Project Fear? I think not…..

Cherrytree Asset Coach, Mary Power looks at the importance of power dynamics and real world conversations when it comes to safeguarding on the frontline.

Safeguarding – it’s everyone’s business and so it should be, but can raising a safeguarding concern alter the relationship you have with the person you are working with? Can it, in fact, actually improve the relationship? For some of us, the word Safeguarding fills us with dread. Maybe, it’s the fear of how to raise the issue with that person or maybe it’s the fear of how they may react? One thing’s for sure, it can’t be brushed under the carpet and this is how it happened when I broached it with Jen, one of the young people I am currently working with.

The unique way an Asset Coach works with individuals means we have a different relationship with the person than traditional services, one difference being the power dynamics. Therefore, when a safeguarding issue comes to light, how we talk to the person about this feels different and doesn’t need to be feared. This is how I felt when I was working with Jen, who I have been working with for around 6 months.

My initial “fear” was that if I mentioned safeguarding to her (which I had to do, let’s be clear about that!), my relationship with Jen might change, or worst-case scenario, might end. How wrong I was…….. Okay, let’s be honest – the conversation wasn’t easy as they never are, but I had that difficult chat because I felt that I owed it to her to be honest about the issue. I talked to her about how I needed to contact the professional who would be able to help and support her in making safe decisions around her children. Jen was a bit unsure and talked to me about how she hated that professional and she only trusted me. I explained I wasn’t a health/medical expert and I felt she would benefit, as we all do sometimes, from their expert advice. I told Jen I had sought advice from Health Visitors when my children were younger. Jen seemed a little bit defensive, but once again said she trusted me and the conversation was left that the said professional would visit her the week after. I kept Jen in the loop and rang her back once I had contacted the professional to confirm the appointment. The week after my phone call and in fact, the day after the professional was due to visit Jen she called me, unprompted —

“Mary, I am so glad you contacted the health visitor, they gave me some advice that I needed” and so the conversation went on in a very positive manner about her children and what advice the health professional gave her, and ended with, “Mary, can we meet up next week at the play centre?”

My point is, authentic relationships should be based on trust. If trust and authenticity is there, difficult conversations can be had without those relationships necessarily breaking down. So, Project Fear it is not, embrace those real world conversations and don’t be afraid of them. Safeguarding has to be everyone’s business so embrace it, don’t shy away from it. By having a real world relationship with Jen I was able to have, albeit a difficult, but honest conversation with her. Because in the real world we all occasionally have to have difficult conversations with each other, but if the trust is there, a relationship can be preserved in the long run and even improved.

Please note names have been changed.

Subculture of the Frustrated

Mayday Trust Director of Development and Strategic Partnerships, Lynn Mumford looks whether frustration can actually fuel the change that is needed.

I’ll let you into a secret. 4 years ago at Mayday, I handed in my notice. I’d had enough. I felt frustrated that, as the then Head of Fundraising, I couldn’t change anything. I was beholden to processes to bring in money that didn’t fit what was then the beginnings of working in a personalised way. I was trying to tick the boxes for money and feeling the backlash from people delivering the work. A defining moment was one of the managers taking a traditional funding specification, throwing it over their shoulder and saying it was pointless as it would have meant fitting people into boxes. At the time I was cross with them but I got what they meant. I so wish I could have done this myself but hey, we needed the money and I was a ‘funding professional’. I didn’t feel I had any power to do things differently and my frustration led me to throw in the towel.

Luckily, I was offered the opportunity to reconsider based on what I thought needed to change. My response was ‘I want Mayday Trust to be to the sector, what punk rock was to the music industry’. I wanted to have the bravery to take out what we were learning, to challenge the norm and create something that was outside of what we knew as traditional charity- but I don’t think I really understood what that meant until today.

Today I felt frustrated again. Frustrated that not everyone gets it, that progress feels too slow, that I have to still find ways around the system to get what we need to carry on challenging it. But I know now that this is exactly what I need to embrace. Frustration is what fuels change. It’s beyond motivation, it’s a compulsion.

When I reflect back on the analogy to punk rock, I get it now. It’s about a rising subculture; a group of people within a wider system or culture that differentiates itself from something that it traditionally belongs; maintaining some of its founding principles, in this case to make things better for people, but developing it’s own norms, systems, values and culture grown from the angst, experiences and voices of people experiencing tough times.

Subcultures spring up when more and more people aren’t happy with how things are, who have a splinter in their brains that something isn’t right and are compelled to behave in a way counter to the norm. This could be reflected in the way they dress (ditching the lanyards and professional wardrobe), the language they use (dropping the labels and terms like ‘clients’), their approach to interacting and challenging traditional concepts that don’t fit the new ideology (influencing through doing).

This often means personally feeling the backlash, disapproval, scepticism and dismissal of the parent culture, which from our experience, practitioners in this space have felt in bucket loads. But what keeps people within this new subculture going isn’t purely down to an individual’s resilience. It’s belonging to a wider environment and connection to a group of others that embrace these challenges and experiences and uses them to get closer a shared vision. This goes beyond organisations, authorities or hierarchies and links individual people to each other with invisible strings across the country based on mind-set, behaviour and belief.

These movements start through grassroots experiences, in our case, the Wisdom from the Streets inquiries; listening, hearing and responding to what isn’t working for people. But what comes next isn’t changing what already exists to tweak around the edges of the broken structure, but demands new independent responses, such as the Personal Transitions Service (PTS).

In the case of punk rock, this was new independent record labels, new venues or people starting to do it themselves outside of any structures or systems. The PTS has had to throw everything away and start again- prototyping, not co-producing (co-producing often leads to prescriptive projections and disappointment when things aren’t achieved as first thought) to create the right approach to trying things out, reflecting, learning, unlearning, failing and making sense of it all in retrospect. What’s come out of this isn’t a different or better version of what existed, but a new way of doing things that has completely reimagined the system and models what this looks like in practice.

Taking what doesn’t work and making it look better and using the right buzz words is as effective as your dad dressing up in skinny jeans, safety pins and shouting ‘OI’. It might look and sound like systems change, but without the continual frustration, the real sense of injustice, the pain, or the compulsion to keep going when you know you could be doing something a damn sight easier, failing and getting back up again despite the knocks and sneers – systems change will only ever be reduced to the resemblance of your dad dressing up trying to be cool. It has to be felt, not learned!

Punk was new, bold, brave and unafraid and grew out of frustration rather than running away from it or making it more palatable. I feel that systemic change will genuinely start to happen when we create the right environment that brings together and embraces the frustrated. When it shines a light on the learning and lessons that come out from the painful adolescence of this new and necessary subculture.

Expanding our view and broadening our horizons

Asset Coach Andrew Durman provides a must read blog for everyone working with people going through tough times.

“People can’t see the wood for the trees” This was a reply I received from a CEO of a previous organisation when discussing a different approach based on strengths, sparks and purpose. My initial response was disappointment, both at their closed mind to something different and also the defeatist attitude that is often passed off as being ‘realistic to responding to the work’, I disagree.

Perhaps this can be the case, however if it is and we approach things in the same way, how will anything change. Maybe if we focus on the wood, a path through the trees will appear.

Recent conversations over the past few months have got me thinking. Often it’s actually the professionals that fail to see the wood for the trees when it comes to working alongside people going through challenging transitions.

One of these conversations occurred when I was working with a young man who was successful in gaining funding to go on a life changing adventure. His life has always been and continues to be challenging, however he was determined not to let these negative experiences be a barrier in his future.

For this person planning, looking at the unknown, facing anxiety and going to a country where he would have to rely on himself, was huge. However, although finding things difficult at times, he went to Amsterdam, visited all the sites, experienced a different culture and met a lot of people from different countries. This differed massively from meeting new people back in the UK, in Amsterdam he wasn’t associated with any labels or stereotypes and was free from any judgment as a result.

Back in the UK this person spends most his time around professionals and other people going through their own tough times. Circumstances brought them together, not choice or through mutual interest and personalities. However while away he was able to create an identity in whichever way he wanted. You could say he was being himself.

Reflecting on this I found that compared to the assets we normally report on, such as problem solving, confidence, self-belief, planning, and negotiating, the experience itself was equally as valuable to this person. It is a story and positive experience he will now be able to tell people he meets in the future. Before this trip was years of difficult and traumatic experiences and when talking to people he had no conversations or identity away from these difficult times. Looking back to when we first met, he used these negative experiences to introduce himself, that’s how he saw his identity.

Now in conversations he has his adventure to Amsterdam to share, something he has achieved and a positive identity on which he can be himself and build on. Ultimately this experience and achievement cannot be taken away from him whatever happens in the future.

Instead of

“Hi my name is Jim, I struggle with depression & my personality disorder. My mum died a year ago after taking her own life”

It is now

“Hi my name is Jim, I went to Amsterdam earlier this year, I joked with a local shop keeper about tourists visiting the city due to the image it has. I also enjoyed seeing how Van Gogh’s paintings developed as he went through his life and the challenges he faced. My highlight was getting the ferry across from the city to where my hotel was every day, it was very peaceful and exciting as when I got to the other side I knew I was going to experience something new and unexpected.”

This experience also helped when he has felt himself slipping into a dark place, he describes himself being able to reflect on his achievement which resulted in “things becoming lighter”. He is less fearful of the mental health challenges he faces and is determined not to let them be a barrier to his future and what he wants to do with his life. The ‘but what if’ fear has turned into ‘if it happens I will get through it’.

Since this trip I have had 3 conversations with other professionals both internal and external. All they have seen is “you’ve enabled this young man to go to Amsterdam for a holiday and smoke weed for a week, I fail to understand how this has helped him. He should be focusing on his mental health and sorting out his debt and arrears – this is what is important to him.” I don’t need to go into details of these deficits and why I do not entertain conversations with these individuals, except to point out what was achieved during this experience – If you are reading this blog and linked with the change the PTS is striving for then it will resonate!

The second conversation that triggered this blog was with a gentleman who requested permission to have a pet, a snake in this case. He had good insight into his own challenges and the barriers that sat between him and his desired future. Having had pets all his life, a snake would have a massive positive impact on him – I won’t go into the reasons for this right now as it could easily form another very long blog!

The barrier in this situation was with his license agreement, it stated no pets allowed. An outdated generic condition that assumes that everyone who has a pet will not look after it, cause a nuisance to neighbours and will abandon it leaving staff to sort out – all the reasons given when initially denying his request. Happily this has been revisited and the right outcome has been achieved for this person and needless to say the snake has had an enormous positive impact in all aspects of his life. People just could not see beyond the snake and that license condition.

This outlook and opinion is something that we constantly face as Asset Coaches and it never gets any less frustrating. Some professionals just can’t see beyond ‘the pet’ or the ‘trip to Amsterdam’ to the bigger picture. They fail to see the knock on affect to a person’s future, the internal motivation it can bring, the evidence of success – I could go on and on. In both of these cases it was not the individuals that could not see the wood for the trees, it was the professionals around them who were there to support them. We must be able to see beyond this, how else can we inspire and make a difference?

This is advantaged thinking. Take the Amsterdam situation, if all you see when you look at this situation is a stoner going to another country to smoke weed then you will never be able to support that individual in a strength based way. We have to see beyond the deficit labels, especially as many individuals identify themselves in this way already.

How can we inspire people to create their own identity away from services if we only see a negative stereotype? In my opinion, if this is all you see my advice would be to go and get a job away from people going through tough transitions.

This short sightedness is exactly the same as the label led system that focuses on deficits and the surface symptoms. Not the bigger picture, what’s possible, the potential, the strengths and longevity away from services as opposed to being institutionalised within them.

What if an adventure or having a pet is the thing that will change a person’s future and bring them happiness? I am certainly not willing to get in the way of that, not in a million years. Even if it doesn’t go to plan, I would rather have tried than stood in the way of something that is important to someone I work with.

My final note:

“If someone can’t see the wood for the trees, they are so involved in the details of something that they do not understand or pay attention to the most important parts of it”.

Has the homelessness sector become a social construct?

Recently we published Wisdom from Behind Closed Doors’ which captured the voices of people living in supported accommodation, rough sleeping and sofa-surfing. The emphasis with the Wisdom series is to deeply and actively listen to feedback and genuinely hear what people have to say.

From recent news stories, and across the media, we are now witness to more and more people sleeping rough. The lack of housing and changes in welfare reform are most definitely significant factors, but from the ‘Wisdoms’ we also heard…..

“Hostels are not safe, hostels are full of people either using or dealing drugs”

“I was offered temporary accommodation but when that ended I was out on the street again”

So as a charity, working alongside people on the street, what is our role in tackling homelessness? How do we, within new psychologically informed thinking, react? Well, the answer isn’t what you might expect!

The homeless sector has become a social construct, an industry.

What we have come to recognise is that over time, for understandable reasons, the sector has evolved as a social construct, an industry that provides all that we can to help people get off the street. We have the homeless art class, the homeless GP and the homeless haircut – all of which were created as a response to what people, who may have been unable or too embarrassed about their situation to look outside of services, had asked for. However, when we actively listened to the people we work with it became clear that this separate, social construct has created a huge psychological barrier.

Imagine that your sense of belonging, your identity, your status, your connections, and your source of human warmth all came from within a service. Everyone in your life is either paid to be there, wants something from you or is with you to feel good about themselves. This has segregated people from mainstream society and the result is people adopting a ‘homeless identity’, elements of which many people maintain even if they are fortunate enough to escape this false reality.

Imagine in this situation you are offered a flat. That would be great, yes? But this opportunity will take you away from the services you know, your sense of community and connection. You will be living on your own in an unfamiliar area. Resettlement services recognise the practical barriers, and to an extent, the isolation but in reality the huge psychological leap to give up everything that is familiar and move away, even if it is from a false or unhealthy familiarity, is so great that many people return to the streets. We have heard it said that people return because they have ‘complex needs’ but many people return because the system has made them dependent. We segregate people at huge cost and then face another huge cost to try and integrate them back into communities, which is a job we don’t do well in many cases.

By failing to really listen and hear what people are telling us and therefore fail to understand what we have created, we are maintaining a status quo, a broken system which is contributing to people becoming trapped in services and prevented from reintegrating into the community. We have become part of the problem.

Are we, as a sector, up for this challenge? The movement towards the paradigm shift required to start treating people like people?

By carrying out the ‘Wisdoms’, it became very clear that the system when you become homeless is not working. It is process led, not person led.

From the very beginning of this process there are too many invasive questions which serve only to dehumanise, humiliate and, at worst, institutionalise people in homeless services.

People are diagnosed or given a label for what are understandable reactions to their environment and situation.

Too many people are referred to unregulated hostels where they are prey to drug dealers and pimps. People’s fear and the coping mechanisms they develop to live in threatening and scary environments is pathologised as a mental health problem. We say things like, ‘1 in 4 people have mental health problems’, but a significant number of these people are trying to cope with a broken system, not a ‘broken brain’.

Local authorities deliver social control, not social care.

There are widespread Local Authority ‘homeless pathway’ strategies which people move along if they can jump through the relevant hoops. For example:

To move from the hostel to a 9 month supported housing project, I must commit to stop drinking and attend an alcohol agency.

What I’m thinking is: I have been through rehab 4 times before, what I want is a place I can call my own without people interfering in my life. If I have to ‘behave’ and go for a 9 month stint, I will end up doing something that will mean they will throw me out. It’s hopeless.

So pathways reinforce an approach which is more about social control than social care. People respond as many of us would by complying, feeling grateful and moving through the system. However, people are also left feeling helpless with this enforced guidance or angry and potentially less compliant at the injustice of being blamed for their situation by a system which is saying:

‘We can’t just give you a home, you’ve got to earn it or at least prove you can be an exemplar citizen by not drinking and behaving yourself.’

If we could listen to the people we are trying to ‘help’, and perhaps walk in their shoes for a day, we might experience how it feels to be judged by the system. People begin to feel hopeless, dependent, or at worst suicidal, all of which are an understandable reactions to the frustration of the situation. Instead of asking, ‘Are we the cause of these feelings? Are we creating a barrier stopping you from getting through this tough time?’ it becomes another mental health diagnosis.

The greater the problem of rough sleeping, the more pressure Local Authority commissioners are under to respond to government targets. And not forgetting stressed local councilors, who are dealing with community complaints about rough sleeping. So contracts designed to help reduce ‘bad behaviour’ and prevent street begging, which are often solely focused on people’s deficits, become quick fix attempts to get people off the streets and into work.
We know from a growing body of research that focusing on negatives doesn’t work and trying to control or ‘fix’ people’s behaviour, instead of listening to their situation, will never achieve the long term, sustainable outcomes that we want to see.

The system, which we define as the interaction between government, statutory services and service providers (note that people are not involved in this chain), is informed by deficit thinking in a world where research tells us this won’t work. Services are happy to articulate their new strength based and asset based work but fail to recognise that this type of work cannot be delivered within a deficit system. Tweaking it or trying to ‘fix’ bits of it all through the lens of ‘people are the problem’ just won’t work.

The new fads and Apps are sadly well-intentioned but still give individuals the same message – you cannot achieve without us. You will always need someone as you go through a tough time. In the sector, we have experience of working with people who are so institutionalised that they still expect to be ‘rescued’ years after they have moved out of services, ‘People will still feel sorry for me and help me’. Sometimes this is viewed as a personal weakness but this is what a system which has ‘done to’ the person creates.

The current system views people on the street as having ‘complex and multiple needs’ and by ‘fixing’ all the problems, like a tick box exercise, the person will be fully functional and out of homelessness. This doesn’t work.

In challenging the system we are not pointing the finger, and clearly we aren’t saying that great work isn’t going on, but to truly impact on rough sleeping and homelessness we must start by listening, acting and shaking up the status quo.

Poker Chips

Can you bet big? What does having a big stack of chips really mean? Asset Coach, Richard Boylan explores what reality is like for people who aren’t in the position to risk it all.

During the years I have been involved with those experiencing tough times, I often get asked what is the toughest ‘challenge’ I face or the biggest ‘obstacle’ I come across. For me, the answer is often self-esteem.

Self-esteem is the fuel that powers us to move forward. Ultimately, the more self-esteem you have, the more likely you are to be thriving in life and mixing with like-minded people. A lack of self-esteem and you feel you are not in control and you often have a lower opinion of yourself and your abilities.

That’s all very nice I hear you say but what about these poker chips, that’s why I clicked on this blog! No worries, let me explain…..

There is a theory out there called ‘The Poker Chip Theory’ that explains self-esteem in a nice and simple way and I came across it whilst working with children in care. Richard Lavoie penned the theory and equates self-esteem to poker chips, as in the more you have, the more you are willing to use.

To be fair, I am not a poker player but have seen enough to know that the player with the bigger pile of chips will more than likely always beat the player with the smaller stack. Why? Because they can afford to bet big, they can take the chances that other players cannot. If they lose some chips it’s not the end of the world, there are plenty more in the pile. On the other hand the smaller stack player means they have to be more cautious, think more about the outcome and, more often than not bet small or not bet at all. Got to guard those chips to stay in the game!

Now think about someone you know going through a tough time, think about their stack of chips. More than likely it is a small stack, they are concerned about trying to keep hold of them but day to day life takes those chips away resulting in them unwilling to take those chances, afraid to bet big as they can’t afford to lose.

Compare that to your life and think on your pile of chips, I would imagine it is pretty big! Hopefully you are surrounded by those that love and look out for you, you have a job that adds value to your life and gives you purpose, you live where you have chosen to live and in a home that you are proud of. Maybe you have a nice social life and plenty of interests, either way, it is a safe bet that you are in control of your life.

Poker chips is what makes Mayday Trust and its Personal Transition Service stand apart from the rest. It isn’t about ‘fixing’ or telling people what they should be doing to have a better life, it’s about talking with people to find out what is important to them, what they want to do and achieve in life, who they want to be.

As the saying goes “everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t” and that is no different for those going through tough times, but by focusing on the negatives or what is perceived to be wrong will never increase someone’s pile of poker chips. Having conversations about a persons passions and interests, looking at what it is they are good at and letting them steer their own course helps to increase their stack of chips, building evidence that they can achieve, making positive connections, and as the pile increases, the more they are willing to bet and the better the rewards.

After a time this becomes an unstoppable force, people gain internal motivation to make a positive and sustained change in their lives, achieving the insight and resilience to face their next tough time from a better and more able place. This is what stops the revolving door of people re-entering the system.

So the next time you come across someone going through a tough time who has made a decision that makes no sense to you, just have a think about their pile of poker chips, how big it is and whether you are standing in the way of them making it bigger by focusing on weakness.

Comfort Zone….What Comfort Zone?

Executive Assistant and Quality Assurance Manager, Ciara Killeen gives a very real account of her own journey with the Personal Transitions Service (PTS). Looking at how its strength based and personalised nature impacts on those working behind the scenes in an organisation delivering the PTS and the importance of internal systems change.

The PTS is person-led, personalised and strength based. The Coaches capture so eloquently how this translates to the experiences of the people we work with in their blog posts so I will not try to replicate. But what about everyone else working to deliver the PTS principles? How does a person-led, personalised and strength-based approach apply to the ‘backstage crew’ in order to create internal systems change?

Well, I am an Administrator – it’s what I am good at! I would describe myself as shy, not confident at public speaking, happy to contribute as part of a team but not a team leader. So that’s exactly why I just stood up and gave a 20 minute presentation to 30 of my colleagues about how I am leading on the implementation of the new PTS Accreditation.

Add to the list that I only really write formal documents (this is my 3rd blog), that I am slightly phobic about social media (Tweeting is the new procrastinating) and that I am not too fond of travelling (Birmingham, London and Northampton in 1 week – sure!). In between the travel, presenting and developing the Accreditation, I also book diary appointments for our CEO – Pat, proof read documents, take minutes, all on the move in various locations and far away from my original comfort zone; the office desk.

Before you start to think that I am heading down the rabbit hole, let me make it clear that this is not a moan fest or a cry for help. I am not complaining about the amount or location of my work because I absolutely love the vibrancy and energy of the PTS movement for change, which sees me literally working on the move. This way of working and the opportunities to frequently step outside of my comfort zone have become part and parcel of my working life, for which I am grateful. However, before I got to the grateful part…

I knew where my comfort zone was. It was in the processes that I needed to follow, knowing exactly how and when things should be done. I understood the status-quo of office life; hierarchy, defined job roles, your defined ‘area’ of work. I held on to all of this tightly and, quite honestly, working in this way was making very little difference to the people we work with. I was essentially erasing the main reason I wanted to work for Mayday in the first place.

I was in danger of becoming a barrier to change rather than a ‘systems changer’. At first, I found it difficult to let go of my comfort zone so that the internal, cultural changes necessary to become a truly strength based organisation could happen. It was uncomfortable. I felt adrift.

I had a real world conversation with Pat about whether I belonged in this new PTS environment. Pat’s response was to ask me about my interests, highlight my strengths and provide options so I could choose how to develop my job description. So, essentially, Pat used the key PTS interventions, focussing on my strengths and putting the power in my hands.

I had autonomy for the first time in my working life and with this came questions. Why did I need a desk or office to define a good working environment when I had a laptop and a park? Or I could meet my colleagues in coffee shops?!

Once I had started to question the basic logistics of administration I then started to question the actual work; how can my fellow systems changers use their autonomy to inform processes in a person-led response? I started to argue at meetings that we needed less paperwork, less questions, less meetings in fact! It seems that once you have taken the first systems change steps there is no going back; it becomes a way of life.

Naturally, like the first domino falling in a chain, a person-led internal system developed. We began to understand what dynamic job descriptions meant in reality. Our roles reflected the individual talents we could bring to Mayday rather than traditional roles. I learned that I was good at administration but I was not an ‘Administrator’.

Our lives do not work in straight, prescribed lines. Nor do we have one definition of who we are. This is what we try to convey to the people we work with to encourage their self-belief and internal motivation. So we, the #OneTeam working to deliver the PTS, need to believe this and live this too. This is what a personalised, strength-based working environment looks like; seeing people, not job titles. Seeing talents and understanding the benefit diversity of experience can bring. Supporting this through the one team approach that means there is still a comfort zone – but it is people, your colleagues, and not desks and processes.

This blog is not about me. I have used myself as an example but I could be talking about any one of my colleagues who, for example, work in the Finance Team but stepped out of their comfort zone to co-develop a system for quicker personal budget payments. Or my colleagues in the HR Team, who had to learn about strength based recruitment before working with the PTS Team to co-develop a new recruitment process.

The thing with comfort is that you actually have to be a bit uncomfortable sometimes to find new comfort in something better. And what’s better than a new comfortable working environment which is person-led, personalised and strength-based? That seems worth the discomfort to me.

It’s all about quality!

Let’s Talk About Quality… It might not be rock and roll, but it’s an essential part of systems change and ensures we’re doing our jobs well and for the right reasons. Mayday Trust’s Quality Assurance Manager, Ciara Killeen, looks at common misconceptions around the topic and how the Personal Transition Service Accreditation will be breaking the ‘Quality’ mould.

Did you know that it’s World Quality Day today? As a Quality Assurance Manager for Mayday Trust, working with Asset Teams to develop the language, culture and framework of the PTS, I was delighted to know that I had a day. Granted, it is not as good as International Pasta Day (October) or International Chocolate Chip Cookie Day (May) but it is a close 3rd in my diary.

The focus this year for ‘us quality buffs’ was the importance of trust in quality work. Now, I thought, this is something I can really get behind!

There is often an immediate, and natural, mistrust as soon as I say I am a Quality Assurance Manager. This became very obvious when a new member of staff greeted me with, ‘You’re the audit lady! I’ve been warned about you.’ This was only partly said in jest and I do understand why.

What does Google say?

You hear the term ‘quality assurance’ and you immediately think processes, audits, pass and fail, control, restriction. I Googled Quality Assurance… It didn’t make me feel any better:

Firstly, your typical checklist (I am never to be found without my clipboard obviously!). Next, standard services, high satisfaction, business, business, business…..and Quality Assurance is at the centre! Finally, there is that big tick that we all want to see!

The Power of Language

Imagery is only partly to blame – language has a lot to do with it too. This is an issue we reflect on a lot as partners; how the language we use has the power to set people free or entrap them. How the identity we give to people (you are homeless, you should attend homeless art class or this training course for homeless people) can lead to hopelessness, institutionalisation and isolation.

The systems change aspect of the PTS asks us to consider all language, such as how we describe ourselves and the roles we fulfil. So I am a Quality Assurance Manager and I will be working with partners through the PTS Accreditation process but that shouldn’t mean an immediate horror or mistrust because trust me when I say that this process is different.

An Accreditation with a Difference

As we begin to implement the new PTS Accreditation it is time for us to push the system reset button and develop a new set of expectations; what does a strength-based, personalised accreditation actually mean? Well, for starters, you can forget the clip board and checklist image. The accreditation is all about innovation – the clue is in our name! The accreditation team capture the innovative, localised, person-led responses to developing the movement for change. We are not here to cross check processes or look for problems. The Accreditation Team have real world conversations so that we can capture the experiences and voices of the people working with Coaches and frontline teams.

This all leads to the ultimate reason of why the PTS Accreditation, and my work as Quality Assurance Manager, is so different to expectations; it is not just a quality mark. That’s right, I said it! I am not here to rubber stamp a process. I am breaking out of the quality mould.

Over the initial 2 year prototyping period for the PTS Accreditation, the aim is to establish a benchmark; the evidence to show what a movement for change looks like in reality. The aim is to ‘influence systemic change by doing’, so providing the quality evidence, taken from the accreditation, to demonstrate that personalised, strength-based services work for people experiencing tough times. Immediately this aim places the PTS Accreditation into a completely different space. Organisational achievement is always great, and knowing people are receiving a quality PTS service is extremely important. But I am more interested in the PTS movement for change. The outcome of the accreditation extends way beyond our personal achievements; this could really change people’s lives.

Coming back to where we started….Trust!

And that is why trust in the PTS Accreditation and the Team is so important. I may deal in quality but I am working towards the same aims of the PTS as Innovation Partners and to achieve that we all need to work together, share experiences, be honest and review our practice. And I can give you a big tick too, if that helps?

Martini Shaken not Spilt!

Asset Manager, Rebecca Nelson, shares her initial experiences of joining Mayday as an Asset Coach. Reflecting on what it means to be a high functioning person, versus being a low functioning problem.

On writing this blog I had been in my role as an Asset Coach with Mayday Trust for about eight months and found myself reflecting on what I had learnt since embarking on the challenge.

Before I came to Mayday I spent most of my working life in Financial Services in a variety of roles including; sales, compliance training and coaching.  The bit I have always enjoyed most, my passion, has always been coaching – working with people to discover who they are and how they would like their lives to be.

I came to the role as an Asset Coach with a naivety about the homeless system and how it works – or as it happens, doesn’t work! What I brought with me was knowledge of working with people, coaching, creating direction, helping people to recognise their own strengths and how they can nurture and value these.

I have worked with a range of people and along the way I’ve learnt that tough times are not exclusive to people without homes. In our lives we will all experience something, in some capacity. This is because whether we have a home or not, we are all just people experiencing a range of emotions, including fear, confusion, vulnerability, creativity, strength, weakness, and resiliency.

Our circumstances may change, but this doesn’t mean that we change – we are still the same people inside, but with different external circumstances. The thing that does change is how society and the systems we’re engaged with start to amend their view of us and treatment of us, ultimately this changes how we see ourselves.

I used to work in central London, and I’ve been thinking about a couple of people I worked with during this time. The first was my Manager, we used to work in a small office in a beautiful building in the West End. Every morning he would come in to work, put the kettle on and then go to his office and rack up a couple of lines of Cocaine, which along with the cup of black coffee would  “start the day off nicely”.  I am not sure if the Senior Management knew, but he worked well and was a good Manager (well an ok Manager!). He functioned effectively, got the work done, often late into the evening and it was never perceived as a problem.

The other colleague was someone I met later in my career, at a different organisation. We were responsible for the same team of Financial Advisors. I took care of their training and compliance and he worked within business development. He was a lovely gentleman in his late fifties and very good at his job. He used to always smell of alcohol but it wasn’t a massive problem because back in that era, after lunch time in the city, most people would smell of alcohol! He was always on time, but one morning he arrived slightly late for a meeting and was very cross. I asked him if he was alright. His reply was no. He was really annoyed as the 7.45am to Waterloo was so packed someone had bumped in to him while he was drinking his morning Martini, it had spilt down the front of his shirt and there was barely any left!

Both of these individuals maintained their jobs, they were good at what they did, so no one was worried about the fact that one was a drug addict and the other an alcoholic. They both wore suits, they both lived in big houses, they delivered the required level of occupational output, and therefore it was accepted behaviour.

Many of the people I am coaching now have similar relationships with drink and drugs. The difference between them and my two ex-colleagues, is not the people; the difference is how we as a society view them.  Whether they are sitting on a bench drinking a bottle of Lambrini or drinking a Martini out of a silver hip flask, whether they are snorting cocaine or injecting heroin, it is the same thing, but why is one a “problem” and the other not?

We would label my Martini drinking colleague as a “high functioning alcoholic”, but imagine if because of his morning cocktails he had been sacked, consequentially he could not pay his mortgage, resulting in the breakdown of his relationship, leading to potential homelessness. He would still be the same person, smart, funny and kind, but would he still be considered “high functioning” or would he now be viewed as “low functioning?” It appears that as a society we have decided, we have labelled, we have judged and then we have determined who is worthy and who isn’t, based on circumstantial evidence. If you have money and a house and no visible problems you are marked as acceptable in society. However, if you don’t have a house, no money and have evident problems – you become the problem.

The difference seems to be determined by where you are and what you have, not by who you are. When someone ends up in the homeless system there is an assumption that there is something wrong with them and they need to be fixed. We stop seeing them as a person, but as a problem. Decisions are made for them, that they need to be clean and sober. These decisions of course are made in a “person centred- strength based” way – a term I have heard a lot in the past few months. From what I’ve seen, this manifests itself by someone completing a very lengthy questionnaire which is generally very personal and deficit based, but they’ve learnt that the person likes music and reading, therefore they’re working in a person centred, and strength based way!

If the two gentlemen I had previously worked with had turned up to work and were only seen as problems that’s what they would have been – problems, with no known solution. Their lives could have been very different, they were lucky they were in a place that put more value on what they could bring to the company. People put the emphasis on their strengths, not their deficits, which meant their strengths outweighed their issues. As it happened in time the Martini man did get sober, when he was ready, and this was supported and his treatment paid for by the company insurance. His job was left open for him until he was ready to pick it up again – because he was good at his job and they knew that.

When I discovered Mayday and the Personal Transitions Service (PTS), I found an organisation that knew something was very wrong with the homeless system and they were brave enough to stand out and shout about it. I found an organisation that wasn’t frightened of change, would chance sometimes getting things wrong and was courageous enough to step away from the normal approach. I like that about Mayday, but what I LOVE about Mayday is that it’s an organisation which puts the PTS and strength based work at its core. It is an organisation that wants this to be its heartbeat and the driver for everything they do, and it genuinely is.

In the first few weeks of working with Mayday sadly my Mother passed away. It was a difficult time, where I felt my world was spiralling out of control. I was in a new job, I was finding the homeless system frustrating and I was organising a funeral and dealing with my own emotions. My first thought was maybe this is too difficult now and maybe I will just hand in my notice, I had only been at Mayday for 4 weeks. I obviously didn’t leave and this is why; my manager checked in and asked how I was and then crucially she asked how I wanted to manage this, I had been here 4 weeks! I wasn’t told to stay off work, I wasn’t told I had to be back in a certain time, I wasn’t quoted a standard company bereavement policy. I was handed control of a difficult, emotional situation and trusted to make decisions which would make this as easy as it could be for me. My Manager checked in regularly to make sure I was ok and was available if I needed to talk, but ultimately I was in control. This might not seem like much but it was huge, it had felt like everything was slipping away but I was given an anchor, a foot hold. This is strength based, it was about me making decisions which were best for me, and not being dictated on what was good for me.

I have learnt from this and it has helped my understanding of what the PTS really feels like. I take it into my coaching role and I believe that it has made me a better Coach. I work with people to recognise their own strengths and how they can nurture them. I try to assist them to broaden their worlds, I broker opportunities, but much more than this, I give people the trust and ability to make decisions for themselves, to have control in a world which must seem like it is very much out of their control.

I work with people to be “high functioning” individuals, even if they are caught up in a “low functioning” system.

 

Resident Meetings!

Mayday Trust CEO, Pat McArdle reflects on her experience working in supported housing, resident meetings and how sometimes we need to question whether we really are providing a psychologically informed environment (PIE)

This week at our Housing Moving the Model Forward (MTMF) day we had a really interesting discussion about resident meetings within supported housing schemes. It took me back to a previous situation and reminded me of how important it is to question and reflect on our practice, even if it is something we have always done.

Years ago I was a Director of Homelessness Services which included a 30 bed shelter. We had weekly resident meetings and staff raised the same frustrations time and again; how do we get more people to attend? How do we get people to take responsibility and set their own agenda? How do we stop X from taking over the meeting?

We tried many ways to increase attendance including ‘pizza parties’ and telling people that attendance was part of their commitment to keep their room. However, after 6 months someone in the team had the revolutionary idea of simply asking people why they didn’t want to attend?!

As I had built up good relationships with many of the people we worked with, and as I was seen as the ‘boss’, I was tasked with speaking to people. I didn’t want the excuses, I wanted some ‘real world’, honest feedback.

I see now that you can only get that real world feedback if the power dynamic is balanced so a positive relationship can develop.

I set about attending various meetings and asking people to stay behind so I could have an individual chat about the resident meetings. I also wrote a note to everyone saying I would be catching up and why.

I haven’t forgotten what I heard in those conversations. Despite having worked in homelessness services for a while I was shocked and embarrassed that I didn’t predict what would be said.

People started out by saying they were busy and couldn’t be bothered but the more I continued the conversation the reality of those resident meetings emerged and, of course, it wasn’t rocket science.

People explained that they were embarrassed and by attending they felt like the ‘homeless person’. They also described how dealing with younger staff members left them feeling humiliated at being there, living in ‘that homeless place’.

Quite a few people revealed that they were terrified of certain individuals, “The more he sees me, the more he asks for money. He wants me to buy drugs, wants me to go out drinking…. but I know they end up robbing each other’s benefits.”

Others said they simply didn’t want to listen to the people who moaned constantly or they preferred to talk about repairs or issues with a staff member directly rather than speaking up in a group.

Many felt that talking about days out and Christmas parties was nice for some people. However, their reality was hard to face and these conversations left them feeling low. Christmas reminded people of the family they no longer had contact with. They just weren’t in the right head space for those types of conversations.

In one case a woman was angry that people thought it ok to ask her when it was predominantly men in attendance. She simply didn’t feel safe and she felt it was insensitive to be asked.

Some people did have good things to say. They used the meeting to make friends with other people living in the building and it was seen as a good way to break up the day. People explained that staff were great at making sure their discussions were on the agenda and it was a forum where problems could be aired and settled.

I suppose I was left feeling that in a truly psychologically informed environment (PIE) the platforms that WE were providing for people to be involved were not always the right ones. Even in situations where they were working for people currently, it was important to remember that they may not be appropriate in the future.

Back then, and even after this week’s discussion, I feel that we need to either keep out and not patronise people, or listen hard to how, when and for what purpose we were involving individuals. Otherwise, I believe that we are not using the huge power that we have as accommodation providers positively and with the best interests of people at heart. Ultimately, I was left wondering if providers even have that critical awareness of this power at all?

Adding the ‘Human’ Touch

Asset Coach, Penny Garner, looks at the importance of the relationships we have with the people we work with and why it’s essential to stamp out the ‘us and them’ culture.

Coming to Mayday from other grass roots positions has been a different way of working for me. I have always had the best intentions for people and genuinely want to see people succeed, but whereas before I represented the organisation I worked for, at Mayday I am myself.

The reality of being part of a person lead organisation

How I act reflects on Mayday and it goes without saying that I treat people with respect and share the values that run deep through the organisation; but I am a person, I build genuine relationships. I have no agenda, no remit within which I can only work. Most importantly no predetermined outcomes to achieve under the charade of doing what’s best for the person I work with.

It’s all in a meeting place

I’ve been amazed how much can be resolved during a walk in the park, over coffee, even a round of crazy golf! I shouldn’t be, I don’t arrange to meet a friend in a bland environment to thrash out a situation when I need support. I meet with friends and maybe we’ll discuss what’s going on, sometimes it helps to have my mind taken off things.

Wanting more

We should want more for people accessing services than to be categorised, ‘enabled’ to get on in life by the services and procedures put in place for ‘people like them’. We all want to be our own people having genuine choices in life. To support people to do this we can be the face of an organisation that can go so far, as long as it’s within the given timeframe and follows protocol.

Or we can be people too. An ally. A genuine relationship that isn’t confined by a predetermined set of policy, procedures and outcomes with the inability to flex to the myriad of personalities that we will work with.

Be Human

For most of us we get on in life with the help and support of others, positive relationships that boost our sense of self and encourage us to try even if we may not succeed. Loneliness can be as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day [1], so let us not tackle this with forms and procedures that try to fit people into boxes to identify the best approach to ‘fix’ someone. Let us meet people, get to know people, one person to another

1 – Campaign to End Loneliness (no date) the facts on loneliness. Available at: www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/the-facts-on-loneliness/