smiling women at YMCA South Ealing

4 April 2019

Kerry Oldfield-Spence is the Housing Manager at YMCA South Ealing. She was joined by the Duke of Sussex on 3 April for a conversation about mental health with two of her residents, Jade and Rory. He was keen to hear about their experiences and what it was like to live at a YMCA hostel. It was an important high profile visit showcasing the work of YMCA’s Mental Health Champions project and a Heads Together roundtable with national charities.

“I was really proud of Jade and Rory. They knew it was a VIP visit, but we didn’t tell them until the day that it was the Duke of Sussex,” says Kerry. “We could hear him coming up the corridor and that was quite nerve-wracking. He was great and introduced himself as Harry and took the lead on chatting with us.”

With just a week’s notice that the royal visit was to take place, there was a great deal of activity in the run-up such as cleaning, decorating and gardening as well as organising staff rotas and security planning.

“The most challenging part of preparation for the visit was the staffing and setting up the temporary reception. That was a difficult environment for staff to deal with all day because it was cold and cramped. I was most unhappy about that. Overall, we were well prepared for it though,” says Kerry.

Raising mental health awareness

Kerry helped to facilitate the conversation between the Duke of Sussex and the residents. She knows them well and the issues they face in addressing their mental health conditions.

“The Duke of Sussex talked to them about raising mental health awareness; about their journeys; and they were honest about their issues around mental health,” says Kerry. “He asked them where they see themselves in three years’ time. They both said they wanted to have good mental health and be settled.”

Kerry started as the Deputy Housing Manager 13 years ago, and she has been the Housing Manager for eight years. She manages a staff team of 30, comprising housing and benefits officers and housekeeping staff.  “On a Monday morning we meet as a management team and we look at how we are going to help each other get things sorted.”

“I’m very much about our service delivery and our residents are our focus. Whether they come to us at 10am, 10pm or at the weekend they should have the same level of service.”

Local authority funding cuts have seriously impacted the provision of mental health care in Ealing borough. It means that residents have to meet an extremely high criteria to access care.

“I feel really strongly about it,” says Kerry. “I explained to the Duke of Sussex that the criteria to access services is so high that we’ve got to wait for someone to smash up the building or their neighbour before we can have an assessment for a resident.

“We have a young resident here who is sadly deteriorating and becoming increasingly delusional, but because he doesn’t present with a serious issue, we can’t access help for him. I don’t want him to be arrested and sectioned; I want to help him in a controlled and managed way, because he really does need help.”

Kerry explains that managing staff  is the most challenging aspect of her job but that the most rewarding is seeing residents back on their feet.

“I had to evict this guy seven years ago and I saw him recently in Ealing. He said that the eviction was the best thing that ever happened to him. He told me: ‘It was the kick I needed. I went back to college, got a job, got married and had kids.’ That makes me happy and I have more of those kind of stories than the bad ones. And that’s what gets me through. It’s the best job ever.”