Through the Eye of the Storm

Sarah Tully, PTS Manager at Cherrytree shares a personal account of her own tough time, the realisation of what is really needed from people, organisations and the system during these times.

So, the last few weeks of Coronavirus has been one long.. I hesitate to say rollercoaster ride, because that is actually fun. No, it’s been one long spiralling ball of loss, plummeting down a depreciating hillside.

First it was the small inconveniences. No pasta, or at least only yucky wholemeal pasta! The possibility of no loo roll – I warned my kids we might have to cut up newspaper like in the “olden days,” but the need never really materialised. Then it was “don’t mingle.”  I was a bit reticent to give up my right to gather, after all it’s my human right isn’t it?

At that stage it was still almost fun, novel even.  A group of us went into the woods with some bevvies to celebrate my daughter’s birthday- yeah look at us being resourceful but still managing to enjoy ourselves!

And at work it became how to navigate the changing unknown and create policies to make us feel in control.

In the background we had the uncomfortable facts coming from China – that’s a long way away.  Italy is a bit closer, but maybe it’s just because they’ve managed it wrong.

Then my dream family holiday got cancelled and I grieved that. Three weeks in Sri Lanka; a special time for my family to get together. I’d been planning it for the best part of a year.  I was devastated.  This was more than inconvenient.

And then the schools shut – WTF!

And then my dad got ill.

He wouldn’t go to hospital and the paramedics wouldn’t take him.  I tried to stay away for fear of bringing him an unwelcome present, but last Friday it became too much to bear listening to his and his wife’s distress, so I pegged it down the motorway to London to find him close to death in his bed.

“I don’t feel well enough to go to hospital,” his words barely audible.

“Dad, you’re not supposed to feel well when you go to hospital.  Don’t worry I’ll stay with you dad,” I reassured him.

I went with him in the ambulance kitted up like anonymous cybermen.  He was sat up on the trolley, but I had to hold onto him on the bends for fear of him falling off, he was so frail.

When we got to the hospital we waited in a queue.  It was like a scene from the Handmaid’s tale.  Men with walkie talkies in charge of our liberty.  And then came the news that I wasn’t allowed in.

I haven’t seen him since and that was Friday and it’s Monday now.  The only news we’ve had was yesterday on the 100th call we made someone answered and clumsily told us that dad had Coronavirus and is on oxygen.

We wept for him and for what it means for us.

The hardest part is thinking of him on his own.

So, we visualise him comfortable and warm and getting the help that he needs.  That’s all we have.

I find myself waiting to hear of my father’s lonely death.  I am worried my step- mother will also fall ill, or me.  I can’t say I’m not afraid.

I am confined to this small flat, sleeping on the sofa without my things, without my food and without my children and family.  And I can’t go home.

I am on my knees.

I could say that this is a living nightmare and it is, but that wouldn’t be the whole picture.

In between the grief and worry I have got to know my step mum better…like really better. We’ve laughed a lot and I’ve had the opportunity to wait on her for a change.  Her having looked after my dad these last few years and her mum before that.  I’ve discovered Wanstead flats where the blossom’s out.  I’ve made two new friends, downstairs-virtually- who have offered to get us things and an amazing ex-military male nurse who has fully taken this on, organising rotas etc.

What I thought I needed to get through this was to close my front door and baton down the hatches and hope for the best.

I thought I just needed it to all be over, quickly, so I could have my friends round and get drunk again.  I thought I needed a three week holiday on a tropical island to get close to my family – It would still be nice, but this has made us closer, if not physically.  Even my 15-year-old has been texting me and he rang me to ask about his pocket money –  I think he’s grieving his old life!

My friends and family have been fantastic.  Really empathetic and sympathetic and there for me.

But through all of this these are the things that I want and from people and systems:

  • For someone to hear me say I’m not ok
  • For someone to believe me when I say I am ok
  • Information
  • For people to send me funny stories/videos
  • To hear about other people’s stories
  • For people not to feel so sorry for me they can’t tell me about them
  • To ask me what I need
  • To be real
  • Dark humour, especially about death
  • Those texts which say you are amazing/ you are strong/ you can do it
  • For people not to transfer their own grief onto me
  • Expertise and connection from professionals
  • Practical help
  • Not having to keep repeating my story
  • Exercise
  • Nature
  • Activity
  • Counting my blessings
  • Acknowledging that there are people worse off around the globe e.g. In Syria
  • For people to not need “updating,” if I don’t want to
  • If I break down, to not think that’s the only way I am
  • For me to help others too
  • Netflix
  • Love
  • Music

Yesterday I felt shite.  Really shite.

Today my new London neighbour has bought me an avocado (I know, poncy under the circumstances but this reminds me of my old life).

For now I have chosen to reframe my situation.  I am on a reading and writing retreat and a holiday from the daily load of washing my family produces.  My dad has gone away to the best place possible for the best treatment in the world to give him the best possible chance.

Reflecting on what I need during this time has reinforced how important it is for us, as individuals and organisations working alongside people experiencing tough times, to be person-led, to listen, to be real and do our best to provide the support that a person needs, rather than the support the system predicts is needed.

(Ring any bells PTS?)

The Impact of COVID-19 – The New Normal

Sarah Tully, PTS Manager at Innovation Partner Cherrytree Support Services, looks at the impact of COVID-19, broken systems and the new restrictions on how we live our lives – but is this ‘new’ for everyone?

We’re all struggling with the impact of COVID-19, but don’t underestimate the people we are working with..

My dream holiday’s cancelled, my friend’s son’s new wife from USA can’t get a visa, the family down the road have got the virus – everyone has a personal story, everyone had a few facts to fling about in the last halcyon minutes of face to face communication.

Everyone feels vulnerable, everyone is vulnerable, this virus transcends class, race, borders, reason even. Every slight cough leaves everyone on tenterhooks including the cougher- have they got it? have I got it?

And yes, sure there are some people more vulnerable than others. The elderly and people with underlying health issues are two obvious categories. People living on their own are at the mercy of neighbours, friends and family if they get ill.

Never has the concept of home been so pertinent with the latest direction coming from Central Government to “stay at home,” and for people experiencing homelessness or people going through tough times this has huge implications. If they are on the street or in a hostel, they are compromised by the probability of not being able to self- isolate. There are a whole list of potential inequalities and disadvantages.

And for this reason, we have made adjustments to Cherrytree Personal Transitions Service (PTS). The PTS Coaches have made themselves more available by telephone and video link. They have tried to check in with everyone we’ve ever worked with. We have decided that if one of the young people gets ill and needs supplies in the name of support and prevention, we will deliver a bag of shopping compliments of CherrytreePTS.

But make no mistake it is not the people we work with who are panicking. They are not making bizarre knee-jerk decisions or fretting about their lives going to hell in a hand cart because systems are not working for them. They have a huge long resume of systems not working for them. So, they can only go shopping once a week- what’s new? On sanctions you can go weeks with no money to go to the supermarket.

Whilst we lament our pub gatherings with friends, our career saving childcare, our favourite artisan bread or latte made with oat milk, the people we work with are getting on with it in a way they have always had to.

So, a Coach had a call from someone she worked with. She has two small children and one on the way. She chatted and mentioned that she had no nappies. No nappies! Exclaimed the Coach immediately donning her cape and going into rescue mode in a way that is understandable, kind and familiar to us all in the “caring” sector. Within a day the young women had used her resources and connections to source four packs of nappies herself. These people are survivors. They are used to living in a social state of inequality and deprivation.

Another coach reported a sense of resigned calm from the people she works with. There is something vaguely satisfying that this shit is happening to everyone, equally!

So, I am not saying the people we work with are not vulnerable, but it is still necessary, vital even that you don’t diminish their power by going into unnecessary rescue mode. We can learn from people who have or are going through tough times about resilience, resourcefulness and patience – because let’s face it they are the experts.

The Illusion of Choice. Person-led or just a Buzzword?

Andy Durman, PTS Coach at Mayday, reflects on what it means to be ‘person-led’ in the current system available to people experiencing homelessness.

How often do we hear that services are person-led and that if things haven’t gone to plan (the services plan that is), it was due to an individual’s poor decisions? Yet when we speak to people who have experienced these ‘person-led’ services the story sounds very different and the impact/damage of such experiences is sadly, very evident.

When you look a little closer and having worked within the system and listened to many people experiencing it, it’s easy to see how you can create the illusion of being person-led. Many organisations honestly believe that the people they work with have full control and power over their lives and direction – this might be the case, as long as someone moves through the right pathway, making the right decisions that is. If things don’t work out organisations can seek reassurance that it was the individual’s choice ‘not to engage’, rather than reflecting on the impact of the system or even their own role on that particular outcome.

The system currently dictates a person’s story, their choices and the direction that’s right for them. For example:

You find a place in a hostel, you are told you can stay here for six months. On your referral it states you have risks around alcohol intake and debt, so you will be signposted to a substance misuse service and must attend an in house budgeting course.

Once you are ready (in six months, after you have proven you are ‘tenancy ready’) you will be recommended to the local authority who will look to get you into a property. It is unlikely that you will have any control over where you are accommodated and largely felt that you should be grateful for whatever you get.

Unfortunately it’s very possible that this property will feel sterile and due to its new location away from everything you know and your networks you will also feel isolated.

However it is still your choice whether you would like to engage/do/agree with this plan that has been created for you. If you do choose to successfully ‘move on’ and understandably  you find it hard to adjust and make it work, you will have made yourself ‘intentionally homeless’ and forfeit any support in housing from the local authority. You chose to fail and the system has done everything it could to support you.

I struggle to see any person-led approach within this. I fail to see where the person and what they feel they need from the system comes through. This system will never work. That individual will re-enter the ‘cycle of homelessness’ of which so many organisations claim to break.

If you find yourself back at a hostel (probably the same one) you will be vigorously interviewed, asking what happened, why did it not work, what did you do that made it fail? And so it starts all over again, only this time probably with some additional arrears from your former sterile and isolated ‘home’ that you chose to leave. Each time you re-enter the system, more of your dignity, humanity, character, personality, talents and skills get stripped away. 10 years down the line and you are an entrenched, hard to reach, complex homeless person.

What I will say is that by some miracle this does not happen to everyone and this is 100% down to those individuals own unimaginable resilience, strength and courage and those professionals within the system who are mavericks, who see individuals as people, who focus individual context and strengths, who recognise the barriers the system creates and who walk alongside people going through tough times without an agenda.

We need to change the narrative of the system so that the individual has the freedom to write their own story. To be the author of their own lives. Then we can say we are truly person-led.

Relational Leadership in the Real World

Personal Transitions Service (PTS) Manager, Katie-Lee Moroney, reflects on what it takes to be a good manager, the role and the importance of relationships over power imbalances.

When I first got the call saying I had got the job with Mayday Trust in 2013, I remember saying to a colleague ‘I can’t believe I am going to be a Manager!’ I was so pleased that Mayday had taken the time to recognise my skills and could hopefully see that I had the potential to be a good leader. I also remember spending a significant amount of time thinking about what sort of ‘Manager’ I would be. Wondering how people would know to trust me? Questioning if I had enough knowledge to share? Worrying how people might feel about me being a bit younger?

I looked back on the different management techniques I had experienced, such as the ‘the micro-manager’, ‘the Manager who doesn’t really know you at all’ and not forgetting ‘the Manager who uses power to control’. It occurred to me that I saw these as times as being ‘managed’, rather than being led or inspired to do well in my role – this is similar to John Maxwell’s* idea of leadership through position, which doesn’t really get you anywhere! The positive experiences of leadership prior to Mayday were unfortunately in the minority, but when they did occur they stood out and positively contributed to me forming my own leadership style rather than focusing on being a ‘Manager’.

Now six years into to my role at Mayday I am very much still learning and developing but have come to realise the fundamental importance of relational leadership. My role has changed rapidly in this time and alongside this my values and beliefs in what makes a good leader have also grown. Since starting as a PTS Manager I have been lucky enough to work with some amazing leaders and they have all contributed to how I work today and how I work with my team. My style has become more representative of building strong relationships and also leading based on results and buy in.

Here are some of the things I have learned (it’s not always been the easy way!):

Know what you know and be comfortable with what you don’t – I came to Mayday Trust with transferable skills from the education sector, but I had no first-hand experience working with people experiencing homelessness. Mayday’s Personal Transitions Service prioritises working without labels and treating people as people, and luckily for me these were the same values I had bought into in previous roles. I also work with a brilliant team who have a wealth of experience working with people and help me each day to understand what this is like.

I look forward to 1-2-1’s each month as the Coaches stories, successes and challenges bring the PTS to life for me. I am comfortable with not having first-hand experience as it has made me a better listener. What I do know is that my strengths lie in project management and bringing a team together. I am a good details person and a brilliant planner, which means I am able to balance the different contracts we hold to allow the Coaches to do what they do best and that’s putting the people they work with first.

Be transparent, but also know when to act as a buffer – As a leader in an ever changing organisation I can be privy to lots of information, it’s important I know what to share and what not to share. Transparency is important, but knowing what’s best for team morale is equally as important. The PTS focuses on Coaches building trusting relationships with the people they work with and similarly in my role I need to build these relationships with the Coaches in my team. The Coaches need to trust that I will share what they need to know at the right time; allowing their entire focus to be on the person and not external pressures.

Recognition – Recognise all the extra effort your team invests in ensuring that the people they work with have a positive experience with the PTS. Recognise that flexible working shouldn’t mean working more hours than usual and having your phone on 24/7. In the difficult financial landscape we are in it is difficult to provide progression, however by recognising someone’s assets and talents and utilising them when opportunities present themselves can be a way to help a Coach feel further valued.

Nobody likes a last minute panicker! – The PTS is always changing and evolving, it hardly ever stays still at Mayday! This requires an extraordinary amount of organisation to ensure that planning, monitoring, projects, development and team sessions all take place when they should.  It’s essential I have my eye on the ball (more like balls at the moment!), the future and the unknown!

Sharing the learning – When working across a large geographical area I have discovered that it is really important that both success and challenges are recognised and shared to allow other teams, who potentially don’t directly deliver the PTS, to experience and understand things from the Coaches point of view. This could be through good news stories, shared team meetings, reflective practice and other more informal channels. It is also just as important that it goes the other way as well. Growing the PTS, working with other organisations and overcoming barriers beyond delivery are all areas that can help a Coach see the bigger picture, recognise the important part they are playing in creating that paradigm shift in the systems available to people going through tough times. Unlike many of the roles I have been in previously, the PTS is one big team – #OneTeam if we’re talking Twitter!

Strong relationships run throughout everything I have mentioned. Without trusting relationships and a like-minded team with you, it is very difficult to be a good leader. Alongside these relationships it’s crucial that I know when to let the talents of a team shine and when to refocus my attention. Due to the changeable nature of the Mayday I have no doubt that the role I have today will probably look very different in 12 months or even next week. Whatever happens I will continue to learn, develop and evolve. I have so much more to learn and I hope my experiences will continue to shape me and my leadership style. Just like the people we work with, I have the potential to do and become whatever I want!

* Maxwell, J.C., 2011, The Five Levels of Leadership – Proven steps to Maximize your Potential, New York: Centre Street

The Importance of a Community

After attending the Better Way Roundtable, Amy Middleton, PTS Manager and Coach at Mayday Trust, reflects on the importance of community and real relationships when supporting people going through tough times.

I recently attended a Better Way Roundtable which discussed the topic organisations without ‘walls’ – these are organisations which focus on communities, rather than structures, and solutions not services.

I’ve always known that communities are an integral part of our society, but before working for Mayday Trust I don’t think I gave the topic a deeper level of thought. Reflecting on this now I think about why this may be, and what it comes down to is this question – What do people turn to communities for?

My time is split between going to work, spending time with my partner, and seeing friends and family. Relationships on all different levels are what I believe keep me going and what they provide me with is all encompassing. They make me feel valued and loved, give me a sense of belonging and a purpose, provide me with emotional and even financial support when times are tough, they are ultimately what give my life meaning and direction.

For many of the people that we work with, they don’t have these relationships and informal support networks around them and no amount of formal support services offered are going to provide them with what they truly need to be able lead a fulfilling life. So many people who have experienced homelessness when asked will say that they don’t have anybody to list as a next of kin, so will put a worker’s contact details down instead. I think many of us would find it almost impossible to imagine what it must feel like for the only people in your life to be those that are paid to be there, or those that you have no choice but to socialise with simply because you have a shared circumstance of being homeless.

Of course services exist with good intentions, we want to help and we want to do good, but surely there comes a point when we realise there is a limit to what we can do and we definitely can’t act as a replacement for real connections. These connections are formed organically through shared interests or values that will continue on beyond the life of paid services. Are services actually doing the opposite of what they set out to do, creating dependency with a complete power imbalance whereby we as the service are there to fix people’s perceived problems?

The answer to this has always been obvious, we should be supporting people to create peer support networks and find things they enjoy doing to get involved in. Although with good intentions, efforts have gone array, we have created an endless list of services specifically for people who are homeless, such as homeless GP, football teams and haircuts. In doing this we have segregated people who already feel marginalised even further from mainstream society, which makes that psychological leap out of homelessness even greater.

People will often speak of feeling part of a homeless community and of course it’s understandable that you would turn to others who are going through a similar difficult situation for support, but the issue appears when people start to carry the label of being a homeless person and can’t see beyond that. When people feel that they no longer fit into their existing local community because all they have available to them are services and groups with other ‘homeless people’. As a sector we need to take a step back and ask an awkward question; have we created and perpetuated this problem?

There is also the matter of achieving sustainable change, with sustainable being the operative word. I think it’s fair to say that all organisations within the homelessness sector have the objective to help people move into their own long term independent accommodation, but with everybody trying to meet different KPI’s and outcomes to produce good ‘move on’ data to meet contract requirements, do we not run the risk of pushing people to take a big leap into an unknown and scary world that they are unprepared to cope in?

It happens all too often that people are moved on, into their own accommodation after many years of homelessness, sometimes in a completely new area. We are then surprised when months down the line the tenancy breaks down and we see the same people back in homelessness services to start the whole cycle all over again. We can provide all the practical support to help with managing a tenancy, but if people are socially isolated and feel they don’t have a purpose or a sense of belonging, then of course they are going to return back to what is familiar to them, with people they know, even if that does mean returning to the streets.

One of the key interventions of the Personal Transitions Service is building positive networks and the value of this can’t be overlooked. Our Coaches work alongside people to help them connect with others and organisations in the local community. This is done by exploring interests and hobbies, as well as brokering personalised opportunities. People can then naturally develop new friendships and positive networks outside of services. By encouraging and empowering people to build their own support network they should be able to cope when they come across tough times and start to see an identity beyond homelessness.

Sustainability is at the heart of everything we do. Coaches build up trusting relationships with people to be able to explore what truly matters to them. By identifying people’s strengths, interests and aspirations and then linking them in to personalised opportunities within the community a person can start to rebuild their identity, ultimately helping them to feel good about themselves and ignite their internal motivation to take control of their future.

Shifting the focus away from weakness, fixing, and segregation, as well as overcoming the systemic barriers is at the heart of everything we do with the Personal Transitions Service, so for me it seems obvious that a total paradigm shift in the current system is essential if we are to really make a positive difference. Organisations without ‘walls’ allows us to take a step back, rebalance the power dynamics and put people in the driving seat of their own lives. By building positive support networks and remaining in local communities, people are more likely to make a sustained change in their lives and not only move on from their tough time, but also be prepared for the next bump in the road.

Strange Times

David Hurst, Director of Operations at Mayday Trust, explores the power and importance of relationships as he embarks on his own transition away from Mayday and onto his next adventure.

Strange times indeed, after four and half years I am now just about to enter my own transition, it’s time for me to move on and start a new journey. I’ve been thinking hard about my time working alongside the amazing Mayday Trust team and how I could acknowledge their unbelievable commitment. I could write about their talent, passion, determination and humanity but I genuinely believe the team would not appreciate being so highly praised in public. The Mayday crew are a very humble lot who will always put others before themselves; so what do I say, how do I reflect my feelings as I step away and leave behind a team of guys whom I hold in the highest possible regard.

So maybe I am going to confuse you for a few minutes but please stay with me. For 17 years I worked in prisons and managed to find my way into a comfortable leadership position, a steady role with a decent enough pension. I had a good team who were settled, systems worked well and the people we worked with generally took a positive view to their imprisonment. So what took me away from this relatively cushy position?

I was on the wing one evening as I would often stay back because it allowed me to observe how the staff worked and sometimes I would just chat to the men in our care, without the barriers of the daytime routine. On this particular evening I was making a cup of tea when the alarm sounded. I emerged to find two men fighting.

One of the men involved had been a heavy weight trainer for 10 years, he was very intimidating and very angry. Staff jumped in to separate the men and a female officer took a blow to her face. More support arrived, a shank was found on the floor and the other prisoners were becoming agitated. The situation was escalating rapidly. One of the men was removed leaving the angrier individual, who was now highly distressed and quickly becoming threatening. Staff surrounded him in preparation to restrain him. Tension was now so high I could almost taste it. He was screaming “..C’mon then, you lot want it, c’mon do your thing, c’mon let’s have it….”

At that very moment whilst assessing the situation, I noticed Alfie, a prison officer of some 25 plus years. He walked quietly up to this man and said very gently “Paul you need to come with me, this is not good and I’m not going to allow you to embarrass yourself further. Now c’mon let’s walk to your cell, we can sort this out”. He was tender yet quietly assertive, but in a very respectful way. It was like this officer just knew what was going on in this man’s head, he knew Paul and how Paul would respond. It was clear he understood that Paul was scared and his heightened anxiety was causing his anger towards staff.

The staff surrounding Paul were stunned to see this 6ft 20 stone mass of muscle meekly walk away with his head down alongside the officer. No more words were exchanged, but I noticed that Alfie walked alongside Paul, they were in step together, it was like the he was sharing the fiery intense space that Paul was in and sharing the anxiety and stress Paul was experiencing.

So what am I saying, why does this event from several years back still resonate. What does this episode got to do with my decision to join the Mayday team?

Well it’s all about the relationships. The situation described here would not have ended the way it did had Alfie and Paul not had a trusting and respectful relationship, with clear boundaries based on a shared unwritten agreement. Because of the power of their relationship, the officer knew what was going on for Paul. He was confident he could support Paul in a way that was non-judgemental or hostile. Paul was able to respond positively because he knew Alfie genuinely cared, there was a mutual respect.

Back in 2015 someone I really appreciated showed me a job advertised in the Guardian, Assistant Director of Operations Mayday Trust. I was encouraged to apply but to be honest I was only curious and when I submitted my application, I didn’t even expect a reply. So you can imagine my surprise when a week later I received a formal letter inviting me to an assessment day. An assessment day, what was all that about?

It was my first experience of Mayday’s unique approach. A day where I was challenged to look at myself, share who I was as a person not just as a potential employee. I remember being asked my favourite song, easy question you might think, but when you’re in that interview mind-set and tasked with explaining why Hotel California is your all-time favourite it’s quite a task! It was definitely not a conventional interview and the method, although now slightly more developed, is still used by Mayday today.

What was clear from that day was the Mayday team, like Alfie, walked alongside the people they worked with. It was an organisation that strived to create an environment where Coaches could form trusting and honest relationships with people, not tarnished by power imbalances or the traditional constraints of the job. It was something I could whole heartedly get on board with, something that resonated with everything I’d experienced in my time with the Prison Service.

Spoiler alert.. I got the job!

I suppose what I’m trying to say is for me the most impressive element of Mayday and what I’ve enjoyed being part of the most is the relationships the team have with each other and the people Coaches work with. It’s about being able to positively influence without disrespecting, disempowering or dehumanising an individual. Take my memory of Paul and Alfie. Paul initially felt he couldn’t walk away from that situation because he would lose face in front of other prisoners, his position or status on the wing would become vulnerable and his anxiety was building. However, his relationship with Alfie gave him the reassurance to see things rationally, to understand the situation and allow himself to walk away with Alfie by his side.

The Personal Transitions Service (PTS) creates an environment where relationships come first. Where someone going through a tough time is treated with humanity and respect. Coaches look beyond the crisis, the barriers and the labels. Power dynamics are balanced and focus is put on a person’s strengths and passions. People are not segregated into service led activities, instead encouraged to build positive relationships within their local communities, relationships that last beyond their tough time, relationships that can support them through the next bump in the road.

Even when faced with a system that goes against everything that the PTS stands for, the relationships between the team, the people we work with, our PTS Innovation partners, commissioners and funders are the driving force for change – a change that will see systems actually work for those going through tough times.

Everything I have described here explains why I will absolutely struggle to move on. I am now entering my own transition and I feel vulnerable, a little anxious, unsure of the future all the emotions that are normal and understandable. The difference is I will not be sucked into a system of support that will set me up to fail. I will not find myself being fixed by others who are paid to support me. I will have networks of people around me who can help and protect me. I am resilient and determined that things will be ok.
The power of relationships cannot be underestimated.

Inspired to Inspire Others

What inspires you to do what you do? Andrew Durman, PTS Coach at Mayday, revisits a moment in his career that has led to years of contemplation and still remains relevant today in his work with the Personal Transitions Service.

When I reflect on the years I have been working alongside people going through tough times and the turning points which have influenced and inspired me, one moment in particular stands out. It occurred 7 years ago when I was sent on a two day training course to learn about the Solutions Focused Brief Therapy Approach.

The trainer began with a story..

There was a professional in America (apologies for not knowing what his job role was), let’s call him Ted for this rendition, who received a letter from a man asking for advice about his sister, let’s call her Lucy. He was concerned she wasn’t happy, that she was very quiet, reserved, depressed and lonely. He was stuck, desperate and did not know what else to do or who to turn to. Ted responded saying he couldn’t promise anything but would meet with Lucy for a couple of hours to see if he could help.

The meeting went ahead and they spent an hour talking about Lucy’s life, what she got up to and pretty much everything you would ask and chat about in that situation. It came to the end of the meeting and as Ted was leaving he happened to see an open door which led through to a conservatory filled with flowers of a specific type (I cannot remember the name, but let’s call them Orchids for the purpose of this story). The rest of the house was fairly clean and tidy, with nothing really standing out, however this conservatory was full of colour, life and beauty.

He asked Lucy about the flowers and said it was obvious she put a lot of time an effort into looking after them.

During their long conversation Lucy had mentioned that she attended her local church and regularly gets invited to birthdays, open days, funerals etc. She tends to go, but keeps herself to herself. Lucy explained that although she spends time with the community, she did not have many friends or much social contact beyond that.

As Ted left he advised Lucy on one thing. When she goes to church or an event she might want to take an Orchid as a present to give or donate, something like that.

20 years went by without Ted hearing anything more, and then one day he opened a letter. It was a note from Lucy’s brother, it didn’t say much, just a thank you and included a newspaper cutting from the local paper. The article read “Well loved and admired local flower lady passes away, with 2000 people attending her funeral”.

This story was one of the main things that stood out from the entire course. Reflecting on it a number of things struck me:

  • The most useful and impactful moment for that individual happened in the last couple of minutes of the entire conversation
  • How easy it would have been for Ted to miss the most important part of Lucy’s life. If he was not looking or that door had been closed his conversation would have had no use what so ever. The obvious (label) is never the answer
  • We have to be looking beyond the surface, open to asking the right questions in order for a person to give us the clues to what really matters to them, the change they may or may not be looking to make it their life – if we’re not looking, we will not see it
  • There is no way that without seeing through to that conservatory that he could have known what was going on and what could make a difference to Lucy. It was completely individual to her. One size does not fit all and that size will not work/fit if we force it onto a person
  • It is rare that a person will share what they are passionate about with outsiders like Coaches, Key Workers and Support Workers etc. This takes time and requires a trusting relationship, usually sharing crucial details like this will only occur at a time that is right for that individual. Once shared we cannot take it for granted, we must coach, act or broker opportunities. Build on that momentum, develop that internal motivation and evidence for success. Support that person in realising that aspiration, love, passion, interest, skill, talent

What happened in that story was one person suggesting and empowering another person to share, use what they loved and were good at to provide further purpose within their life and build relationships in the community. The impact was clear to see from the amount of people that attended her funeral and obviously valued her. That is the true measure of the impact. In sharing her passion for flowers Lucy was contributing, helping and connecting with other people, whereas before it was a very personal love and interest, one which sometimes left her isolated.

How do we as professionals find a person’s love or passion and then spring board it into creating happiness, purpose and someone thriving within their life? For me this is the key and since hearing that story I have been coaching people going through tough times to search for their own conservatory full of Orchids. For it is that talent, interest and strength that will provide and lead to longevity away from the system and help them avoid being caught up within it and institutionalised.

I am not saying that this is the answer to everything, however if it can support us in looking at things differently, in a more advantaged and strength-based way. Having a long lasting positive impact on people we work with, far greater than focusing on a label, stereotype, need or risk.

We need to be able to see the freshly packed, tidy and clean rugby kit in a sports bag within a flat full of mess, dirt and fleas. Being shown the perfectly preserved photograph of someones daughter, the only possession to survive a period of homelessness. The smile brought on by telling a story about the only memory of being happy when growing up, being taken fishing by one of the many foster homes someone had been in. The ability to do a Rubik’s cube behind your back in under a minute. The knowledge brought on by the love of watching animal documentaries on TV. Inventing scotch eggs only made with mash potatoes, deep fried with a filling (that’s a winner, all you need is a converted street food van/horse box and you’re away!). Knowing so much about Elvis Presley and Shakin Stevens that he would have the ability to be able to go on Mastermind and smash his specialist subject if he ever had the opportunity.

My last thought on this; How often do we hear or see the impact that we have had on someone’s life years later, how can we realistically measure something that is so individual and could take affect long after the event? Had Ted not received that letter he would have had no idea how his conversation supported Lucy to change her life, which inevitably led to happiness. This is not necessarily so important, however it does highlight that when we are invited into someone’s life as a Coach, it is our responsibility to do our best and for that experience to have a positive impact and effect on someone. This could come years down the line and we may never know.

A learning curve and introduction to the world of PTS Coaches

Martha Bishop, Head of Partnerships at Mayday looks at the vital role of PTS Coaches and why they stand out in a system driven by deficits and power imbalance.

Firstly I would like to say loud and clear that I think PTS Coaches are awesome!

I joined Mayday in January 2018 and specifically remember being so humbled and inspired as I learned more about the Personal Transitions Service and how PTS Coaches work and what they do. It was very clear to me, first and foremost they work on building positive, and respectful relationships with people. Our Wisdoms for the Street told us that this relationship is vital when working with people going through tough times and it makes perfect sense to me. There’s a wealth of research telling us it’s the quality of the relationship that makes a difference when working 1-2-1 with people – it’s so obvious and I hope it becomes valued and recognised throughout the system. I love it when I meet policy makers, tender writers, commissioners, funders, managers and others who really get this!

When we listened to people they told us that often the ‘helping and support’ system dehumanises, degrades and humiliates them, having to relay all the negative information about themselves.  Sometimes this is a requirement to access a service, ‘go there if you are suffering with your emotional wellbeing’, or ‘If you drink or take drugs you can go over there’. Imagine needing to relay this sort of information about yourself in order to get something you need to live. I feel pretty ashamed that I’ve been part of this system, part of the problem.

Anyway, back to the important reason for writing this blog. PTS Coaches try to redress the imbalance of power people going through tough times are likely to have experienced. Just take a moment to think about the power you have in your life, the choices you can make. Now imagine feeling really powerless, like you don’t have any choices, or your choices are one dreadful situation or another slightly less dreadful situation!

PTS Coaches treat people like people – what a breath of fresh air! Not judging someone on a 12 page ‘risk assessment’, followed by a list of negatives and past experiences that really don’t make you feel good about yourself. Oh and don’t get me started on ‘risk assessments’! They should be re-named ‘how to cover the backs of the people in power’ assessments – but I digress again, that’s for another day.

PTS Coaches get to know people, not by asking what have you done, but what has happened to you? They help people to recognise their strengths, talents and abilities and they encourage them to focus on their assets. Coaching is about encouragingly, supportively asking questions to help people learn and understand more about themselves and how life has led them to where they are. Not blaming, but listening, really listening to people. Getting to know them and NOT their deficits. Coaches encourage people to find their own personal motivation, not tick a box and they certainly don’t try and get them to do things that someone else thinks they ‘should’ be doing.

Coaches really listen and offer space for people to find their own hope for their future. I think one of the crucial elements of a PTS Coach’s role is to help people see they are worthy, important, have a right to choose and deserve to make their own decisions about what’s important to them. To be able to decide what they really want to do with their life. Coaches don’t tell people what to do or advise, but walk alongside people whilst they take responsibility for making their own decisions, choosing to do things they want to. All this without putting people in boxes, without signposting or referring to segregated services.

I love how coaches encourage and enable people to build relationships outside the homelessness sector by removing barriers and brokering personalised opportunities. When I reflected on this I was saddened that in previous roles I have often set up ‘special’ aka segregated group , thinking I was ‘helping’ people, it really smacked me right between the eyes how dis-abling this was – what message would this have given to people? ‘Oh yes you can do that, but only with your ‘own kind’. I am sincerely sorry to anyone reading this who I ever encouraged to set up or attend a segregated group.

PTS Coaches are so important, they focus on removing system barriers for people, as they arise for the person they are working with, helping to make the current system better for people.

I hope if I ever do go through such tough times, a PTS Coach is there for me, as my ally; as my supportive, encouraging, non-judgemental sounding board. Providing a safe space whilst I realise what is really important to me and patiently work with me to explore what options I have. Ultimately helping me to remove the barriers in my way to help me get to where I want to be.

Go you awesome PTS Coaches!

 

What is power?

Alistair Shand, PTS Coach at Mayday Trust, looks at the importance of a question that isn’t often asked. What is power and what role should it take when working with people going through tough times?

“What is power?”

The question took me by surprise. Sitting there as someone pretty familiar with job interviews, with my guard firmly up, having rehearsed every competency-based question under the sun in preparation – this question definitely caught me unawares.

From previous job interviews I had learned that there was a fairly predictable formula to practice in order to perform well. And I’d prepared in a similar way for my interview for the position of PTS Coach with Mayday Trust. The work was very different to what I had been employed to do before, but I assumed the interview approach would be much the same as any other organisation. One size fits all. They probably just wanted to know if I could do the job, not what I was like as a person.

“What is power?”

That’s what they were asking me. In a job interview? Seems a bit deep, I thought to myself. In reality though, I found the question much less scary to answer than perhaps 10 run-of-the-mill, competency-based questions. Not because I knew lots about power and could give a really clever answer, but because it was a question which was seeking to learn about my own values. It was an open question with no right answer. It was designed to get past my polished interview technique and to understand a bit more of what makes me tick as an individual.

As I grow more into the role of an PTS Coach I often find myself reflecting on the influence of power dynamics when working with people going through tough times.

“What is power?” still seems like an extremely relevant question as I go to work 6 months into the job.

Empowerment is one of the key principles of the Personal Transitions Service. As coaches, we are there to champion the abilities and strengths of the people we work with. The way I work should at every opportunity seek to give power to the person, to encourage them make their own choices and to recognise their own unique gifts and talents. People should feel supported, but responsible for their own choices, whether they are homeless or not. If I hold all the power as a professional, then this can’t really happen.

When reflecting on my own journey to becoming an Asset Coach at Mayday, I realised that without feeling empowered to make a significant change to the kind of work I did, I probably wouldn’t have made any changes at all. I would have stayed in jobs that paid well enough but offered me little in the way of fulfillment or purpose. In other words, jobs that weren’t really right for me.

That feeling of empowerment for me took a number of forms. It was having a wife who was happy for me to explore what I really wanted to do, rather than to accept the status quo at a time when we had plenty of other things to worry about. It was also friends and even former colleagues who encouraged me to explore and take risks as I pondered next steps. It was a personal belief that work could be more than doing my hours and making a wage – it could help people in a real way.

I was supported to go and explore a new path and then make a choice which I would own and take responsibility for, whether it went well or not. So far, it has turned out much better than I could have foreseen.

Fostering this sense of empowerment is vital to coaching in the Personal Transitions Service. It is the encouragement of people we work with to utilise the strengths they possess (because everybody has strengths), to help them move forward and build a better future for themselves.

And so, as I meet with people going through really tough times day by day, I’m convinced that the surprising interview question: “What is power?” is in fact fundamental to the way the Personal Transitions Service works and my role as a Coach.

Whether it’s having a weekly meeting in the weights room of a gym rather than a coffee shop, because this is a place where someone I work with feels more comfortable; or being ready to admit that I know nothing about sound engineering, story-based video games, changing a car tyre or how to put a roof on a house; but that I’d be really interested to learn. Suddenly, by relinquishing some of my own control over a situation or a conversation, power is transferred to the other person and they can hopefully take the lead.

A potentially intimidating one to-one situation is transformed into something more real world and authentic. Of course it can take a while to build this, but it’s worth taking the time to try.

Power imbalances are very real. Especially when working alongside people going through tough and often traumatic situations. But I’m learning that by relinquishing some power myself, and giving people space and time to explore options and try new things, then a person can be empowered to step up and hopefully choose the path that they want to take forward.

Inequality – what next?

May Read, Chief Operating Officer at Mayday Trust looks at an alternative approach to looking at equality and inequality. As a sector have we lost that human connection?

It has occurred to me since working for Mayday that we don’t talk about equality or inequality. Or do I have old school expectations of how to talk about inequality?

As a professional working in housing there was a time when monitoring equalities was a large part of our work; there were expectations to monitor and report on who accessed services and outcomes, whether access was fair and equal. There will be many who can correct me on specifics, but the prevalence of this work has reduced, perhaps for the better.

Monitoring access and proving that access to services is equal based upon the local population was what it seemed to boil down to wherever I have worked. But did it make any difference? Apart from a pile of dusty unread leaflets? We lost the human connection – how to talk to someone as a person, not a label. Spotting unequal access to services is one thing, how about making a change?

This is not say that gathering data and intelligence does not have value, it has huge value if we use it to challenge and change how we work with people. Our world is full of examples of how unequal things are and more equal societies work better for everyone. Organisations like the Equality Trust campaign to influence change and social action.

At Mayday the unequal world is the real one we work in with people – individually and collectively. Social action and influence is what we do. PTS Asset Coaches and housing teams work with people to overcome barriers they come across when approaching the system for help. Our approach to power dynamics recognises the power we have as a landlord, and seeks to share power. We strive to influence the system and how it treats people going through tough times, and the way services are commissioned and measured.