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.

 

The Epidemic of Mass Fixing

By Pat McArdle, CEO of Mayday Trust

The instant that you say ‘a woman with a drug problem’, a ‘man with a mental health problem’ you have failed. You have become part of a systemic problem; you are on a very slippery slope to becoming a problem fixer and are embarking on a journey where you remove power, control, and choice from another human being. The end result for the person is seldom positive, and for a generation, it has created mass dependency upon ‘state fixing’.

The mass expectation is that everything from noisy neighbours, exam stress, misbehaving kids, sadness, unhappiness, everything that we experience as negative in our life, must either be solved by a service, state intervention, or a drug. If you are unwilling to go down this path you are choosing not to help yourself and must live with the consequences.

The biggest disability in our society is the removal of agency, power, choice, and responsibility from people and from communities. In Dublin mothers on an estate said no to drug gangs and services played only a small support role. This worked. In a town in the North East of England people living in estates looked to the police, social services, and schools to save their children. Sadly the evidence shows that services, with their fixing approaches, restricted interventions, rigid timelines, and their lack of understanding of the real problems, will never be as successful as a community response; communities with decent housing, secure employment opportunities, and happy residents.

Stopping young people carrying knives misses the point; how do we stop young people from being afraid?

Quick fixes are rarely effective. What we need are investments directly into people and healthy environments, which facilitate and nurture positive connections and opportunities for people to contribute. This is what it will take in order to stop young people from becoming disenfranchised, vulnerable to criminality and drugs. Young people need to feel they belong and have purpose and connections that are strong and positive in their lives. Connection means we have people to go to during the tough times and purpose gives us the confidence to cope. We become less dependent on ‘fixing’ and more internally and externally able to deal with life, and importantly to understand the wider context and barriers we face.

But if we can individualise and quantify the problem, we can target resources to where they are most needed, right? Wrong.  A woman may have a drug problem because of personal trauma caused by living in poverty, because of a lack of opportunity to have a real purpose, or as a result of surviving homelessness. A multitude of possible reasons – so to start with a drug intervention may work as a temporary sticking plaster for some, but won’t have a long term effect and misses the point. How can solving an individual’s drug problem-solve their poverty or give them hope or motivation that life could be different? The only thing you have done in stopping their drug use is to take away their survival strategy, coping mechanism, only pleasure or release.

Money and resources are being channelled into industrial-sized charities, services and mental health provision to cure the ills of individuals, whilst the problem today is more often structural.

Systems have been established to focus on the individuals’ complex needs with mindsets firmly on finding ever-growing ways to ‘fix’ these multiple needs. The most illustrative, crazy example I read recently was a council who hired Pastors to help people who were being evicted from their homes with ‘their stress’, as the council was selling the land off to developers. People didn’t need the church or help with stress, they needed a good lawyer and a right to remain in their home and community. But while this is an extreme example it demonstrates how our focus is not on the real problem, which is a broken system, but on the symptoms experienced by individuals which appear easier and less costly to fix.

We have evolved cultures and systems that are only designed to solve problems and categories of misery. As a result, people have internalised feelings of blame, hopelessness, and weakness through the continual and persistent failure of ‘fixing’ or failure to offer real-world explanations and solutions for their experiences.

Only when we say to people: it’s perfectly understandable that you will feel anxious, you are living in a scary hostel; everyone makes mistakes and so that doesn’t mean you aren’t entitled to your own flat; I would react in the same way if I was told at 45 years old to be in bed by 10 pm; only when we actually walk alongside people, deeply listening and seeing life through their eyes; only then will we learn that it is not their failure, but a system failure. There is no way to fix this broken system, instead, we must embark on the challenge of building a new one.

 

Mission Impossible

Pat McArdle CEO of Mayday Trust shares a raw account of navigating COVID-19 as an organisation offering supported accommodation and working alongside people experiencing tough times.

On March 11th Mayday Trust transformed from being an accommodation provider, an advocate for system change, walking alongside people going through tough times discovering system barriers, to JUST keeping people safe from COVID-19.

This required a change of mind-set, an understanding of working to a different purpose, a different environment and new processes – a fundamental shift, whilst staying true to our ethos of being person-led.

It required instant, not a gradual change. We didn’t have a six month plan to introduce a new virtual communication strategy, we didn’t have a focus group to explore the best ways to work with people with ‘complex needs’ online (not that we believe we work with people who have complex needs, but still you get my drift).

Our accountability became about keeping people alive and Coronavirus free. The three day turnaround to fill an empty flat or room and the discussions on managing arrears faded away. People began to refuse accommodation in shared houses, terrified of becoming infected. People were also struggling to pay service charges as limited funds had to be spent anywhere food was available, usually in more expensive shops.

The things that are making this change easier are:

The passionate people that make up Mayday. We were once described as the ‘Mayday Brand’ but Mayday isn’t a brand – it’s better described as a group of passionate individuals who often have the characteristics of a dysfunctional family, but when the heat is on, everyone comes together to go many, many extra miles. Team before self.

But not just the teams, the people living in Mayday accommodation and working alongside PTS Coaches stepped up, many calling and checking in to see how we are. People living in shared housing explaining how they are getting on better as they have the opportunity to get to know each other and individuals keeping an eye on neighbours and telling us how things are going.

We have a leadership team that ‘got it’. In a few short hours we had named it our ‘Mayday Creative Phase’. We needed to, at speed, get teams to understand it wasn’t business as usual. New rules now applied!

Mayday made the decision that teams needed to limit face to face contact, but at the same time needed to increase the level of contact. The Personal Transitions Service (PTS) is led by the individuals we work with and many chose to contact their Coach through social media, gaming, or by text and phone. By providing people with phones, laptops and top up credit, connecting with people virtually wasn’t the task it could have been.

Our strong relationships with a small number of people in Trusts and Foundations who have known us long enough to know we would be ‘doing the right thing’ not just ‘covering our backsides’, offered some financial support to help us through. I honestly don’t think we would be surviving without their support. While emergency funds pour out money for individual essentials and for organisations that are working at scale, although much needed, equally no one is out there listening to what we really need.

Coronavirus has meant our income is down because we have more empty rooms. Security costs are increasing as teams have to tackle people and property being targeted for cuckooing, at a time when police have limited and stretched resources. Contracts due to start have been suspended, leaving income down and fundraising activities at a standstill.

Even with a lot of support on our side, it still isn’t easy

This is an extract from my daily diary (informal log) and gives a flavour of a day in the life of the Mayday Housing Team (incidents are anonymised to protect the identity of the individuals):

Sexual assault of a disabled woman. Team managing this but obviously distressing. Police involved.

Failed attempts to contact female tenant. Police now in attendance and two arrests made from flat. Two males, likely to be cuckooing, taken away by police due to possession of Class A drugs along with a stolen bike. 

Trying to find accommodation for woman due to give birth. Advice from council to either evict to emergency accommodation or source private rented sector. No estate agents open so answers on a postcard. 

Recent non-related COVID-19 deaths. Team managing reporting requirements, internal investigation and compassionate response to families, who are in pain with not being able to be there. Team facing their own distress in losing people they have connected with. 

Urgent need to re-house people from Travel Lodge. Housing Officer concerned that as Mayday has referrals from those going through their most chaotic time, the stretch on resources may be too much with two team members down and managing a high level of incidents while having to produce more and more reports for commissioners. 

Of course, these are only some of the situations that I am aware of from talking to the team and yes generally Mayday sees a lot of activity as we seldom say no to anyone going through a tough time within a very broken system. But the adjective the team used to describe the current situation is ‘relentless’. One team member took 75 phone calls yesterday, statutory services are on skeleton cover and asking the team to maintain contact when they aren’t around. Charity shops aren’t open so those who could move into their own accommodation are finding it hard to buy the basics to do so. The challenges are endless, the work scary, terrifying, physically and emotionally exhausting, stressful and hard.

As CEO, I can tick all the boxes of how we are providing extra support, online counselling, PPE etc. I could and do tell people to stop working so hard (and I know I’m being ignored), I could pay tribute to the great work going on and I certainly do, but in true Mayday way, with honesty and integrity, I can only say it’s a crap time and we need to work together to somehow get through.

(Here’s to a team of nine Mayday Housing staff currently doing the impossible)

Through the Eye of the Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then the schools shut – WTF!

And then my dad got ill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hardest part is thinking of him on his own.

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

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

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

I am on my knees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yesterday I felt shite.  Really shite.

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

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

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

(Ring any bells PTS?)

The Impact of COVID-19 – The New Normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relational Leadership in the Real World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of a Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoiler alert.. I got the job!

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

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

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

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

Ok…Yeah…Great!

Ciara Killeen, Executive Assistant and Quality Assurance Manager, looks at the importance of being okay with being uncomfortable when prototyping.

I have worked at Mayday Trust for five and a half years and during this time my colleagues have come to understand two things about the way I work:

  1. I will always try everything at least once as I see the value in saying yes. I get stuck in with prototyping something, seeing the result and trying again. You learn through the experience of doing; sometimes what you learn is that something doesn’t work – but at least you know that now!
  2. When I say, ‘Ok…yeah…great’ in response to a request, no matter how cheerily I say, it means that things are definitely not ok or great. It can mean I feel uncomfortable with the concept. It can mean this is going to be a lot of work on top of the lot of work I already had. But I say yes anyway.

I do not say yes to be a people pleaser. My role as Quality Assurance Manager and working with Innovation Partners to develop the framework of the Personal Transitions Service, is often anything but people pleasing. When I think I have done a fabulous job of developing a policy or template which really captures frontline feedback, and then everyone hates it, I am definitely not pleasing anyone. Or when I make teams go back and re-review a process or trial a form again, for the 5th time, in order to probably create version 6, no one is particularly fond of me. But my colleagues and partners also say yes.

So, the question is, why do we all say yes? Why do we agree to work together to prototype something new when it would easier to say no? When maintaining the status quo would save us all time, effort and, honestly, save face sometimes. Sticking your head above the parapet to offer something new means your work will be subject to scrutiny and when prototyping things can and will go wrong. We all work together as a partnership to prototype because it is the right thing to do for people experiencing tough times, who should have access to personalised, transitional and strength-based approaches. These approaches should be led by the real-world feedback from those we work with and the experience of frontline teams who see the systemic barriers that need to be removed. Prototyping starts from this feedback, not from a preconceived idea of what we should do. And what’s more, we know from experience that prototyping works, even if it’s a lot more ‘yeah’ and not so much ‘great’ to begin with.

The Personal Transitions Service (and Innovation Partnership) started, grew and developed from prototyping. Wisdom from the Street told us the two main problems people experienced when they entered services;

  1. Current systems and processes are dehumanising, humiliating and can end up institutionalising people.
  2. This way of working is not effective. The outcomes are not good enough. Too few people move out of the system and sustain positive life changes.

Once we heard this and saw the systemic barriers trapping people we had no choice. We had to start prototyping. It began with accepting that we were not separate from these issues but part of the system creating them. That definitely was an, ‘Ok…yeah…great’ moment for all of us. No one likes to believe they are causing the people they want to help harm. But the numbers of forms we asked people to fill in, with the level of personal sensitive information we requested, just so they could access support was doing just that. Tweaking parts of the broken system was never going to make change happen; we needed to prototype and develop something completely different.

So the first question I was asked was could we reduce the number of forms? Then could I incorporate the feedback from frontline teams who had used the new forms? Then could I attend a meeting to hear more feedback….reduce the number of forms again….think of a new layout….change the language….remove this section….get rid of these questions….look at this form again….now the policy that goes with it……

In the beginning it was relentless. Every week I was asked to consider something new, listen to more feedback, review our language and update the form or policy or process again. The updated version was tried, feedback sought, updates made and we continued on the merry-go-round. It took 18 months to complete the first DRAFT (not the final version, like painting the great bridge, it’s never truly finished if it is led by the grassroots) of the Personal Transitions Service Framework and people got very used to me saying, ‘Ok…yeah…great’. My colleague printed the words onto a poster and hung it by my desk.

But slowly there was a move from being just ‘ok’ to ‘yeah…I am starting to see where we are going with this’. Then one day I reached the Holy Grail. I received an email from an Asset Manager saying the new document is great. It works for people (it has since been updated, of course, but that’s prototyping!).

Prototyping is, let’s face it, a lot of continuous, sometimes hard, work. It can be frustrating. It can mean you are left for spells when there is no framework at all to guide you because you haven’t developed it yet. That is a sink or swim moment and you get used to muddling through as you listen to feedback, you learn, you adapt and you eventually do what you are there to do; provide something that actually works for people.

And prototyping can be exciting, refreshing and engaging too – bringing everyone together as one team in the quest to turn feedback loops and frontline influence into a meaningful framework. Nothing builds team spirit more than a good old debate lasting 30 minutes about whether we need someone’s contact number AND email address on the referral form (just in case you’re wondering, we just added a blank contact details box and people can decide what information to share. Feedback tells us it’s working really well).

So the next time you hear me say, ‘Ok…yeah…great’ then be assured that I actually believe it will be great in the end and that I am in it for the long prototyping haul with you.