Story 48 - Blog

Victoria's Story

Victoria Stark CBE was Chief Executive of Look Ahead for over 34 years. She was awarded a CBE for services to homeless people in 2002. 

I joined Look Ahead in 1981 as Organising Secretary, working with the organisation’s founder, retired civil servant, Mary Jones.  Before then, I had been at the Housing Corporation where I had got to know the organisation well, through my work in regulation. 

When I became Chief Executive following Mary’s retirement from the Committee in 1986, just 12 years after Look Ahead’s ‘birth’, Look Ahead was already providing over 700 bed spaces a night and supporting nearly 2000 people a year. 

Back then, this was primarily through our central London hostels. The organisation had purchased large buildings in Victoria, Aldgate, Earls Court and Bayswater back in the 1970s, to accommodate single people on low incomes. But as the social and political landscape changed, so did the hostels. We began supporting homeless people, often coming direct from the streets. As a result, the whole axis of the organisation shifted. 

And Look Ahead continued to evolve. In time, we made the conscious decision to start supporting people with mental health needs, needs that were increasingly evident in our hostels. And then later came services for individuals with learning disabilities and also young people. We were continuously developing, responding and shifting in response to the needs people presented with. This agility, that is very much part of Look Ahead’s blueprint, is something that has been there from the beginning. 

Look Ahead’s history is full of colour and characters. I have so many vivid memories; from the Colonels who ran the early hostels to Baroness Casey, then a senior civil servant, touring the London streets in a taxi, picking up rough sleepers and dropping them at our door. Our work with the arts to engage our customers and improve our spaces, was a particular personal highlight and one I am pleased to see has continued to this day. There was also the extraordinary occasion when international music star, Cher visited the Aldgate Hostel to celebrate our arts projects. She was shooting a film around the corner and living in E1. Without the pictures that were taken on the day, I don’t think anyone would have quite believed it. 

One of my last key roles at Look Ahead was overseeing the closure of our large hostels – buildings that were no longer fit for purpose. This was concluded in September 2012 when the last customer moved out of our Aldgate Hostel – and we, literally, closed the door on 35 years of service delivery in our large hostel buildings. We knew back then, almost twelve years ago, that the future of supporting vulnerable people no longer lay in these big labyrinthine buildings but in much smaller bespoke settings with good quality accommodation and facilities. The financial foundations that those hostels provided still enables Look Ahead, to this day, to invest and develop, in both homelessness services and properties that better meet people’s needs.  

It was wonderful to be part of Look Ahead’s 50th anniversary event last summer. Walking in, I was instantly surrounded by old colleagues, staff, board members, partners, customers and friends So many amazing people that have played a part in Look Ahead’s rich history. It was clear that whilst Look Ahead may be an ever-changing organisation, it is people that have resolutely remained at the organisation’s heart and Look Ahead’s drive to support people to live better, more independent lives has never been stronger. 

Being Chief Executive of Look Ahead was a huge privilege, a role like no other. I could not be prouder of all that we achieved, and the work that continues to this day.