more. Finding out what they have done in the past and what they would like to do are two really important factors we need to consider.

All the support we had previously done in person, moved, largely for me anyway, to taking place via phone-calls. That’s actually not a bad thing, it means that we can assess more people.

Of course, if I need to, I can see someone face-to-face. If there is a particular reason, for example, they don’t like talking on the phone or special circumstances meaning that it’s safer to meet them face-to-face, then we can see them in that way.

Other challenges are capacity. The number of clients that we receive is always increasing.

One of the other big challenges is around the language barrier. If someone doesn’t speak English, then we use a translation service. The translation service is not always the best, sometimes things can get lost in translation. Of course, it costs money to pay for translation services, which can be a challenge for a charity like ours in these difficult times.

Another challenge is the distance between us and some of our clients. In terms of the housing market, there’s less and less affordable housing in London and so clients we see are having to go into private rented accommodation outside of London. I receive referrals for clients who live outside the London area as well. It’s harder sometimes to work with those people because I don’t know the areas they are living in well; I don’t know what goes on in those areas.

Now, a large part of what I do is researching those further out areas. It’s challenging when we are trying to help people when they are at a distance.

One, you don’t really ever get to meet them in person and have those connections. Two, you have to deeply research to find out what it is they can do, what is available in their area, what services are there that they can reasonably access. When a person is more local and I send them off for a job interview, or off on work experience, I can support them. If they’re further away from central London, how do I support them with the same things? Those are the challenges.

A large part of what we do is trying to support people in taking those next steps. We don’t want money to be a barrier. Many of our clients are living on benefits and if they’re living far out and they have to come into London, it can be quite expensive. That can be a real challenge for some people.

Funding is always a big challenge for us. Not just for IAG, but for the organisation as a whole. The cost-of-living crisis has affected everybody and that includes the charity sector. There are fewer funding streams. It can be difficult to fund this type of work which is reliant on voluntary donations.

I can also support clients with securing equipment if they are going into certain industries. For things like construction, you need PPE. If they’re working in a kitchen, they may need special clothes or shoes, I help them get that. Some of our clients just do not have the money to secure these things for themselves.

It’s part of what we do, to support them along the way and it’s getting tighter and tighter to do to be honest, but we do our best.

 

Do you find people come to you with a lot of anxiety about the situation they’re in?

Is that another barrier that you have to break through as you’re working with some people?

Many people do. They have either an anxiety diagnosis or they are anxious about the circumstances they are in. Clients may be on benefits. There may be personal things they’re worried about. The rent for their housing may not be something they can afford to pay. There might be bills piling up. All of these things, the anxiety over potentially losing their home again, that’s where it’s not only my team, but other teams offering support.

Ultimately, we want to stop the cycle of homelessness. The best way to do that is to support clients to sustain their accommodation. Then the step from that is not only helping them to sustain accommodation, but to move on, to engage back in society, to get back in the workforce.

Doing all of those things, it gives clients a purpose again. They feel like they are contributing to society again. It can be very challenging for some but we continue to work with them until they reach their goals.

We know that when people do go back into work, it really helps them. It helps raise their self-esteem, their self-worth, their motivation. They can start dreaming again.

 

What’s it like witnessing the results of your help? 

It’s lovely. You can see that you’ve done your job. We don’t want to create a dependence which can happen, we want people to move on.

If our clients are settled, they’re in accommodation, they’ve got a job, they’re not calling us, then for us, that’s when we’ve done our job.

 

How did the relationship between Ecovis London Foundation and Thames Reach first come about? 

It was just after I started working for Thames Reach.

David (Whelan, Director of ELF) met a community police officer who controlled the borough of Soho. They started talking about homelessness. The police officer suggested Thames Reach if they wanted to get involved with helping in some way. David then contacted Thames Reach, we met to discuss what ELF could offer and what Thames Reach needed. That was in 2016.

It was all centered around how to support people pre-employment. How do we get our clients to a stage where they have a completed CV or to a stage where they can show some of the skills they have developed? That’s how the relationship started off.

From then, it’s really just developed.

 

What are some of the things that Ecovis and Thames Reach work together on? 

Primarily, the work we do is around CV’s and interview skills, which are really needed.

If someone has been out of work for a long time, it’s likely that they have lost those skills and so need to develop them again. CV’s can be particularly challenging because you’re working with a group of people that may have had a history of homelessness or other barriers. Sometimes they struggle to remember things they have done.

Part of what David does is to work through all of that with the client. We want to show our clients in the best possible light, and we have to do that with the sometimes-limited information that we have. That is something that can be quite challenging, but David does a fantastic job.

Last year, we changed our delivery method so that we could reach as many people as possible.

We put this pre-employment program together. First, we do a CV workshop. The following week clients attend a one-to-one careers & CV appointment with David, so they can work solely on their CV’s. Following on from that, the next week we run confidence building sessions in the mornings then in the afternoons, David runs an interview skills workshop. The week following on from that, we give our clients the opportunity to have one to one mock interviews. That whole pre-employment package, it really, really helps people. Things like showing people a good and bad CV, what to put on a CV, what not to put on a CV, how to fill in gaps. Those things are really important for our clients to be able to present themselves to employers in the best possible light and hopefully secure an interview.

During the mock interviews, we cover things like how you should present yourself, what questions you should ask, things like that.

The entire process of going over those things, putting those things into people’s minds, they find it so valuable. Ecovis have been fantastic for the workshops.

We run those pre-employment packages maybe four or five times a year, so every couple of months. It’s fantastic that we are able to offer that.

One of the other major things Ecovis does is provide Christmas hampers for some of our clients.

It’s absolutely fantastic.

Christmas time can be a real struggle for some of our clients. Having those hampers with all of the nice treats that people can’t afford to buy is lovely. You know, whether it’s a nice jam or a nice coffee, a packet of chocolate biscuits, any of those things people really appreciate. The clients are really delighted to receive those hampers.

Ecovis kindly go and deliver the hampers to the doors of the clients.

I’ve had people come back to me in February and say, “I’ve still got some of that hamper left!” Someone else came back and said “oh when my son saw the chocolates, we were fighting over those! I can’t thank you enough!”

People are really pleased. It’s giving them something of quality and just a lovely gift at Christmas.

In general, over the years David has helped out a lot.

I used to run a program called “The Work Ready Programme,” which was a week long program. I would take clients away somewhere and we would work on their soft skills. The following weeks were where the real work would get done, working on CV’s and interviews, things like that. David would come and help out with that project.

Ecovis have also helped out at the job’s fairs. The Ecovis HR team have come to our jobs fair before, and we have had people queuing up outside to see them.

Something that we take for granted sometimes is access to preparation for interviews, some people get really nervous going to interviews. Obviously, we go through, and David goes through how important it is to prepare.

Having the HR team in was great because they were able to tell clients what they could expect. A lot of it was just reiterating some really basic rules.

They’ve supported us with providing warm clothing and work-appropriate clothing.

If you’re going for an interview, you’ve got to have something to wear and some of our clients don’t have anything to wear. In some instances, they may not have clothing they would feel smart enough or confident enough to go to an interview in. You know when you are wearing something really smart, dressing really well, it’s empowering. Some people say “wow, is that me?!” They can’t believe it. Yes! Yes, that is you,  you can do all of those things! That’s really empowering for our clients. It’s another wonderful thing that Ecovis have done for us.

There’s lots of good stuff that Ecovis is helping with.

 

Do you find that people really benefit from having someone from industry to come in and tell the clients these things?

I think it does help because as support workers we’re always telling clients things but sometimes it doesn’t always resonate. Having someone professional from the industry reinforce the things we’re saying, it can be really helpful.

There are two things related to that that our clients really appreciate. They appreciate the fact that they’re getting this firsthand information from a professional. Also, they appreciate that someone has given up their time to come in and talk to them. For example, with David he would give up his time to come in and give that one-to-one support.

Again, it’s instilling into them that they are worth something, because a lot of our clients don’t feel like they have value.

David is really good in the one-to-ones as well because the clients can ask him questions and he is able to answer them. It could be around a specific industry; it could be around gaps in employment which is quite a big thing for some of our clients.

We have quite a few clients who have been to prison and don’t know how to disclose that, so David helps them with that. If there are different scenarios that might come up that they don’t know how to deal with, David will support them and guide them through that process and advise on when is the right time to declare. Again, if you have a disability, you have to declare that but it’s getting advice on what stage they should declare, for example.

 

When people are going for these job interviews, do they often disclose that they’ve worked with Thames Reach?

Or speak about the help they’ve had from Thames Reach and Ecovis?

Some do. Some employers will know that they’ve come through that pathway. We do work with other partner organisations and employment fairs that have bought into the ethos of supporting people who’ve experienced homelessness. Therefore, it could be that the employer is already aware of that person’s situation. Through our partners and those employers, our clients get offered things like taster days, where a client can go along and see the environment. We can set up things like that, trial shifts, so the employer will know that they’ve come through that pathway, a charity pathway.

It’s about giving people a chance. Some of our clients have not have structure in their lives for a long time, so if they do get a job, it’s not asking for special dispensation, but it’s just asking them to be a bit more aware.

If someone starts a job and suddenly on the third or fourth day they’re late, let’s have that conversation and nip it in the bud.

For some of our clients, small changes could throw them off, something that you and I might be quite resilient to, can be quite a big thing for some of our clients.

The key thing to all of this is communication with the employer. It’s just about being open and honest and working together to support the clients and the employers as best we can.

A lot of the time, they go on to end up having a fantastic employee. Sometimes the ones who have experienced what it’s like to not have a job are the ones who are most grateful to have one and are the ones who are most loyal. Hopefully, they go on to have really long careers.

An important thing is just about building up their confidence again. I know how I felt when I was out of work, your confidence, it just goes. If you’ve had a traumatic experience or quite a few barriers to getting employment, when they finally get that job, their confidence just goes through the roof. It’s about building confidence and giving people a chance.

 

Do Ecovis and/or Thames Reach, provide lasting support to people who have got those jobs but don’t feel fully confident yet?

Yes, we continue to work with people.

We offer in-work support. If somebody is in a job we’ve helped them get, then it’s important for us to check in and see how it’s going.

Financials can be a big thing for people and we don’t want that to be an issue. It can be tough for these people, for people transitioning from benefits into employment. There are things we’re doing as a charity to try and help that.

 

How valuable is the support that Ecovis provide?

Do you feel like it takes some of the pressure off Thames Reach?

Definitely, 100%! Especially with this service. However, it also benefits the whole of the employment and skills team.

When we run workshops, I put it out to our own team of course, but I also put it out beyond our own team, because clients of some of the other teams can benefit as well. They’re able to refer their clients for our workshops.

For me particularly, the support David provides is a huge benefit. I have so many clients, and without the help I would have to tailor that support, each one-to-one CV, each mock interview, all by myself. What David does is invaluable. Invaluable to me, to this service, but invaluable to the organisation and the other teams too.

David is really great with clients. He’s very open, he knows our clients, understands them and he treats our cohort with great empathy. No question is too big or too small and believe me, he does get a lot of questions fired at him. My job would be a lot harder without it, there’s not enough time in the day as it is. If I had to do all of that work individually, then yes, it would be a struggle.

The more people we can reach with the support of David, the faster we can help people move on to their next steps, whatever that next step is. Yes, it’s invaluable.

 

The personalised support that David helps with, is that something that you find that a lot of the people you help really value?

Definitely. The more people get to know David, the more likely they are to open up a bit more. Being open is really important with the work that we do. Sometimes clients don’t reveal everything to you straight away. Trust is a big thing. It’s about building up that trust, little by little until someone trusts you enough to open up. Through just that short program, you can really build up a bond with people.

That’s also where we can solve issues before they arise. If there’s something that’s bothering the client or if there’s particular issues or a barrier, then we can talk about that. You do get more out of people the more you get to know them.

Face to face stuff is particularly great because you get to see how that person presents themselves. It’s also easier to address problems and barriers face to face. I wish we could do more and more and more but it’s all about capacity.

 

What are some of the results that you’ve noticed from the work that we’ve helped out with or the work that you’ve been doing? 

Well, there’s been lots of different things really over the years. In the last couple of workshops, there’s been some fantastic stuff that’s come out of them.

After delivering one of the interview skills workshops, a client had an online interview straight away, within ten minutes of that session ending. The client had come to all of the workshops and after the interview skills workshop had spoken to David briefly, then they did their interview with an employer, came out and told us they had gotten the job. They said, “I don’t believe it, I’ve got the job.” Everything we had covered in the workshop, they said had come up in the interview and that they had remembered it all because it was all just so fresh. Coming out of that workshop and getting the job, they were over the moon!

That was fantastic!

Then again, there was something similar where there was a person who had never had a job in this country. They had done a lot of studying; English wasn’t their first language, but they were very techy.  Again, they had attended all of our workshops. The day after the final workshop, they went for an interview at a media company, and got the job! Their first job for more than £35,000 a year. They were absolutely over the moon. The client said all they could hear was David’s voice in their head telling them all of the interview tips. They said all of those tips and tricks that they had learned really helped them. It does really resonate with people.

Those are two cases that happened towards the end of last year.

 

How do you feel personally when you hear these success stories? 

I think it’s great. It just shows that what we’re doing works and can help.

Providing information to help people feel more confident in themselves is something they really value. David talks a lot about transferable skills, which is really important. Some clients don’t realise that things they have done before can translate to other things. He helps them work out the skills they have and how they can make those skills into a clear pathway.

Let’s be honest, if you’re talking about resilience then our clients have it in bucket loads.

If you’ve been on the streets and you’re coping day-to-day, finding somewhere to safe to sleep, you’re trying to find food every day, things like that, that’s resilience. That is resilience. I’m just amazed sometimes how some people are sleeping on the street and still going to work every day.

 

Are people keen on getting out of the cycle they are stuck in? 

Definitely.

Our clients go across the board. I work with people who are rough sleeping, and who have what we call “no recourse to public funds” meaning that they can’t accept access benefits. For them, their only option is employment. It’s their only way out.

I’m amazed at how people can have the energy to work all day whilst sleeping on the streets.

We are working with clients who are at all different stages of their journeys. Someone could be in a hostel, in a night shelter or in supported housing. So, they’re all at different stages of coming off the streets. They’ve gone through the homelessness pathway (as it’s known), they’re in accommodation, they’re slightly further ahead. We work with people who have moved further into private rented accommodation, who have been supported to get there. So, we’re working with people from one end of the spectrum to the other. It’s tough.

I’m working with someone at the moment who is seriously struggling. The client had a job, but the job dried up. They’re going to college two days a week but living in a night shelter which really is just a series of bunks, which they can’t stay in during the day. That means that from seven in the morning to seven at night, they have to stay out and they’re desperate for employment. I’ve sent them some possible work and I’m just waiting to hear back from the employer but they’re panicking. Their phone bill got cut off the other day, so it means that they’re struggling with trying to secure their employment. However, several teams are supporting them, we have supported them with phone credit and food vouchers.

I broker with the employer and another key worker helps with the accommodation. Between us we support them, but it’s really hard.

People really do want to work. Our clients tend to be quite loyal and that’s something that helps employers with their recruitment. Actually, an employer gets to know a lot more about a client that has come from here than they would a member for the public.

 

And then just to round things up, are there any final thoughts you’d like to add?  

Just really for me on a personal note, working with David is a pleasure. He’s very open and honest and he has real empathy. I think that is the key, that he can show empathy and that he gets our client group. He feels like he’s part of our team.

I’m really grateful to Ecovis for what they do for Thames Reach. It really supports the work that we’re trying to do, to support vulnerable adults and prevent homelessness and help people lead a fulfilling life.

 

More Information

We would like to thank Denise for taking part in this interview and for sharing insight into the amazing work Thames Reach do and how Ecovis and The Ecovis London Foundation are helping them on their mission to end street homelessness.

For more information about Thames Reach and the wonderful work they do, please click here or get in touch with David Whelan, Director of ELF.

Madeleine Stonehouse

Marketing Assistant

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