A Bold Move from Westminster

Former Lead Commissioner for Supported Housing and Rough Sleeper Services, Robert White, has made a bold move from Westminster City Council to join Mayday Trust, an organisation which has found that people are being institutionalised and trapped in social care systems. Robert joins Mayday as Director of Change to drive a paradigm shift throughout London and the South East, focusing on changing the systems people encounter when seeking help through tough times, such as homelessness. This new work is being funded by Oak Foundation and the Lankelly Chase Foundation, both renowned for investing in forward-thinking and radical new ideas.

Robert has spent the last six years at Westminster City Council, championing its brave and open-minded response to tackling homelessness. This includes commissioning London’s first Personal Transitions Service (PTS) team, which offers people experiencing homelessness the opportunity to work alongside a PTS Coach to recognise and build on strengths, similar to how top athletes are trained, while creating friends and connections in the local community away from homeless services.

As part of his work, Robert will continue to work with willing Local Authority Commissioner’s in London and the South East to launch the UK’s first Transitions Pilot, developing a new commissioning response for homelessness services. This new way of working will aim to eradicate the many systemic barriers people face when trying to move on from a tough time.

Robert White, Director of Change at Mayday Trust said: “Change is always daunting but seeing such progressive and confident investment from the likes of Oak Foundation and Lankelly Chase is a reassuring reminder that we are moving in the right direction. Now is the time for change, this funding further cements a joint commitment to reconstructing a system that works for the individual and I’m excited to be a part of that alongside Local Authority colleagues.”

Joe Doran, Lankelly Chase said: “This is an exciting step towards reimagining how social commissioning architecture could work for everyone. Mayday’s approach and values have disrupted how service providers work with people and we are curious to see whether using a similar methodology and the same values could have an equal effect on how those services are designed in the first place.”

Read Robert’s latest blog on his move from Westminster, or for more on Mayday’s work in London and the South East, please get in touch

A Move for Change

Mayday welcomes Robert White to the team.

“Are you nervous?” “Are you scared?” “That’s quite a change, what will you actually be doing?” These were all valid questions, but all they really did was make me increasingly concerned that I hadn’t made the right decision. Leaving the Local Authority and joining an organisation that is constantly evolving in major ways to lead on an ambitious vision across London and the ‘South East’ (a geographical term I found myself Googling the night before) – what was I thinking?!

Hello. My name is Robert White and I have just joined Mayday Trust as their Director of Change. I did start as the Director of Change and Innovation but on my second day, a colleague told me that the term innovation was wrong and the whole thing sounded “a bit wanky” – Director of Change it is, then.

I have just left Westminster City Council where I was the Lead Commissioner for Supported Housing and Rough Sleeper Services (I know). I had been at Westminster for six years, working my way through various versions of commissioner roles. I joined the Local Authority after a couple of years leading a team in a high support, 40-bed hostel for rough sleepers. As long as you could prove to me that you smoked enough crack, drank enough vodka, heard loud enough voices and that a commissioned outreach worker had seen you “sleeping, or readying for a nights’ sleep on the street”, you could stay in my hostel and I would fix you right up. You’re welcome. I knew at that point that something wasn’t right and that we could do better, and I figured if I joined the team that designed these services I could change these services.

I think we changed services for the better…No, we definitely did. We worked hard at making sure that trauma-informed practice, person-centred support, and psychologically-informed environments were at the heart of our service provision. As a team, we balanced the expectations of residents and businesses in Westminster with the ever-growing demand for houses, places of safety, and support that was right for the individual.  The scale at which we had to do this puts our country to shame. During some of our most challenging times, outreach services could expect to meet at least six new people a day, every day. Systems, pathways, hostels, support services were all creaking at the seams with demand. During my time at Westminster, we removed over £2m from the system due to the austerity agenda and, with the invention of the Rough Sleeper Initiative, we drip-fed £3m back in.

It wasn’t until 2018 that I began to recognise that, politics and policy aside, there was something about the system that had to change. That year, we had received an effectively blank cheque from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.  They had been clear with us: do whatever you can, focus on the numbers on the street and reduce rough sleeping. The idea was, ‘if we can nail it in Westminster, the rest will follow’. The pressure was intense. We doubled the size of our night centre, housing 80 people instead of 40, we increased the size of our outreach team to reach more people, faster, we increased the capacity of the mental health team to assess and diagnose more people and get them into treatment. Housing First opportunities were doubled, and we continued to develop our assessment centre to process more and more people, as quickly as possible. All was leading to the annual street count, the questionable measure of success, a litmus test of progress; in 2017 we had seen 217 people, all services were full, teams working overtime to get people off the street, over £500k was thrust into the system to make it work…

The morning after the street count I remember feeling sad, overwhelmed and confused. We had found 306 people that night, a 30% increase in the numbers. All that work, all that time, all that money and it had made no difference. What followed was a lot of soul searching, involving, amongst other things: an inspirational trip to Scotland, a fact-finding mission to Bratislava, having a second child, a period of Parental Leave, and, dare I mention it 704 words in…coronavirus.

Where I arrived at was this.  It all boils down to one point: “change the system and not the person”. Until we truly challenge the status quo, until we collectively recognise that we are not here to fix people’s problems but to facilitate their strengths and work with them to grow in the way they want to grow, then we will continue to see numbers rise, more and more people institutionalised in a system of mass fixing and a revolving door of challenge and frustration.

I am proud of the work we achieved at Westminster, and the tenacity, passion and belief of my former colleagues is unquestionable.  But moving to Mayday Trust is a move of activism, a move to a place of true change, surrounding myself with the most incredible people who believe in a world where systems work for people going through tough times. Yes, I am nervous, yes, I am scared and yes, it is quite a change. Deep breath.

Mayday is Changing!

In 2011 Mayday did something that we hadn’t done before – we deeply listened to the people working and living with us. We didn’t ask the usual questions about people’s needs or what services they thought they needed, instead, we started each conversation with a single question, what do you think of the services you receive? And then we listened. The fascinating results have been widely circulated in the form of a publication called ‘Wisdom from the Street’.

Mayday has spent the last nine years changing every aspect of what we do as a result of what we heard, learned and experienced. We have evolved a wholly new approach to tackling homelessness called the Personal Transitions Service (PTS), and we have transformed from a medium-size supported housing charity to a national influencer for strategic change.

As part of our ongoing adaptation to respond to what we learn and experience from working in a person-led way, we will be transferring our current work at Bruce House and associated properties in Westminster to Changing Lives, one of our first PTS Innovation Partners in 2017, who have adopted the PTS approach across their work and have been modelling person-led change in the North East of England. We will be continuing to work closely with Changing Lives, making the transition as seamless as possible for people currently working and living with us.

Mayday will be continuing to work in the area, as alongside Westminster City Council, has received investment to evolve a new commissioning approach. This will be built around the person and their transition through a tough time, as opposed to a system divided into silos focusing on problems. This is a very exciting next phase for the work and we will be further developing our work in London and the South East.  This change will take place on the 1st October 2020.

The reason for the change is that Mayday’s focus will now be on System Change. With a huge level of support and backed by a number of investors, we will be soon launching our new work and partnerships from across England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland with individuals and organisations who share our passion in creating a new person-led system for those going through tough times, such as homelessness. So watch this space!

For information on the PTS services now offered by Changing Lives in Westminster please contact Amy.middleton@changing-lives.org.uk

Please contact marsha.rule@changing-lives.org.uk for housing referrals which are accepted via The Clearing House.