Wellbeing Walks - Equipping Homeless People for Life Article

© Crisis UK

A recent equipment donation is helping a Crisis UK walking group to look and feel the part, boosting both comfort and self-esteem. The charity's Wellbeing Walks in the Peak District aim to improve physical fitness, social skills and self-confidence for homeless people.

"We don't belong here!" This was the conclusion reached by a participant in one of Crisis UK's homeless Wellbeing Walks during a visit to Hathersage. Around him, 'outdoorsy types' were dressed head-to-toe in a rainbow of bright jackets fashioned from technical fabrics.  

The walks have boosted members' confidence and self-esteem.  © Crisis UK
The walks have boosted members' confidence and self-esteem.
© Crisis UK

"He was wearing jogging bottoms and Nike Airs," Steve Sylvan, a Progression Coach at Crisis UK, the national charity for homeless people, recalled. "I totally get why he felt out of place."

While the concept of an outdoor 'uniform' of sorts would seem exclusionary and somewhat objectionable, it's not just about looking the part — wearing practical clothing and footwear is key to ensuring safety, comfort and enjoyment outdoors. But for homeless people who are taking their first steps in an alien environment, fitting in means one less source of anxiety getting in the way of getting out and about in the hills. 

Outdoor clothing is notoriously expensive, and with little to no disposable income, purchasing appropriate equipment is a major hurdle for Crisis members wishing to access the outdoors.

Recognising an opportunity to help, Mountain Equipment recently donated waterproof jackets and trousers, down jackets, soft shells and rucksacks to the charity — a mixture of samples and old kit that was very lightly used (e.g. from photoshoots), and some returned products that would usually end up in factory sales.

Resting during a Crisis UK Wellbeing Walk.  © Crisis UK
Resting during a Crisis UK Wellbeing Walk.
© Crisis UK

The equipment has been put to good use on Wellbeing Walks in recent weeks, enabling members to get more out of the sessions initiated and run by Steve, who joined Crisis UK three years ago.

While shadowing colleagues who were running outdoor walks for vulnerable groups alongside National Park rangers, he saw the potential to do more. 

"I went on this walk and the guy running the sessions was leaving," Steve said. "I thought 'This is awesome!' I went back to work and said: 'I think you're missing a trick, we can do something brilliant here.'"

Following consultation with Crisis members, Steve built a year-long outdoors programme tied into the John Muir Award. The Wellbeing Walks are unique to his South Yorkshire 'Skylight' (a Crisis support centre) and are co-led by National Park Rangers, combining physical activity with bird spotting, searching for flora and fauna and cooking.

Enjoying the views on a Wellbeing Walk.  © Crisis UK
Enjoying the views on a Wellbeing Walk.
© Crisis UK

The walks are just a small part of Steve's day-to-day role as a Progression Coach, which involves helping members leave homelessness behind for good through gaining qualifications, employment and finding accommodation.

"The Wellbeing Walks is the part I'm really passionate about, alongside helping people to sort their benefits, advocating on their behalf to councils, helping them access housing and dealing with their landlord and managing debt," he said.

Besides helping with general life skills and administration, Steve also aims to rebuild members' confidence, resilience and self-esteem. The Wellbeing Walks have proved a useful tool for personal and social development.

"Anxiety is a massive issue for participants," he said. "Going out into an unknown environment with no safety net, no McDonalds, no this or that, going into the outdoors can be quite scary. On the flipside, they get a sense of adventure and achievement because we're walking a fair distance and at elevation, so there's a physical challenge for those more used to walking round the town centre." 

Walking in outdoor spaces also helps members to open up outside the confines of a therapy room. Steve uses this novel environment to discuss tough topics.

"Being in the outdoors, you're not tied to make eye contact or sit in a chair," he said. "It creates an internal freedom for conversation, too — if you're tired, you're putting one foot in front of the other and you're in the zone, which offers a sense of peace and clarity. The conversations we have are of value, they have a purpose. I'm comfortable with talking about the things people have to deal with: anxiety, drug use, abuse, and so on." 

Walking in the Peak District.  © Crisis UK
Walking in the Peak District.
© Crisis UK

The sessions have improved members' confidence and are so popular that many do their utmost to continue with the walks, even after finding work.

"We were at a launch event for a social enterprise who are employing some members of the walking group," Steve said. "The difference in the members was visible — just being able to be in that room full of media who are asking them questions. Some negotiate time off with their manager in order to continue to access the walks as they still recognise their value."

Steve also instigated indoor bouldering sessions, given their proven positive benefits for mental health and wellbeing. "I joked, how about a bouldering session?" he said. "It was really popular and now I have a grant to support me in achieving my RCI (Rock Climbing Instructor) award. People really got into it and ultimately we're member focused — we support them, so if they're coming back to us saying this is really good, we want more of it, the charity supports it."

Exploring new environments.  © Crisis UK
Exploring new environments.
© Crisis UK

After a few bouldering sessions, members also tried roped climbing, which provided yet more learning opportunities and discussion points.

"What was fascinating was watching how different anxieties played out," Steve said. "For some people, as the height increased, their anxiety would decrease because of the security the rope offers. But then some of the most confident boulderers struggled on the roped climbs. What that gives us is an opportunity to talk through that and discuss how this applies in life as well. Climbing up walls or peaks, we use it as an analogy for life." 

In a recent film about the Wellbeing Walks, Steve chats to Ben, a Crisis member who has taken part in the scheme for nine months. Steve describes a challenging walk up Kinder Scout, which rapidly caused Ben's attitude to shift from "I'm not going to do this!" to "I'm going to do this!" - from intimidation to motivation - as soon as he got going.

Last Christmas, the South Yorkshire Crisis team enjoyed a walk with rangers, topped off with a campfire curry in the forest where members were presented with their John Muir Awards. Steve expressed a need for proper equipment in order to enhance the experience for members following the Hathersage incident. Through word of mouth, help was found. 

"The walks are beneficial to the members and obviously keeping warm and dry while on them is only a good thing!" Dr Matt Fuller, Product Engineer at Mountain Equipment, said. "While it's horrible to think that a dress code is required for being outdoors, there's some truth in it, and no one wants to feel like an outsider when hiking. Hopefully having some dedicated outdoor loan kit at Crisis means that the members can feel more at home on these walks."

Walking among the Peak District gritstone.  © Crisis UK
Walking among the Peak District gritstone.
© Crisis UK

Steve is confident that the gear will continue to transform his sessions and ultimately people's lives.

"It's given us the opportunity to empower the people we're supporting, so they walk up in a hardshell and waterproof trousers and that piece of anxiety is dealt with," he said. "They can be anxious about other things, but they don't need to be anxious not looking like they don't know their stuff. Nobody should feel like that, because the outdoors is for everyone."

Steve is currently looking for support in sourcing walking boots for the group - if any companies can help, email natalie @

Watch a video about the walks below:

Find out more about Crisis UK and their Wellbeing Walks.

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16 Mar

Thanks for adding this.

I'm interested in the background, differences between etc for those who may have found "a place" within the climbing community - for whom having no money was a setback, but was outweighed by the "social security" of belonging on other terms - and people who find themselves displaced in other ways.

I'm concerned about the increasing emphasis on difficulty and equipment, versus the magic of climbing at it's simplest. Hitching to Sheffield in the early eighties, I remember the only ticket required was that you loved climbing.

29 Mar

Hiya Dave,

I'm steve from above. I think the big difference here is the social anxiety/small world feeling which many of the folks we support are battered by.

29 Mar

The outdoors has much to offer everyone and I imagine there are few groups who could benefit more from it than this group. I'm sure many of these folk feel inferior and judged on a daily basis so anything that helps them overcome that to get involved in a constructive activity is a very good thing IMO.

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