A roof over your head is not the whole answer

What should a modern hostel for homeless people look like? This was the question facing architects asked to transform a dormitory-style hostel in Hackney into an environment fit to meet today’s challenges.

When St Mungo’s started life in 1969 the answer would have been simple: to provide rough sleepers with a roof over their heads. Forty years on the charity provides more beds for London’s homeless men and women than any other homeless organisation. But there is one crucial difference; the recognition that recovery from homelessness requires much more than a bed.

Recovery requires wellbeing, and vital to achieving wellbeing are good health and the opportunity to learn and work. It is this recognition that has been the driving force behind the reinvigoration of several St Mungo’s homeless hostels over the past few years.

Most recently it has been applied to the refurbishment of the charity’s Mare Street hostel in Hackney.

Once a run-down former police station housing 150 homeless men and women in dormitories with shared bathrooms, St Mungo’s Mare Street hostel has been transformed into a state-of-the-art centre that is making a tangible difference in helping people find a way out of homelessness and break cycles of behaviour.

It boasts 45 en-suite rooms, arranged into groups of six with a shared kitchen between them, and 15 self-contained flats. There are also communal areas including a main kitchen, an internet area, training rooms, an art room, a meeting room and a library. A sound recording studio will follow shortly.

What was the vision behind the change? The architect behind the redevelopment, Phil Hamilton, Associate Director of Peter Barber Architects, says: “The vision behind Mare Street was to create a hostel that looked less like a prison and more like a swanky hotel.

“It signals a change in attitudes. It’s a recognition that hostels need to be open, light, modern and inspiring environments. They need to open the way for more meaningful activities rather than placing all the emphasis on a bed for the night.”

Mare Street was refurbished through a successful £5 million funding bid from St Mungo’s and the Borough of Hackney to Communities and Local Government through their Hostels Capital Improvement Programme (HCIP), the second phase of which – The Places of Change Programme – has since transferred to the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA).

And is it worth the change?

There are clear benefits for people living in a hostel, such as Mare Street, which offers a programme of activities. It can be a major boost in residents’ recovery and a vehicle for change in achieving their own ambitions. Indeed, research has shown that residents living in a hostel offering a range of activities are four times more likely to move into education or employment, compared with those living in a hostel that offers none. While planned move-ons into more independent accommodation are two and half times more likely where activities are present in a hostel.

The long term results of the Mare Street redevelopment remain to be seen, but the reaction from current residents is extremely positive.

“Mare Street is a lot nicer than it used to be. Staff are great and there are lots more activities to do,” says Donna, 32, who lives in a self-contained flat. “Since living here I have gained more confidence, I am healthier and feel much better.”

Darren, also 32, agrees: “I like the fact I can cook for myself in my own space and that I have a shower I don’t need to share with other people. The people from the employment team have really helped me with my NVQ in health and social care which I have just completed. And other workers are always available if you just need to have a chat.”

So is this a model St Mungo’s will be applying to future redevelopment projects?

“Without a doubt”, says Mike McCall, executive director of Operations at St Mungo’s. “We’re fully aware of the benefits of focusing not just on housing, but on proper access to health services and meaningful work and learning activities.

“A better environment – one which says, look we’re investing our time and energy in you, we think you’re worth it – can only be the right way forward for helping people on their personal recovery journey.”


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