Jeremy Swain is chief executive of Thames Reach, a voluntary sector organisation that every year works with more than 4,000 rough sleepers and other vulnerable homeless people in London, providing a range of services. In 2008 Thames Reach was selected as one of the top 100 medium-size organisations in the Sunday Times Best Companies to Work for Awards.
Swain started work in the homelessness sector in 1980, moving to Thames Reach in 1984 where he spent four years as a street outreach worker before progressing to housing services manager and then chief executive of Thames Reach in 2001.
Apart from being a London Housing Foundation board member, he is also a non-executive director of StreetShine, a social business employing former homeless people to provide a shoe care service to corporate businesses. He chairs the Pan-London Providers' Group comprising the chief executives of seven of the largest providers of homelessness services in London, is an active member of Acevo (the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations) and sits on the Business Action on Homelessness London Steering Group.
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Last week Ian Austin, the Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government, the minister responsible for homelessness, came out on an evening shift with Thames Reach’s street outreach teams. Together we walked the dank streets of central London, Ian still in his suit and tie having raced over following a late night debate in the House.
Homelessness charities have a tough task in competing against 'cuter' organisations for donations, but does that mean they have to shock and appall to win public sympathy at Christmas time?
Most days we are rung at Thames Reach by somebody who wants to help the homeless; it is really rather gratifying. Media bods come with propositions intended to shed fresh light on ‘The Plight of the Homeless’. The Big Idea often involves them sleeping rough on the street to give a ‘down and dirty’ account of what it is like to be a rough sleeper. Quite often they are genuinely unaware that a proposal of this type is put to us at least once a month.
Sleeping rough is extreme. There you are, lying on a hard pavement or in a shop doorway with, at best, a thin blanket protecting you from the cold and a piece of cardboard insulating you from the rising damp. You know it will disintegrate into a soggy porridge as soon as it begins to rain. Your isolation is profound. Yet frequently, if you are sleeping rough in central London, thousands of people will be swirling around you as they go about their business, walking on by.