Brokering Opportunities

Samantha Abram, PTS Coach at The Brick, explores Brokering opportunities and what it looks like when the term is brought to life through the Person-led, Transitional and Strength-based (PTS) Response.

I was asked what ‘brokering opportunities’ means. This sparked an interesting conversation among PTS Coaches old and new, and prompted me to re-evaluate what brokering has meant to me, as a PTS Coach, the individuals I work with and the realities of brokering as part of the Person-led Transitional Strength-based (PTS) Response.

As always, when it comes to Coaching, there are no ‘fixed’ procedure or process (we have principles and guidance), as each PTS Coach will find their own way of working, influenced by every individual they work with. From my perspective and experience, I would summarise brokering opportunities as:

A person being offered an opportunity to choose to do or act differently because they are presented with ‘choice’ that allows them to remove themselves from the confines of their current situation or self-perceived ‘limits’. The choice presents them with an opportunity to access a meaningful experience. The opportunity is entirely associated with the person’s interests, goals and ambitions and the PTS Coach has no part in deciding what, when or why that is their chosen ‘meaningful’ experience.

There is nothing ‘typical’ about the opportunities that I have brokered as a PTS Coach or the choices people make; it is truly about their dreams and aspirations. The one common factor to highlight is that every time a person chooses to participate in what they connect with, an internal process happens, a spark is ignited that reconnects the person to a part of themselves or connects them with what speaks to them on a fundamental level.

The PTS Response works for people because change becomes sustainable and real when the person chooses the changes they want to make. Brokered opportunities result in people fulfilling their passions because they connect deeply with an experience that reminded them that they are more than their circumstances or how they may feel perceived by broken systems.

Talking the talk and walking the walk

Why do so many charities talk confidently about radical change, but so few really try to achieve it?

Alex Fox OBE shares his thoughts on radical change as he takes on his new role of CEO at Mayday Trust.

I’ve spent over ten years working with people who are brave and radical in their own lives. Our members at Shared Lives Plus share their own homes and family lives with people to offer and seek support. Over 15,000 people now live good lives as a result, instead of risking being lost within a social care and health system that does not always feel human, caring and respectful. We have built a UK network and organisation which thinks like they do, demonstrating the kind of social change we call for in the way that we work, and in who gets to do that work.

Over the years, I’ve admired Mayday’s work and heard Pat McArdle speak about the radical path that Mayday has taken. Now that Pat has retired from Mayday, I know that I won’t be able to replace or replicate her unique vision and inspirational style, but I hope to have learned from it.

Mayday is an organisation that changed radically because it listened to what people were saying about what Mayday and other organisations were doing, and was prepared to hear some very uncomfortable messages. The support that people were getting when they went through tough times like being homeless, trying to recover from substance misuse, or leaving prison, wasn’t working for lots of people, and it may even have been inadvertently keeping them locked into those tough times and the services and systems built around them. I wrote a book about some of the things I’ve learned from the people involved in Shared Lives, Homeshare and now Family by Family, with the subtitle ‘Escaping the invisible asylum’, because I believe that even though we talk about ‘community’ services, ‘empowerment’, focusing on ‘outcomes’ and so on, the culture and thought-processes which led us to build asylums, workhouses and other institutions is still deeply ingrained in many of our public services.

In Pat’s final blog for Mayday, she writes that there has not been the radical ‘revolution’ in homelessness support she once dreamed of. But there has been change, and there is no doubt in my mind that Mayday has played a role in that change. Not just dreaming of doing things differently, if only there was enough time, enough money or any of the other things we’ll never have enough of, but showing how to do things differently despite those multiple challenges. In other words, putting the idea of a person-led and strength-based response,  which is at the heart of Mayday’s mission, into the way the whole organisation works. Through the New System Alliance, Mayday and its partners are just starting to model that person-led response to drive change and inform an entirely new system. Like many of the people it supports, the organisation has had to come so far already, just in order to take the first step on a brand new journey towards being the hugely impactful organisation and movement for change that I know we can be.

Pat also says something in her final blog which resonates with me deeply: “My time at Mayday has taught me that my view is one of many and the direction to challenge the failing homeless system needs to be led by people who are experiencing it, who are often trapped within it and who want to act.” One challenge for us in the journey to come will be to be as ambitious as allies, as we are as leaders. If we can realise the ambition to impact thousands of lives, with the humility to stay led by people, we will have achieved something truly radical.

Just say no!

Those of a certain age may have memories of the Grange Hill ‘Just say no’ campaign that came out in the 80’s to encourage the youth of the day to just say no to drugs. It was a clear message, sounded simple and made saying no the cool thing to do.

Little did I know how hard it would be to say no to my peers, to funding, to PR opportunities and generally to a traditionally structured work-life a good few decades later!

There’s so much talk these days about being mission-driven or mission-focused. It’s almost taken for granted that in our sector, this drives everything we do. But when your mission is (and I quote Mayday’s mission) ‘to model a Person-led, Transitional and Strength-based (PTS) Response alongside people going through tough times whilst attracting others to change the current deficit-based systems’, this isn’t as easy as it seems.

I remember the Board meeting where our Trustees gave us the clear direction that we were not to exist for existence’s sake and that we would only do work/ accept opportunities that kept us 100% true to our mission. I also remember the long meeting that followed where we unpicked what this would mean in reality. Cue a whole load of uncomfortable and difficult ‘no thank you’s.’

I heard someone say recently that ‘integrity doesn’t win you contracts’ and thought how true this is. But when winning contracts or accepting certain funding or PR opportunities, which require the showcasing of people’s trauma and mean drifting from your mission and sacrificing the fidelity of your work, tough decisions have to be made. This stance results in hard negotiations, handing back work, losing income, staff being TUPE’d or made redundant, people transitioning to other providers and living in a constant state of uncertainty. The human and financial cost of integrity is real and one we always acknowledge and honour.

Respectfully saying ‘thanks, but no thanks’ doesn’t always feel simple, nor does it feel cool.  

We have heard through our ongoing Wisdom Inquiries, most recently Wisdom from the System with the New System Alliance, the raw and unfiltered feelings of people who are stuck in current support systems and services and those who work within them. It’s not an easy read and having the bravery to listen to what is being said and recognise that we have been (and sometimes still are) part of the problem is something that can either keep you up at night, compel you to ignore it or drive you forward. To know that by saying no to the norm, modelling the difference and carving a new path, you are honouring the voices and experiences of people having the toughest of times and moving toward a better system that works for people makes it much easier to bear the brunt. 

I have come to realise that leading systems change through influencing based on what we uncover through our PTS work at the grassroots, is not an easy job, nor one for the faint-hearted. Taking risks that others can’t, choosing to be small and agile over growth, being willing to be unpopular, challenging what is thought of as sector best practice, standing by the voices of people who have felt voiceless and angry requires a whole new level of nuanced understanding and resilience. Both organisationally and personally. 

But upon reflection, saying no to what didn’t fit our mission, actually opened up a whole new world of ‘yeses!’ 

Saying no to delivering traditional deficit-based work meant saying yes to the evolution of a person-led and strength-based response (the PTS) so that people have a more dignified experience and can transition out of their tough times more sustainably.

Saying no to organisational growth for the sake of it or as the expected thing to do meant saying yes to working with like-minded partners to jointly model the PTS and the mission to bring about change in new areas across the UK.

Saying no to deficit-based contracts meant saying yes to working with ‘enlightened’ commissioners and testing the PTS in partnership to inform a new person-led way of commissioning.

Saying no to providing supported housing* and the income that came with it meant saying yes to becoming a small, focused and agile group of social activists all working to shine a light on what works.

Saying no to pouring energy into bringing down the old system meant saying yes to attempting to model a new person-led system alongside a UK wide movement of amazing and passionate people who believe that paradigm shift is possible.

The era of saying no and moving away from the system has brought so much learning as we have been innovative and attractive to funders wanting to test and grow with us. But we’re embarking on a new era, where the reality of trying to survive in this new world longer term is a stark one. The uncertainty of change and the vulnerability of operating outside of the system is ever-present.

This has also led to the daunting reality of what financial stability means when your way of working isn’t prescriptive and continues to evolve and change from one month to the next. There is both a stark reality and real discomfort in putting a price tag on change and where the outcome and path aren’t rigidly set, it can feel like a hard sell. 

Funding innovation only lasts for so long and traditional charitable means of generating income don’t seem to fit when you’re no longer a traditional charity. Working within and outside of a system whilst trying to evolve a new person-led system is a juggle and seeking funding from a system that you are ultimately moving away from can feel counterproductive and difficult to comprehend. Our approach to funding is having to further shift toward new investment opportunities and individuals that allow us to retain our flexibility and authenticity. 

I’m often approached by sector leaders and practitioners asking how they too can transform their organisations as Mayday has and I’ve come to realise that we have been in a unique position to be able to do this. The radical organisational transformation that Mayday has been through may not be easily replicable, palatable or even possible for many organisations who are ultimately trying to bring about systems change as well as survive in a difficult world and within a system that is still a long way from changing! 

But what we have created and what we can provide is something that others can use to point to as an example of what is possible. We have been able to take the risks, be brave and openly and honestly shared the warts and all learning so that others can save, at least some of the pain, of going it alone and starting from scratch.

So maybe saying no is cool after all! It’s certainly, never simple, and it’s amazing to have the conditions, culture and support to show what’s possible when we stand by what we believe in and go where the good energy is! 

I know there will be many more tough decisions and new opportunities to come, and there is no quick win with this scale of systemic change; but with the mission and voices of people guiding everything we do, alongside the support of our amazing allies, we might just get there and be able to continue to take the risks so you don’t have to!

The slowest, who does not lose sight of their mission, is still more rapid than the one who is wondering without one.

Written by Lynn Mumford, Director of Development and Strategic Partnerships at Mayday. Read more like this?

*In 2020 Mayday said ‘no’ to supported housing – find out why here 

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I recently hit the milestone of 10 years at Mayday and I have come to accept that there may not be the ‘homeless revolution’ I had once envisioned. That’s fine. My time at Mayday has taught me that my view is one of many and the direction to challenge the failing homeless system needs to be led by people who are experiencing it, who are often trapped within it and who want to act.

We may be lacking a revolution, but I’m happy to have seen the start of a gradual acceptance in the sector that current systems are not working for people and might be a contributing factor to why so many people remain in services for so long. However, I do question whether the sector and the public recognise the true extent to which this is real, but the fact that a tiny door has opened to allow for greater awareness and maybe even change, can only be good news.

On that positive note and to coincide with the theme of change, it is time for me to officially share that I will be stepping down as CEO of Mayday in August. It’s no secret that Mayday has been through some big changes since I took on the role in 2011. I don’t feel the term ‘organisational transformation’ does the years of uncomfortable realisations, challenges and learning, justice.

I’m leaving an organisation that is courageous, passionate and embraces opportunities to learn. An organisation that is led by its mission and the people it works alongside. I do not doubt that this collective of activists will continue to go against the grain, challenge the status quo and strive for a system that works for people going through tough times.

For me, I have no intention of giving up on my activism, so this isn’t a goodbye, more of a see you later!

x Pat

Legs on a Snake

Many years ago, when I was a lot younger and had more hair, I remember being told an old Chinese proverb, and as I sit here today in my comfy thinking chair, reflecting on the current state of systems designed to support those going through tough times, I am reminded of that story….

The master of a martial arts school, realising that his life was growing short, decided it was time to decide which one of his two best students would become his successor and take over the school after he was gone. Both of his students had their own strengths and flaws so who to choose was exceedingly tricky. In the end, the master decided on a simple competition to decide the outcome. He led his students down to the beach and after offering each of them a sharpened stick, outlined the test.

 “The test is simple, you will each draw an animal in the sand and the first one to finish and have their animal identified by me, will win.”

 The two students immediately picked up their sticks and started to draw in the sand feverishly. The first student quickly drew an ‘S’ shape and stepped backed, feeling pleased with himself at how easy and obvious the test was. But after looking over and seeing his rival frantically still drawing, brow furrowed in concentration, he started to panic.

 ‘What if I am wrong?’ Thought the first student, ‘what if my snake is too simple and won’t be recognised for what it is?’

 Fear gripped him and he cursed himself for being a fool. Nothing this important could possibly be decided by something as simple as a squiggle in the sand. With this, he picked up his stick again and started to draw legs on his snake. After starting the third leg, the second student stepped back, stating he had finished. The master walked over and after studying the drawing, correctly guessed the animal and proclaimed the second student the winner and his immediate successor.

 After the competition, the master asked the dejected student to walk with him along the beach. After a short distance the master asked the student why he had lost. The student replied that he had been too slow in finishing his lizard. The master paused and explained that he had not lost because he had been too slow but because he had added parts that did not need to be there. The master went on to say that he recognised the drawing was a snake as soon as it had been scratched in the sand, but the fact the student had believed it to be too obvious and simple an answer is why he had failed.

Now, that is a mighty fine story and for those of you at the back who may have been skim reading (I will hold back my indignation!), the analogy “adding legs to a snake” simply means that you are doing unnecessary work that is actually ruining your result.

At this moment in time, this is where we find ourselves. Gaming for resources, measuring outcomes, ticking boxes, putting people in boxes, data sets, case studies, reports, anything and everything we can to ‘prove’ what works best. All of it, ‘legs on a snake’.

By now we have firmly established that those going through tough times are the best people to figure out what they feel works best for them. We are just here to walk alongside them and provide that space, that safe bubble where they can engage in conversation and recognise how they can best go about making it happen.  Unfortunately, the system is not geared up for this. You simply cannot walk alongside someone and that be it. There has to be a final destination, an outcome, something that can be measured. Like monopoly, if you don’t pass ‘GO’ you don’t collect the money and unfortunately, that seems to be the true measure of ‘success’.

As the news depressingly reminded me just last week, we have been in austerity for nearly a decade, and with the prospect of another recession as well as the financial fallout of the current pandemic, I fear that this snake will soon turn into a millipede.

Written by Richard Boylan, PTS Coach in Northamptonshire. Read more like this?

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Solving the Wrong Problem

Andrew Durman, PTS Coach at Mayday Trust looks at the difference between being innovative and disruptive when working with people going through tough times.

Last year I embarked on a new challenge as I made the temporary move from being a Mayday PTS Coach, to becoming part of the team leading the New System Alliance, working to create a paradigm shift in systems available to people experiencing tough times. As part of my preparations for my new role I explored the topic of disruption, specifically linked to how we can positively disrupt within our roles on the frontline and as organisations. The aim of this disruption is to create real #systemschange.

It really got me thinking about the sector and the systems we work in. When you look at the statistics, reports, press, etc. around homelessness and other tough times in England, it’s clear that the situation is getting worse. Yet new approaches and innovations are being launched all the time and have been since I started in this sector 12 years ago, so if all this energy and money is being invested why are we still experiencing the same problems?

To get some answers I looked outside the proverbial box and turned my attention to the field of design. This is an area I often look to for inspiration and it didn’t disappoint – cue an article describing ‘The disruptive design method’ by Dr. Leyla Acaroglu.

It efficiently answered my earlier question, if we always look at something in the same way (in this case people going through tough times), we won’t see anything more and nothing will change. Instead, we will keep asking the same questions and doing the same things over and over again.

This isn’t anything new, in fact, if I think back to my University days where I experienced a very similar situation. As part of an assignment, I was tasked with looking at improving the design of the Maclaren Buggy. My idea (last-minute inspiration taken from a Simpsons episode) was to combat the issue of buggies becoming unbalanced from their handles being overloaded with bags (apparently children don’t like to travel light!), causing them to topple over. My brilliant solution came in the shape of support stands that would swing out to counterbalance and support the buggy, stopping it from tipping backwards – amazing!

I was immediately challenged by my tutors, who dared to suggest I was focusing on the wrong problem. Apparently, the right solution would be to find ways to stop bags being placed on handles in the first place such as providing suitable storage within the buggy; I was simply creating an unnecessary product. Focus on the source of the problem to avoid it being an issue in the first place – sounds simple enough doesn’t it, yet why as a sector do we continuously focus on the symptom rather than the cause? We obsess over signposting people into appropriate services but fail to acknowledge or reflect on our role in that person’s situation and the impact the system has had on them. I have no idea if the Maclaren buggy made it through its tough time, but I haven’t witnessed any toppling incidents recently so I assume it was a positive outcome.

This theory also resonates with learning gained from the changes Mayday Trust made following the creation of Wisdom from the Street, an enquiry which captured the voices of people experiencing homelessness. After this deep listening and reflection, Mayday turned its back on the traditional deficit system and focused on developing the Person-led, Transitional and Strength-based Response (PTS), formerly known as the Personal Transitions Service.

Although successful, the development of the PTS also highlighted a different problem, something that had previously been disguised. Where the sector, including Mayday, focused on ‘fixing’ people’s problems, it was actually the system in need of some urgent attention. It was process-led, focused on deficits, segregating and dehumanising people. The system was causing harm.

Mayday has now joined forces with other organisations who recognised the same problem to form the New System Alliance;  A platform for individuals and organisations who feel there is something wrong with the systems encountered by people experiencing tough times. A space to listen, to be heard and to ‘do something’ – to create a total change in thinking and develop a new response, a totally new system led by people, not deficits.

When I reflect on Mayday’s progress I see the form of disruption shown in Dr. Leyla Acaroglu’s article. By creating a new person-led system which works for individuals going through tough times, the outdated deficit system and associated approaches will be obsolete – a great example of positive disruption creating real #systemschange.

So how can we as individuals and organisations continue to positively disrupt? Maybe it’s time to stop doing what you’ve always done and look outside of your own proverbial box!

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Systems are Systems, People are People

Your PTS Quality Assurance Manager here checking-in post maternity leave. And what a strange maternity leave this has been! I promise, I will not overuse the term ‘unprecedented times’ but….you know.

My pregnancy and the birth of my first child initially threw me into a ‘system of systems’ before I was unceremoniously chucked back out as soon as the dreaded ‘C’ word hit. And the turmoil caused by being part of a process-led system and then having that system removed led me to question my real understanding of systems damage on individuals.

Through working in partnership with allies to develop the New System Alliance, and my seven years working with all of our colleagues to progress the Person-Led, Transitional, Strength-based response (PTS), I learnt a lot about the systems damage and barriers people experience as they transition through their tough time. People are labelled and syphoned into the corresponding silo of services, turning their understandable, human responses into over-pathologised and medicalised issues.

These ‘system-led’ responses create internalised system failures; the quiet and pervasive destroyers of hope and aspiration. People wear the labels assigned to them and they internalise the diagnoses. Without realising it, people develop internal barriers based on this evidence of perceived ‘failure’ which prevents them from seeing the choices, control and personal transitions which are within their reach. I saw this happening to those we work with but I didn’t see when it was happening to me.

Let me make absolutely clear that this is in no way a negative commentary on the NHS and the fabulous doctors and nurses. We all agree that we can never repay the debt of gratitude we owe to them. What I wish to reflect on is system-led responses to human situations and the effect these have on all people locked within those processes – including fantastic frontline teams.

I suffer from a medical condition that prevented me from becoming pregnant. My medical records described this as ‘failing’ to get pregnant. I was ‘unresponsive’ and I had ‘abnormal’ test results. I was categorised as infertile. All negative, derogatory and labelling language which is accepted as part and parcel of fertility conversations – and medicalised language in general. My doctor explained that it was ‘just language’ which they ‘had to use’ and he didn’t see my situation as anywhere near as hopeless as it sounded. But seeing myself described in such negative terms felt like a physical blow in an already emotionally painful situation.

At the ripe ‘old’ age of 33 I became pregnant and the immediate happiness was somewhat undermined by the term ‘geriatric mother’ which was added to my medical records (‘Sorry – it is just a standard term. We know you are not geriatric at 33’). I was immediately categorised as ‘high risk’ due to my medical history despite being the fittest I had been in my adult life. From then on, every conversation I had with a doctor or nurse, or even the doctor’s receptionist, started with me having to recant my full medical history without any consideration of the effect this might have on my mental wellbeing. In return, I was told what tests, medicines and interventions I would have rather than being asked what would help me or what I might like to do. There were no choices, only the best ways to ‘manage’ my pregnancy.

It was all done with good intentions; the NHS were going to throw the kitchen sink at me to ensure a safe, controlled, happy ending to my medical journey. And I began to accept that reassurance, along with all the labels and interventions that came with it. I started to act as if I was ill, rather than pregnant. I accepted that the services were in charge because, after all, I had ‘failed’ to get pregnant to begin with so what did I know about anything? People wanted to help me; they wanted to manage my risks for me. It seemed for the best to let the services take over when I wasn’t at my strongest.

At an emergency scan, which was automatically triggered by my high-risk status, I met a wonderful midwife who opened my eyes to the fact that I was travelling through a system. She explained that I was not being measured against any of my personal attributes. My pregnancy ‘success’ was being measured against national averages. The extra treatment had nothing to do with me as a person because the system is not designed to see individuals. She apologised because, in all likelihood, I would be referred to see her again but if so, I should remember that I was a person overcoming previous medical trauma quite successfully and I could decide how I wanted to proceed.

The flood of relief and hope I felt is indescribable. I had forgotten that I was an individual in charge of my life. I had forgotten that I was pregnant and not ill. I had become comfortable in the new, medicalised community of the doctors and nurses I saw at the emergency appointments and I had forgotten the wider community of support that surrounded me. I had lost myself temporarily in the system. But thanks to this wonderful midwife, who took a person-led, humane approach, I was back.

My son was born two weeks before full lockdown was implemented. I was told to start shielding the week we took him home. And that was it – no system. No midwife visits, no health visitor, no 6-week check-up. From all to nothing. The system is so large and complex that the ability to adapt quickly to changing situations and personal circumstances was impossible despite the best efforts of individuals to try to keep some form of personalised support available. I could hear the frustration of caring people who wanted to offer more individual support relevant to the unique situation but who were restrained by the lack of flexibility to utilise options such as Zoom to respond in real-time. Even in such unprecedented (sorry, I said the obvious again!) times, Midwives and Health Visitors still had to follow the same mandatory schedule of contact and standard checks, responding on a risk measurement basis rather than on an individual level. And this was hitting them hard too – I know this because they told me during our limited contact. They do their job because they care, and the small elements of individualised care they can offer during face-face visits was gone leaving just ‘the system’ in its place.

I owe NHS staff so much which is why I want to acknowledge the burden of systems that they and most frontline teams have to navigate every day. Everyone I met had nothing but good intentions for my health and that of my baby but they could only help within the constraints of the system;

  • The deficit language they have to use because it is recognisable
  • The pathway of standardised responses they had to send me down because it was the only way for me to access some of the resources I needed
  • The risk assessments they are mandated to carry out on everyone and the standard triggers for indicating high risk based on past experience
  • The lack of a person-led or active response they can provide because the current system cannot accommodate it

The problem is the system response, and the systems damage this creates, for all of us who want to work with people experiencing tough times so that they can transition to achieving their aspirations.

It is the culture – the language of deficits, the process-led policies, the hierarchical structures, the lack of autonomy to provide a human response and choice.

It is the focus on the wrong outcomes – the way people are measured and evaluated, needs and risks and hard outcomes defined by the system being the primary objective over personal achievement.

It is the approach to working with people within this environment – ‘fixing’ people’s problems, prescribing and ascribing until you find the ‘label’ that fits, the label that captures the essence of that person’s problem and opens up the ‘right’ service pathway of standardised responses which segregates people from real-world experiences and opportunities.

Passionate New System Allies, who see the people at the end of service responses and understand the damage that can be caused, like the wonderful doctors and nurses who have supported me, can feel just as trapped by the system without the culture, approach and change in mindset to allow them to deliver a person-led response.

And this is why a paradigm shift in how the UK responds to people experiencing tough times is needed. Because we all experience the systems damage if things don’t change.

This blog was written by Ciara Killeen, PTS Quality Assurance Manager at Mayday. Intrigued? Why not read more PTS Blogs?

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House of Fun..?

Richard Boylan, PTS Coach, explores the impact of the use of labels and deficit language on people accessing help through a tough time.

A Move for Change

Mayday welcomes Robert White to the team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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People Just Do Nothing

Reflections on COVID-19 Lockdown from Rebecca Nelson, Mayday PTS Manager

Last week after restrictions were lifted, I emerged from my house, with my bad COVID-19 hair, which has strangely grown into a 1980s style mullet and I went on a social distance walk with someone who lives in a Mayday property.

While we were walking and chatting he said to me “Becks, I’ll tell you what, I love this COVID.”I enquired why and received the following response; “because up until all the COVID stuff people have been telling me that I’ve got to go out more and stop watching so much TV, now everyone is saying well done for doing nothing, also I’m getting free food delivered every day so I’ve got loads more money to spend on blow.”

I have missed out a few of the expletives and his delivery carried far more humour, but it was a really interesting statement which led me to reflect on what has happened over the last few months.

About 10 weeks ago I became ill – I suspect it was COVID-19 based, but can’t know for definite. As soon as people were aware we were self-isolating I was inundated with offers of assistance. People I wouldn’t normally hear from were phoning and messaging their support. I also noticed that a friend of mine, who is usually very morose, was suddenly alive she had a purpose, she felt needed, she was happy. I am incredibly grateful for everything everyone did during that time and feel very lucky that I have such a great support network, but the truth is I felt uncomfortable accepting help and at times accepted it when I didn’t need it so that I didn’t appear ungrateful or rude. When I finally started to recover from my illness, I was delighted, but also extremely pleased to take back full control of my life again.

When I returned to work I began to open my extensive, unread emails, as I worked my way through them it was full of services offering resolutions to a variety of COVID-19 related issues, some examples being:

  • home food deliveries
  • Collecting and delivering medicines
  • Funding solutions for a variety of equipment

The list went on. My initial thought was this was great; people had access to various support requirements, where they had, like me, had fallen ill and needed to self-isolate. Particularly people who did not have access to the support networks that I did.

During the early days of my return to work, I started talking to people I coached and responded to some of the messages I had received from them. The majority of people I engaged with were bright and healthy, and most of them were more worried about me! One person, in fact, the man I went on the social distance walk with, said: “I think I had better stay in touch Becks – I mean I’m used to being isolated; I’ve been doing this for years, but I think you might go mad!” He had a very good point. I started to realise that maybe what was happening to me felt different from the people I coach. I needed to ensure I responded to the people I worked with, and not to the Crisis.

Due to lock down we are forced to work from home, therefore unable to meet with people face to face. We needed to work out how to do this effectively, how best do we coach virtually? This is where we had to be creative. We tried to ensure everyone had access to a phone. We then had a conversation to resolve the best way to keep in contact, should this be desired. We have used FB Messenger, WhatsApp, phone calls, whatever contact method that the individual felt comfortable with. We then reviewed constructive things we could still share with people, even though we weren’t meeting with them:

  • Online games
  • Facetime walks
  • Reading the same book

Within those examples, some were more successful than others.

I am lucky as I am not a full-time coach I have other roles within Mayday to make me feel purposeful and useful. Even with that added variety, this has not been an easy time to be a coach. People like to help others, which can manifest in a sense of satisfaction during a crisis. It’s natural to want to do something to help fix a problem. Coaches do this job because they love working with people and enjoy that direct interaction. Unfortunately, due to lockdown, they’ve found themselves stuck at home trying to find creative ways to connect with people. It has been difficult, but they have managed to achieve it, and at the same time always put the people they work with first and listened to what was happening within their lives.

What has been even more difficult is to watch how other organisations and support agencies have responded; being busy, rushing around responding to things that were happening during lockdown. Delivering food and completing a variety of other tasks for people, even when it wasn’t required.

During the first few months of lockdown, although it was strange, I was hopeful that when we got through this, we would see change for the better. I saw it as an opportunity to rethink the way we deliver services. As a society, we were experiencing what it was like to be isolated. I thought COVID-19 was going to be a leveller and we could take our experiences and start to resolve the “us” and “them” we have created within the services we provide. We could stop “doing for” and we would gain practical experience from what was happening around us. My hope was there would be change and that we could rebuild services that actually work for the people using them.

The conversations with some of the people I coach have changed and those who have had lots of experience of social isolation have called me asking “are you ok, I’m worried about you?” This has provided me with a support outlet to stay sane in a situation that was alien to me but is a way of life for the individuals we work with.

Unfortunately out of kindness, a slight knee jerk reaction and desire to help, I think that services may have just pushed people even further away, into the realms of “them” and “us.” So for coaches to sit back, remain calm and remain person-led has become more important than ever.

I received a call from a young person I coached last week “I’ve got myself in a mess; I don’t know what to do, I’ve been an idiot, sold all my furniture and now I need to go back to my flat and have nothing. I’ve got loads of bills to sort; you’ve got to help.” She is a lovely young woman and every bit of me wanted to say – don’t worry I will sort it out, but I didn’t. We chatted and I reminded her how much she had achieved since I first met with her, we talked about how she might be able to resolve this problem on her own; yesterday I received a phone call from the same person, and a very excited voice said “Oh I’m so glad to speak to you, I wanted to tell you, I have sorted it all out, I did it all myself. I am so happy.”

Of course, we applaud front-line workers, who have been out delivering key services and fixing issues during these times, for their efforts and bravery.

However, I would also like to applaud all the people who just do nothing – those who show warmth and kindness by listening and responding and remembering that we are just all muddling through this together. I would like to applaud everyone delivering services which are truly led by the people they work with. Most of all, I would like to applaud my colleagues the PTS Coaches who have been frustrated and at times, felt trapped and scared by this themselves, but have never failed to remember why they do what they do. They have trusted that ALL people have skills and abilities, and with the right support, these strengths will manifest themselves to assist them through this pandemic.

So, thank you for responding to the people you work with rather than the crisis.

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