After 38 years in the civil service, a Sutton based homelessness support worker was awarded an MBE for services to homelessness.
When Caroline Collender, 56, found out she’d received an MBE for her work, she was working from home at her kitchen table.
She said: “I got an email and I thought: ‘Why’s the Queen emailing me? That’s a bit random!’
“I opened the email thinking it was spam and it said I’d been nominated for an MBE.
“I just burst into tears.”
Caroline joined the Department for Work and Pensions after leaving school, assuming roles in prisons, Jobcentres and communities before becoming a homelessness support worker for south London seven years ago.
Caroline’s role, which is based in Sutton Jobcentre but spans Sutton, Merton and Croydon, is to holistically engage homeless and vulnerable people with the benefit system.
She offers people advice on work and job opportunities, helps people apply for benefits and coordinates housing.
Caroline said: “Before the pandemic, as part of my role in physically helping homeless people on a one-to-one basis, I was always out in the community.
“If people are homeless, it’s sometimes because they’re not aware of what support is available to them.
“I find out what their situation is, build their confidence, have a cup of tea with them.”
However, working in the community was something Caroline had to fight for in the early days of her career.
She persuaded managers to let her do outreach work by being outspoken about supporting vulnerable people and the importance of supporting them out in the community.
The first south London outreach location was a caravan at the Arndale Centre, Wandsworth, where Caroline invited people inside to decipher what help the Jobcentre could offer them.
This approach was so successful that it was eventually rolled out across south London.
Caroline said: “If DWP had never let me do my thing, if they hadn’t had the foresight to do that, I’d have never been able to do what I’ve been doing and I probably never would have got my MBE.
“For me, the MBE was recognition of the 38 years I’ve put towards trying to promote social justice.
“I want to use it to promote and make more noise about the stuff that both myself and staff across DWP do.”
Caroline accredits the impact of her work as a homelessness support worker to south London charities such as Crisis Skylight London, Merton Faith in Action, Spires, Croydon Reach and The Salvation Army.
She said: “Without the work of the volunteers that help run these charities, none of my work would be possible.
“Supporting the homeless is dependent on these volunteers doing the amazing work they do.
“In my opinion, they are the lifeblood of our community.”
You can check out the Government’s guide to Universal Credit for homeless people, which includes links to other organisations which can help here.