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?

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!

Intrigued? Why not read more PTS Blogs?

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?

House of Fun..?

If like me, you are of a certain age, you may remember those funhouses you used to see at fairgrounds or have at least have seen them on TV. You know the ones. They were filled with an odd selection of amusing devices; sliding floors, revolving barrels, compressed air jets and right at the back a hall of mirrors, remember those, the mirrors?

Remember how you and your friends used to walk among the mirrors, all distorted and out of shape. How you would laugh at the images you saw, those reflections that were you but also not you. Smiling as you waved your arms and legs around, watching them take on some weird shapes and, now and then you would come across one that would genuinely frighten you for a second, so unlike you that it was almost impossible to be your reflection. You would leave, running out into the bright light, laughing with your friends about how weird you looked, and also a little relieved that things were back to normal.

But what if you couldn’t leave? Or, more accurately, what if you have no choice but to enter this disturbing hall of mirrors. Unfortunately, this is the reality faced by many experiencing tough times.

While you are puzzling over the connection of mirrors and people going through tough times, let us have a little dive into sociology, never too old to learn something new! Waayyyyy back at the start of the 20th century, a gentleman by the name of Charles Horton Cooley coined the term ‘looking glass self’, which fed into his larger work around human nature and society. In a nutshell, Cooley described it as our reflection of how we think we appear to others. As a result of these reflections, people will change their behaviours based on what they believe other people will think about them, even if it is not true. Over time, interaction with others acts as a looking glass or “mirror” as a person’s sense of self is built off of those around them.
So then, back to the funhouse. Now imagine being surrounded by these distorted images of yourself, not just one but a room full of them and each one a specific mirror: ‘homeless’, ‘chaotic’, ‘substance user’, ‘mental illness’ and this room is also full of people, people who have stopped seeing the real you. They now spend their time talking to the mirrors. For them, this is who you are. Not really a person, just a twisted reflection of your ‘problems’. This crazy hall of mirrors is the reality of a system that no longer works.

So powerful and ingrained into society is this funhouse and its mirrors that should someone enter it with a regular mirror, let you look into it, talk to you about what they see, hear about what you see, that it is not enough. So ingrained have the distorted images become that you can no longer imagine being anything else, so unrecognisable this new person is. And if you are honest, also a little frightening. It is far easier to stay in the funhouse after all these people are professionals so they must be right.

‘The primary reason for the image to be distorted in the mirror is the shape. The more distorted the shape of the mirror is, the less authentic the reflection is. Regular mirrors are created to be as flat as possible. When there is a flaw or a blemish in a mirror, it can be recognised immediately.’

Times have changed, moved forward. What was once the ‘way things were’ is now obsolete. So much has been learned about society, about human behaviour, how we tick, that it is damaging to keep ploughing on with a model that we know does not work. Just as the funhouses of the past have made way for more modern forms of entertainment, maybe it is time we left this old funhouse, and its mirrors, in the past.

This blog was written by Richard Boylan, an experienced PTS Coach working in Northamptonshire. Intrigued? Why not read more PTS Blogs?

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.

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.