Apprentices Making a Difference Series: Helping the Homeless in South East London

Apr 23, 2020

An interview with WhiteHat Alumni, Lilly-Mae and Community Manager, Siobhan Randell, as part of our Apprentices Making a Difference Series.

Lilly-Mae is 19 years old and from South East London. She is a WhiteHat alumnus who completed her Level 3 Business Administration Apprenticeship in the Talent & Curation Team at WhiteHat, achieving a Distinction earlier this year. After a well-deserved promotion, Lily-Mae moved to the Sales Operations Team where she is currently completing crucial data projects.

Lilly-Mae is passionate about helping others in her local community, the Aylesbury Estate in the London borough of Southwark. The Aylesbury Estate, one of the biggest housing complexes in western Europe and birthplace of award-winning rapper, Tinie Tempah, has received challenging press for the social issues affecting the community. For Lilly-Mae it’s home and a home she’s fiercely proud of and committed to supporting as she’s demonstrated through 6 years of volunteering with her local Robes Project.  

I caught up with Lilly-Mae to learn more about her volunteering, the motivations behind it and the skills she has gained from it.

6 years of volunteering is a big commitment. Why did you start volunteering and why the Robes Project?

My mum has always volunteered. When she was volunteering at the youth project at our local church, she found out that the Robes Project would be setting up a homeless shelter there and suggested I volunteer. I was 13 years old and I’ve volunteered there every winter for the last 6 years. Why do I think it’s important for me to do? Because it is just so cold in winter and it’s so hard for people that I just want to make their lives a little easier.

What do the Robes Project do and what do you do as a volunteer?

The Robes Project sets up hubs at different churches in London to provide meals and overnight accommodation to individuals experiencing homelessness. There are about 30 beds in the shelter I volunteer at in St Peter’s Church, Walworth. There’s a women’s and a men’s section and the guests range from age 18-50ish. My shift was the set-up shift so every Sunday during winter I would arrive at 1pm with my manager, Theo, and we would prepare the space for the guests to arrive at 7pm. This would involve cleaning the toilets, showers and general tidying, food preparation, cooking, laying the tables, making up beds and greeting the guests as they arrive. We would go food shopping and buy things like flowers to make the space as welcoming as possible. It’s really important that the guests feel welcome. Sometimes we’d also have large donations of clothes to sort so we’d organise a men’s and a women’s rail so that the guests could come in one by one and select the items that they needed.

What have you learnt about the issue of homelessness?

The guests are so interesting, they all have different stories and reasons why they’ve fallen on hard times. Some people are overcoming addiction issues but not everyone. The female guests at my shelter are generally younger than the men but I don’t really know why that is. Lots of younger people had been kicked out of their homes by parents/carers and are waiting for more permanent accommodation. Also, lots of homeless people work, which isn’t something people realise, they’re cleaners and labourers but can’t afford accommodation in London. Mental Health is a big factor too. A young woman that really stood out to me, ran away from her home country due to domestic violence. It struck me how awful things must be to run away from everything you know, your family and friends, to start a new life in England, just to become homeless. It really can happen to anyone and people go through so much. Overall, everyone is super respectful, some guests are chatty, and we play games of dominos. I’ve never seen an incident of bad behaviour, but it is emotional, there are lots of tears and anxiety.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your volunteering experience?

Definitely turning people away from the shelter. I only had to do it once but then I couldn’t do it again. Each shelter only has so much capacity and each guest is referred to the shelter for the duration of their stay. It’s not a shelter than people can just turn up to but of course, they sometimes try because they might hear about it. They’re given information about how to access services, but the reality is when you turn someone away you don’t know where they’re going to go or what they’re going to do and that’s really emotionally tough.

You’ve been very successful in your apprenticeship so far, achieving a distinction and a promotion. How do you feel volunteering has helped you develop your skills?

Interpersonal skills, building relationships with people of all ages and all backgrounds. Listening to them and understanding the small things that can really make people happy. Empathy and emotional intelligence which are key for working with others. Finally, resilience, seeing so many harrowing situations from such a young age means I can stay calm in very challenging situations, helping others in times of turmoil but also protect my own mental wellbeing.

How could other apprentices get involved in supporting individuals experiencing homelessness in their local communities?

We’re always in need of clothes donations. People can bake cakes and bring them to the shelter and if people want to volunteer at a shelter they can sign up on the website, the night shelters run from November-January across different boroughs in London.


WhiteHat Community Members can find out more about volunteering, including inspirational stories and opportunities, by joining the Apprentices Making a Difference group on the Community Hub.

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