Riut blog

Inside your handbag: homeless hostel manager


Who are you?  Mariam Ridha.

What do you do?  I manage accommodation for homeless people.

Where do you do it?  In Forest Hill, London.

What’s different or revolutionary about your approach?  At our hostel, we have realised that our residents are far better served and far happier when they are involved in keeping the hostel running day to day. Simple roles to you and me - handing out mail, gardening, making breakfast for others - are a source of focus and meaning for our residents.

Everyone who has a skill can use their own initiative and their skills. Our kitchen is run by Bob who was very quiet at the hostel. When we realised he had previously worked in a kitchen we asked him to show us. He now proudly runs the kitchen every lunch time which has become the centre of the community during the day time.

We find that most people who come to our hostel for the first time have been in and out of homelessness throughout their lives. Many of them have been used to homeless institutions where everything is done for them. Rather than follow this model, we do the opposite. We help our residents to have confidence in their skills, be active and lead by example. This helps to build trust between residents, keep important skills in good practice and allow a sense of meaning and normality in their lives.

This has benefits for the community around us too. 3 to 4 years ago, according to official police figures, approximately 90% of crime report in the area was connected with this homeless accommodation hostel. Since we have changed our approach, this has dropped to 2%.

Do you commute to work?  I get on the tube and train across London every day to get to work.

Do you carry a bag?  Yes. My handbag.

What’s in it?  My wallet, Oyster card, empty Kleenex packet, iPhone, keys, work fob and identity card, earphones, freshness clip for keeping bags shut, throat lozenge, software CD, two pens, makeup, a flyer for sponsored run by a homeless resident.

Mariam's handbag

What would you change about your bag if you could?  I don't like having to twist the opening clasp on it to have to open it. Maybe a magnet would be better. I also should have a bigger bag, because I have to carry additional stuff like paper from the office. I want it to be as compact as possible, but be able to hold much larger items without having a dedicated office work case.

Wow Mariam. This is a world that few people know very much about. Those of us who have not experienced homelessness perhaps forget the meaning we derive from every day activities and helping others. It's is clearly having a dramatic impact on crime in the area too. Thank you for telling us about this revolutionary approach to homelessness and the people in your homeless accommodation.

Another example of a homeless resident being active in the community, here's how everyone can support John Robert's sponsored run to raise money for London charity ALD Life: it helps children affected by rare children's disorders and their families. He is running on 4 April 2014.

Mariam is just one of the millions of commuters travelling across London every day, with just her trusty handbag. Commuters out there, share what you do and what’s in your bag with us no matter where you are. Photo, list or a little film if you want. Or, if you find it easier, here’s a little survey to fill in.