Jan Sheldon is an early riser. At her desk at 7am most mornings, she is acutely aware that many of those her team supports will have had a significantly less comfortable night sleeping rough on the streets. 

As chief executive of St Martins, a charity helping homeless people, the challenges are incessant, compounded by unexpected pandemics and now with the cost-of-living crisis. 

Despite the early start, she tells me: “You won’t find me at my desk very often. If I am at my desk for more than half the week, I don’t think I am doing my job properly. 

“I need to be out talking to people, finding out what is going on, and building relationships. That helps inform my thinking, which in turn helps the trustees to make good decisions as well.” 

Those decisions may involve where to focus resources, prioritising initiatives and helping raise the profile of an organisation, which has recently marked its 50th anniversary and also been honoured by being granted the Freedom of the City of Norwich. 

With a mission to prevent homelessness, St Martins provides a range of services and is often a first point of contact for somebody sleeping rough on the streets of Norwich. 

An outreach team from Pathways Norwich, a collection of organisations led by St Martins and including the YMCA, The Magdalene Group, The Matthew Project, Salvation Army, Shelter, the Feed, and Future Projects, goes around the city every morning and evening. 

It checks on people who are sleeping rough – those bedded down outside or in a tent - to endeavour to get them into accommodation. 

Jan explains: “We try to get people into accommodation as quickly as possible because the longer somebody sleeps on the streets, the more likely their sleeping rough habits will become entrenched and the less likely they will want to come into accommodation.” 

Accommodation options provided by St Martins include emergency assessment units, direct access hostel, or a ‘second stage’ hostel where people are embarking on a recovery journey, and community homes and a learning and development centre on Westwick Street. 

“Some of the people we support might be addicted to drugs and alcohol but the question is not why the addiction, but always why the pain? Why is somebody wanting to block out such a large proportion of their day?  

“It is about getting to the root of the pain that has caused the addiction. But once somebody is at the point where they are wanting to give up drugs or alcohol, they have a lot of time on their hands. 

“Somebody can spend a whole day looking for a hit, having a hit and recovering from a hit.” 

Once they break that cycle, the aim is to fill that void with opportunities in photography, IT, or go on a tenancy awareness course at the learning and development centre. 

In the winter a street break initiative also offers bed and breakfast accommodation but for the 365-day operation at St Martins, it is inevitable this work takes on a different hue over the Christmas period. 

Acknowledging that more most people it may be difficult to interact with people sleeping rough, Jan has a keen view on how to approach that over the Christmas shopping period. 

“If you see somebody on the streets, smile and engage them in conversation because a lot of the time people tell us they feel invisible,” she says. 

“We want to make sure they feel valued as nobody chooses to be on the streets. It is a time when families come together, when people celebrate and spend time with loved ones. For the people we support, they don’t have any of that so that is a big challenge for them.” 

Her plea is for people to recognise those sleeping rough as individuals and not judge them as they may have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. 

“They need specialist help, calmness and compassion,” she add. 

Jan also urges shoppers to offer information about where homeless people can get food, drink and support - at locations such as The Ark provided by the Salvation Army and The Feed, which is part of the Pathways Team.

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“If you give money, they are going to keep sitting there, but if you give information that person will eventually go and get support, and food and drink at the same time. 

“There is quite a lot of food and drink provision in Norwich and wherever that provision is, there will always be specialist support and it is the specialist support that makes the difference. Putting a roof over someone’s head is actually the easy part.” 

The charity also has a residential care home and sheltered housing, and works in the community supporting people to maintain their own tenancies, as well as a donation station on Anglia Square, where homeless people can collect items that they need or seek advice. 

“People who live with us might work or volunteer there and it is more than just a charity shop,” she adds. 

St Martins - which is Norwich-focused as people sleeping rough gravitate to the city as that is where the support is - has 234 beds and supports 300 people every day. 

But Jan says the hope is that for the majority, it is a stepping stone. 

“For us, and them, the Holy Grail is their own tenancy though some people in our care directorates are with us for the rest of their life.” 

Life on the streets is perilous; average life expectancy for a man is 47, and 43 for a woman. The average age of people supported is mid-30s as other charities, she adds, are better placed to help the younger homeless. 

The challenges St Martins faced from the pandemic, and now the cost-of-living crisis, occupy her time. 

“COVID was an incredibly difficult and challenging time; 95 per cent of our team members were still front facing so we had to manage the risk to their health and keep them as safe as possible,” says Jan. “We also had a lot of vulnerable people who needed care and support as well.” 

With the restriction of March 2020, she admits to losing sleep over her team, the people they support and the financial impact. 

“I very rarely lose sleep, but was tossing and turning that night,” she recalls. 

But she points to the support of her experienced team of directors - They are Maria Baranowski (director of homeless services), Angela Herbert (director of care services), Ian Hanwell (director of finance) and Jo Gillies-Wheatley (director of operations) – and the trustees and senior management team, which was pivotal in steering the organisation through the COVID crisis. 

Jan, who joined St Martins as CEO January 2018, has spent a lifetime in the care sector and worked her way through all levels of the sector. 

“I never did overly well at school and left with few qualifications,” she concedes. “I didn’t realise until late in the day that education was probably more important than I thought it was.” 

Having cleaned boats and had a job putting jam in doughnuts, she worked as a night care assistant in a residential home and made her way up to a management role while studying for various qualifications. 

She later did a BSC in community care and education, and a Masters degree at Sheffield University before completing her doctorate when she was 38. 

Prior to joining St Martins, she was CEO at the Royal Association for Deaf People and is “reasonably fluent” in sign language. 

Now 55, she acknowledges her experience across all levels of adult care as being invaluable when leading her team but remains grounded in her role. She recently did a cleaning shift with a domestic worker and recognises the input of chefs, domestic workers, and the finance and maintenance and team that looks after 40 properties. 

“We are all small cogs in a big wheel that has to turn,” she adds. 

Leading a team of 200, she points to the attraction of working with people and moving St Martins forward to grow, develop and flourish. 

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She continues to draw inspiration from “Crabbit Old Woman,” a poem by Phyllis McCormack she read when she was younger which encourages carers to look beyond the aged figures they may see before them. 

When on night duty in a residential care home, she didn’t particularly enjoy the work until she read the poem. 

“The penny dropped and I realised the people who needed my care and support hadn’t been sitting in the same room for 80 years – they were interesting people with stories to tell. 

“One gentleman had fought in the Boer War and a lady had been a Land Girl. This was a life-changing moment for me and made me look at the world of social care very differently.” 

While the challenges of today leading St Martins, she recognises the role has its rewards. 

“What gives me real pleasure is seeing somebody who has used our services and is living independently and either volunteering or becoming a team member for St Martins,” says Jan 

Seeing St Martins recognised as the 4th best UK charity in the 2022 Best Companies awards gave her enormous pleasure, along with the Highwater House residential care home being rated as outstanding by care regulator CQC. 

Further success stories include the Rebuild project’s work with high-risk offenders and the development of the male-only Dibden Road Hostel with its gardening club and the addition of a 5000-strong colony of bees. 

As for the future, 2023 will be a year of consolidation with tight budget management after five years of growth and continuing to raise awareness of the organisation. In that time, St Martins has acquired new properties, and increased beds and staff, which comes with additional costs. 

“Sometimes people worry about having a St Martins service located near them,” but she emphasises, “we do our very best to make sure that we are the neighbour that people want us to be.” 

It takes £6m a year to keep St Martins running and while the charity is “holding its own” at present, she fears the cost-of-living crisis will have an impact. Funding comes from housing benefits and adult social care services, but donations remain crucial. 

“Even if people want to, they may not be able to afford to give. We are really well supported but people are going to struggle so that is a significant challenge for us moving forward.” 

With growing numbers unable to afford rents or mortgage repayments, she believes social housing offers a solution to the homeless crisis. 

“We know from research we need 90,000 new social homes every year for the next 10 years, we have a housing crisis and the only thing that is going to redress that is more social housing. That must be a central government priority.” 

Born in Great Yarmouth, Jan grew up in Beccles where her father was a part-time preacher and delivery van driver, while her mother played piano for the church. She reflects on a challenging childhood as her mum suffered from post-natal depression but was not picked up. 

“That probably made me more resilient as a result but it also gives me the empathy with people who perhaps have got mental health challenges and also the support networks around those people.” 

She visiting cathedrals and churches, spending time on the Norfolk Broads and canoeing and Yoga. She is a qualified PADI open water diver and regularly runs. 

“I always thought I’d hate the idea of running, I never wanted to run and when COVID came along, it was challenging at work but I wanted to do something outside that was equally a challenge.” 

A highlight of her tenure came less than a month ago when St Martins was granted the Freedom of the City of Norwich. After starting out in a garage shed in the Cathedral Close half a century ago, St Martins is an established partner in delivering Norwich City Council’s rough sleeping strategy to break the cycle of homelessness. 

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The honour, given to a person or organisation in recognition of their contribution to Norwich, also traditionally gives recipients the right to drive sheep into the city. 

“To have an organisation’s work recognised for the last 50 years for having made a significant contribution to the City of Norwich makes me very proud,” says Jan. 

“We have also just had our 50th anniversary but that is not actually something to celebrate – we should not be here in 2022, no homeless organisation should be needed in 2022. 

“We do, however, recognise the anniversary because a lot of people have contributed to the success of St Martins over the last 50 years, so it is about recognising the hard work that has gone before us.” 

Yet against this backdrop, there is rarely a moment goes by when Jan and her team at St Martins are not thinking about the plight of those who are homeless and living on the streets of Norwich. And as we near Christmas, that falls into even sharper focus. 

For more information visit stmartinshousing.org.uk