Founder and Director Rachel Woolf writes about her story of conceptualising and growing Street Storage - the first storage organisation for people experiencing homelessness.
“I’m not a businesswoman in any way. I’m not a creative person. I’m not driven by profit. But I did notice a need that wasn’t being addressed in a huge sector and I did make something happen.”
In her guest blog below, Rachel writes about the ‘growing pains’ she’s endured in building the organisation, the challenges of measuring hidden impact, visions of a much larger headquarters in central London and plans to replicate Street Storage across the UK. After witnessing a gaping need for storage facilities for the homeless community during her time working in the sector, Rachel Woolf set up Street Storage in 2018. The organisation is the first of its kind; it provides people sleeping out with physical respite from carrying their belongings around all day, plus peace of mind and a greater chance of stabilising their situation.
During her more than decade-long experience working with the homeless community, Rachel had seen countless people carrying multiple bags of belongings around with them, often losing all they own within a couple weeks on the streets.
With such a simple idea, it is amazing that there was not already a service provider to combat storage needs for people experiencing homelessness.
It is inspirational to see that Rachel has taken it upon herself to address this problem and we look forward to tracking Street Storage’s growth. Read on!
Rachel's guest blog
Our organisation is the only one of its kind and this is essentially why I set it up.
The Start of My Journey
Our organisation is the only one of its kind and this is essentially why I set it up. Prior to Street Storage, I had worked in homelessness for ten years. I ran a day centre, worked in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, ran a night shelter, and did a lot of campaigning and street outreach. I often saw people with a lot of stuff and wondered where they kept it all. I heard of people keeping their belongings in sheds, hedges, bin stores, with friends of friends and cousins’ best mates… I was convinced there must be a centralised location where people experiencing homelessness can keep their belongings. I wrote to St Mungos, Crisis and some managers of grassroots organisations in Islington, the Borough where I'm from, but there really wasn’t much on offer at all.
“Let me see if I can fill this space in four weeks to prove the need."
I thought, if I can find an empty building and fill it with people’s things, I can prove there’s a need. I found a building, which was probably 400 ft2, in Islington. I said to Islington Council and Islington Homelessness services “Let me see if I can fill this space in four weeks to prove the need." I contacted some people on the street who I knew were struggling with their stuff, and we filled the space, with 20 people’s belongings, in just three days. After this, I knew the idea had potential and Street Storage was born.
Three years on we now work alongside national organisations like Crisis, St Mungo’s and Shelter, storing belongings for their clients.
I’m not a businesswoman in any way. I’m not a creative person. I’m not driven by profit. But I did notice a need that wasn’t being addressed in a huge sector and I did make something happen.
Setting up Street Storage
I remember literally Googling ‘how do you found a charity’ (thank God for the internet!). The Government actually provides a very comprehensive list of steps. This was really helpful, step by step.
One important step is finding your trustees. You have to find three Trustees who you trust (Trust-ss, get it!?), who you can rely on and who are willing to give this idea a go. You also have to write a constitution, for which a template is provided, and choose what kind of legal structure you want to have. I set up a website, got on social media and wrote some policies using online charity resources and templates.
I thought a bit more about how the organisation should be run in practice. I needed to get a room, some shelving, lockers and a written agreement for organisations referring in. I needed to work out when we are allowed to take stuff and how long for. I went out to grassroots organisations and Islington-based charities who work with people on the street and said, “if this is useful for you, it’s here”.
And that was that. From there, we were able to get bigger premises and more support. We got a charity registration number and a bank account, but initially, it was quite low level, low cost and basic.
Feeling isolated at times but appreciating everyone who has helped me
Isolation and responsibility are both big challenges for me. If anyone makes a mistake, if anything illegal was to happen in the organisation, whether that’s fraud or people storing illegal items, that’s not on anyone else’s head but mine.
If the Social Founder Network didn’t exist, there wouldn't be an easy way for Founders like me to speak about their problems and feelings of isolation and responsibility. As a Founder, you’re in a very different situation to other people within your organisation.
Having said that, there are so many colleagues, mentors, friends and family members who have helped me throughout the Street Storage journey. It’s been really useful to get opinions from those who may not know the 'ins and outs' of what you’re doing. They can provide an objective opinion when you’re asking, ‘does this make sense?’, or ‘am I doing the right thing?’.
I’d say my husband has helped out the most. He’s been there from the start. For the first year, Street Storage was all I’d talk about. It must have been really boring and relentless for him. But I don’t think there’s any other way I could have done it because I couldn’t have gone home and not had someone to talk to about this. I remember crying in three banks because they wouldn’t give me a charity bank account without a charity registration number (and to get a charity registration number you need a charity bank account!).
I would come home saying, “I could just work for an existing charity and it would be so much easier!"
Having someone there to keep you going, who doesn’t have anything invested in the organisation, has been a massive, massive support for which I am forever grateful. Thank you, John!
I’ve also had a Business Development mentor. He sees Street Storage for what it is, what it could be in a year and what it could be in five years. He writes it all down clearly and tells me how to go about doing it. Without him, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to know this idea is franchisable or scalable. He’s a blue sky thinker and I am not, so he’s invaluable! Thank you Guy!
Despite feelings of isolation, it’s really not just me who has created Street Storage. I’ve had HR, pro bono legal, marketing, fundraising and emotional support throughout from a number of sources. I’ve had funders who’ve been flexible through the Pandemic. I’ve had (and currently have) incredible support from the team around me.
Street Storage wouldn’t have been possible without the landlord who gave me my first building, the community fund who gave me my first grant, my husband, or the church in Camden that gave us a free space in their basement.
I think it’s important to remember this when people ask you about being a Founder. It’s never just you.
It can be quite hard measuring the impact of Street Storage. Essentially, our service has both primary and secondary impacts.
The primary impact is keeping people’s things safe, literally lifting the weight off their back, helping people sleep better through them not having to worry about their possessions every time they close their eyes.
For this, we can use quantitative data. We can show how many people get referred, how many people we’ve stored items for, what items, how long stored and what the outcome was - whether people secured a job or stable accommodation, for example.
Then there’s the secondary impact. These are things like people going to job interviews, and without having to carry their belongings along with them, getting the job.
Without carrying everything they own, someone can get the property they’ve applied for, see their family, reconnect with services or go into a library or cafe without being asked to leave.
We can’t prove that people got a job because we took their bag but we know it made a difference. This is just something we have to try and convey through the help of qualitative data.
We use feedback forms, case studies, soundbites and quotations. We don’t do surveys because people often don’t have access to the internet. We have loads of photographs, tweets and use social media a lot more than we used to and this is all really good evaluation and monitoring for how much the project has an impact on people’s lives.
We are looking at developing a financial impact document as well, so we can show Local Authorities how much money they’ve saved by not having to pay for eviction storage or street move on/clear up of possessions. We've got figures for the amount of people we're storing for right now to show that if this was all done though commercial storage, it would cost over £575,000. That's the kind of monetary evidence we can give to funders to show them that this is an essential service that is being provided for £200,000 a year, to over 180 people experiencing homelssness, with six staff and two storage units.
Simplicity - our ultimate sophistication
The simplicity of what we do is what I’m most proud of. There are so many organisations that have an incredible impact but their impact can be less immediate, and successes vary. At Street Storage, if someone leaves their belongings with us, even if they don’t speak to us for six months and then come back to collect their stuff, we have stopped that individual from being judged as a ‘homeless person’. We’ve allowed them to work or get housing if they are capable, ready and willing to do so. Within half an hour, we take away a mental strain for people, just by taking their cases, we have already done that for them if nothing more.
I’m also really proud of our work through one-to-one advocacy. We work with housing and advice services, law centres, refugee projects and domestic violence survivor networks. We provide a lot of other services as well, including emergency grants for phones and Oyster cards, doing our best to make our community’s lives easier.
Recently, we’ve been considering how we need to fundraise more sustainably, in order to develop and grow. Therefore, this year we want to increase our public profile. In the homelessness sector we are really well-known, and large and small organisations work with us weekly. However, if you ask a person at the bus stop or in the Pret queue, they will probably know St Mungos and the Big Issue but they won’t know who we are.
We want to be able to diversify our funding and improve our marketing and communications so that we become the leader in storage provision for this community.
Our greatest mission at the moment is to create what we’re calling internally a ‘mega unit’. We’ve done a bit of market research with our community and the organisations we work with to find out how important it would be to have storage centres in North, South, East and West London, or whether it would be better to have a giant headquarters. We discovered that leasing, managing, staffing, managing rental costs, heating and Wi-Fi for four buildings across London is really not financially or time viable. With a ‘mega unit’, we will have space for volunteer caseworkers, a room for one-to-one advocacy, sofas and somewhere to charge your phone and have a coffee (as well as storing belongings, obviously!) all in one place.
It’s a lot of work to get there though. Over the next eighteen months, to pay for this 10,000 sq.ft unit, we will need to raise almost the same as our entire income. We’re going to try to pitch it to bodies like the Greater London Authority and landlords to try to get free or discounted space. Hopefully, we can get that, but if not, we will rent a space. That’s our next stage - it’s really exciting!
If we are able to create this giant headquarters, we will be able to create a document to show how we did this. We can show how we set it all up in terms of budget, kit-out fees and staffing requirements.
"Do you want a Street Storage in your area? Here’s how!”
We’ve had referrals and enquiries in the past from all over the UK and, with this evidence and how-to document, we’ll be able to go to Manchester, Swindon, Plymouth or anywhere else, and say, "do you want a Street Storage in your area? Here’s how!”
Thank you for reading my guest blog, and please share it widely if you can. I'd love to read any comments you can add below. It would be great to hear your thoughts, similar experiences and advice.
Rachel Woolf, Founder and Director, Street Storage.
And please comment below on Rachel's blog and work - we'd love your feedback.