Inspired to Inspire Others

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

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

The trainer began with a story..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A learning curve and introduction to the world of PTS Coaches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go you awesome PTS Coaches!


What is power?

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

“What is power?”

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

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

“What is power?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inequality – what next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giving Wisely

May Read, Chief Operating Officer at Mayday Trust explores that reoccurring question asked by many, to give or not to give. Do we need change or do we actually need Systems Change?

Knowing where I work, people I speak with often show interest in why people are homeless, what can be done to help? Why do people sleep rough or beg? People often want to show kindness or make a difference, but wonder whether giving to people who beg, or to charities is the right thing to do.

Can giving to another person ever be the wrong thing to do? Can human kindness to another ever be wrong? It can make you feel better and help the person temporarily, but it won’t change their life. This can be an argument for encouraging people to give to causes that claim to use money more wisely to make a difference- ‘change not change’. This sounds noble, but who decides what a wise use of your money is? This assumes that someone with nothing cannot make wise decision, but also that they must use it wisely. Once you have gifted money to anyone, you lose the right to say what someone spends it on, whether it is a Christmas gift or a £1 to someone on the street.

This approach makes it look as though the person and the begging is the problem, rather than our system. When a person could get a more sustainable income from begging than using our welfare system; when a person feels more in control of their life begging than seeking help from our system – doesn’t this mean our system is broken, rather than the person?

Helping people get off the streets and end begging is a great end result, if we have worked alongside them to work on what they want and can achieve at that time. If the focus is on clearing the streets so we all feel safe and a little less awkward, it has not really made a difference. Those people may still be stuck, in hostels or more hidden places, still dealing with a system that does not work for them.

Mayday and its Personal Transitions Service (PTS) is proud to work within a wider civil system, we work with donors and volunteers who commit time, money and passion to support us and the way we work with people going through tough times. We are commissioned by public sector commissioners willing to procure innovative providers to work with people going through tough times, like experiencing homelessness.

At Mayday we believe that we will not truly be able to work with people going through tough times until there is a change in the way the current system is organised and funded.

The Story of Dr. Quality and Ms. PTS

Mayday’s Executive Assistant Quality Assurance Manager, Ciara Killeen looks at how the personalised, transitional and strength based mentality has crept into every aspect of her role – even leading to those Jekyll and Hyde moments!

This is a modern day Jekyll and Hyde story.

After a 12 month period of focusing on the re-development of the Personal Transitions Service Operational Guide, I found myself seated in front of 4 colleagues from Mayday’s Housing Team. I was in the middle of an audit and it was the first such audit I had undertaken in some time.

In the lead up to the audit visit I had been pondering how I could combine the 2 strands of my work as a PTS systems changer and as the Quality Assurance Manager working with the Housing Team. They were asking me very good questions about how they could improve their practice by developing the housing policies and processes. However, since I had last carried out such an audit, the old Dr. Quality was no longer in control; Ms. PTS had taken over.

I started to wax lyrical about the benefits of reflective practice. I spoke about moving away from form filling and physical paperwork and only capturing meaningful data. I posed the question, ‘Did everyone living with Mayday need a risk assessment plan if they didn’t have any issues to discuss?’ I spoke about developing local feedback loops and offering people the choice about how they paid their rent. I asked whether weekly room checks promoted the principles of dignity and respect?

And then I sat back and revelled in my mischief making. The team had expected me to ask for examples of how they had stuck to policies or enforced processes. They expected me to hand out ticks or crosses. Instead, I asked how they could improve processes to make them more strength-based and personalised. You could feel the effect of what we sometimes describe as the ‘PTS Coach bomb’ ripple through the room; it was an example of internal systems change happening in real time.

At first, the Housing Team were almost stunned to silence. Then there was nervous laughter. I could hear Dr. Quality in my head starting to panic, ‘Push the escape button! Revert to traditional auditing!’ she cried. But Ms. PTS remained resolute.

One colleague said they felt the room checking process was a ‘blunt instrument’.  Another said they had printed some new feedback cards to handout to people if they wanted to share their thoughts. The 3rd colleague described how the housing risk assessment was no longer fit for purpose and they went on to suggest some really good amendments. The real eureka moment came when the team described what happened after they had offered people the option to pay rent charges via standing order.

The team had initially been sceptical, ‘We thought rent arrears would increase….we thought people would take the money out of their accounts before the payment was due….we didn’t have much hope that standing orders would make a difference.’ And then one person agreed to set-up a standing order and their rent was paid on time every month. But, far more importantly, from this small offer of choice, this tiny aspect of personalisation, this person realised they had a choice. They had lots of choices actually. They chose to start speaking with the Housing Team about future housing options for when they were ready to move to independent living. They chose to start making plans.

And then the penny dropped as the Team went into collective shock. Until that moment, they had not realised the impact of such a small change, such a small offer of choice and personalisation. A secondary outcome was rent payments made on time but the primary outcome was the rebalancing of power which enabled someone to plan for their transition out of Mayday accommodation.

I called this a modern Jekyll and Hyde story which brings to mind the idea of dual identities; the Quality Assurance Manager carrying out a housing audit and the PTS systems changer, a member of the Innovation Partnership, developing person-led, strength-based transitions approaches. But what’s modern is that both parts of my role can co-exist. I was still carrying out an audit – an independent examination of team performance to highlight best practice and develop an action plan. But it was strength-based as I asked the team to review the processes as well as their actions. It promoted best practice through questioning together what we can do better.

And this idea of duality can be applied to the different teams who form our organisations too. Yes, the PTS and housing models are different. And yes, the Coach Team and Housing Team do work autonomously to each other. But that doesn’t mean we cannot promote best practice between colleagues, developing a one team approach which will enable internal systems change to flourish. The 2 strands of Mayday’s work can co-exist harmoniously so long as we continue to be led by the same principle, which is the foundation of what we do; the toughest of times should be a transition in a person’s life, during which they are treated with dignity and respect.

I always finish the audit process by asking teams to reflect on Mayday’s Quality Statement – a set of principles we all share, believe in and promote, no matter which team we work in. I asked my housing colleagues what quality meant to them; ‘Respect….dignity….empowerment….transitional and not permanent…’

Different team, different model but the same shared principles for how people should be treated. Whether the team think I am a ‘Ms. Hyde’ auditing monster, on the other hand….

Project Fear? I think not…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please note names have been changed.

Subculture of the Frustrated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expanding our view and broadening our horizons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead of

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

It is now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My final note:

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

Has the homelessness sector become a social construct?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local authorities deliver social control, not social care.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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