At the launch of Mayday’s Personal Transitions Service and our report Homelessness System Under Deconstruction, Sarah Hughes describes her experiences of bringing about systems change through delivering Personal Transitions Service.
Nearly 3 years ago, I came to work in the Oxford Adult Homeless Pathway, straight from university, with little knowledge of what homelessness means and carrying with me all the perceptions and ideas that society had given me on how we define a ‘homeless person’. This included all the ‘problems’ associated with homelessness and all the assumptions about how more and better services could provide a fix. Working as a coach at Mayday, I had to unlearn everything I was told by society and the sector. I couldn’t have done this without the people I have worked with over the course of the Proof of Concept. I feel privileged to have worked with such a diverse, interesting, funny and passionate set of people who have taught me so much. But all too often this same set of fantastic people who have enriched my life, are reduced to a set of problems and labels.
Let’s put ourselves in their shoes for a minute. Answer these questions in your head and think about how you would feel about saying your answers out loud. How would you feel about the person who is asking you? Someone you may have never met before, a stranger who does not know you… Do you use drugs? Do you drink? Do you have mental health issues? If you are a woman, are you pregnant? Have you been to prison? These questions are very personal and are based on pre-conceived ideas about the people that we meet.
The truth is – the Personal Transitions Service is nothing, if not deconstructing the assumptions about what makes, keeps and solves homelessness. This would not happen without the input of people experiencing homelessness or the coaches who are bringing about change through their actions, values and behaviours. And trust me, being in the system, and going against it is no easy task.
Coaches aim to connect with people at a personal level. When individuals are referred to Mayday, they come with a ‘needs’ profile – but this tells us nothing about who they are, what their preferences are, and what they would like to do with their lives. There is a big discrepancy between the needs profile, and the people we work with every day. Unless there are grave safety issues, we prefer not to see their needs assessment and start by building a relationship with the person through a conversation about their strengths.
Saying we do not always agree with needs and risk assessments and saying people’s strengths, skills and aspirations need to be recognised requires much bravery. When we said we see ‘strengths’, we were deemed to be too fluffy! But truly listening to people and building strong relationships at a human level is so fundamental. Without it people do not have a voice in the system.
People are suspicious when they start working with Mayday. They are not sure what to expect and base their judgements on previous experiences of working with services. Coaches put a lot of work into winning people around, proving to them we are a worthy service. When I was coaching, I worked with an individual, Jim, who for the first 3 months didn’t turn up to any meetings. Then I found a hook through setting Jim up with guitar lessons and from this we got to know each other and spent a lot of time discussing books, politics, music and history- all things I was more than happy to talk about! Once Jim got to know me, and what Mayday is about, he turned up every week and did not miss a meeting. Sometime later, Jim reflected with me and said that he didn’t like me at first and that is why he did not come but that he now greatly regretted wasting time and wished he had worked with a coach regularly from day one.
The Personal Transitions Service is about finding what people are passionate about, and building on their passions to find purpose and surround them with new friends and community outside of the homelessness system.
We have been received with much scepticism – ‘Mayday is all carrots, and not enough sticks’. Well, to me, what others called ‘the carrot’ is about being human, and not a system. The carrot is about thinking outside the box, and working with an individual to open up opportunities which use the rich set of skills, abilities and strengths of the people we work with so that they can move on to where they want to be.
For example we worked with Bob, who was doing street art and this was getting him into trouble. But instead of seeking to stop this behaviour, punish him or use the ‘stick’ we turned it into a carrot. The coach worked with Bob to explore his love of art and graffiti. They went on a street art tour in Shoreditch and the coach also brokered an opportunity for Bob to do some art on a wall in a local café in Oxford. This focused him on the future and on the back of this he is looking to do a course and get into work.
But Asset Coaches not only build the critical initial relationship with the individuals, they also work autonomously and creatively with the individual to ensure that the power remains with them. The focus is on each individual continually building evidence of their ability to achieve for themselves.
Often people in services end up having things done for them or situations ‘fixed’. Someone going into rent arrears? Let’s make some calls to sort it out. Someone started using again? Let’s refer them to a drug worker. Whilst well intentioned, this interventionist approach takes agency away from people.
We have of course duty of care – but we also need to give people room to fall safely. We learn by falling and the falls must not be prevented- but people need a non-judgemental network of support around them to facilitate them getting back up and to encourage them to carry on. Standing back is one of the most crucial but difficult things a coach has to do.
When I was coaching I worked with Ray who was going through a difficult time. He did not have contact with his daughter who he was very close to and he was drinking heavily to cope with the situation. We had looked at several options he was interested in, including going to meditation, film courses and martial arts. But he was not coping well with not being able to see his daughter and his engagement dropped and his drinking escalated. I stayed in touch, let him know I was there but we slowed things down.
A few months down the line he thanked me for giving him space. He said it would have been detrimental to push him at that time and he was glad that whilst he knew I was there to talk to, I was not forcing him to make decisions he was not ready for. Sometimes coaching is just about knowing when to give someone safe space; which is hard because you have to know that things could go wrong. When he started engaging again, he reduced drinking, got in touch with his daughter and started applying for a degree. This was the right time for him. He made the decision.
Working by the schedule of the people we work with is in constant contrast to the systems we work within. The focus on deficits and ‘fixing’ people’s issues when they are not ready, ends up acting as a barrier for them moving forward. When they do not achieve what is set out for them, they then cannot access options that they would like to explore. There is emerging evidence to suggest that some of the people termed ‘complex needs’ did not require some of the high-cost interventions given to them. For example, drug rehabilitation and long periods in hostels or supported accommodation, before being able to move into the community and successfully sustain their own accommodation. But there is a need for the people we work with to prove themselves in certain areas, areas which they may not be ready to address yet, and do not define their ability to live their life the way they want to. Does someone need to have addressed all their ‘issues’ before we can deem them ‘move on ready’? Could we all class ourselves as ‘move on ready’? I know I have credit card debts, I order too many pizzas and I drink too much sometimes. If I became homeless tomorrow, would these things that I can manage in my own home today, become barriers to my independence tomorrow?
A needs based system says “We will believe you when you achieve it, when you complete the tasks given to you”. We say “we believe in you, you will achieve”. A major disruption has been in how we see people, and how they achieve their outcomes.
When I was working as a coach I was told by others that Mayday coaches just do the ‘fun’, ‘soft’ stuff whilst other services do the ‘real’, ‘hard’ work. I believe our work is extremely real and if you work in a strength based way, you are choosing to take the more difficult path. You are also choosing to go against the norm. Being an Asset Coach is about being in the system, but against it at the same time. It isn’t for everyone, and it takes personal strength and resilience to carry on doing, carry on challenging.
But I take strength from knowing that it works. My gut first told me this would work, then I heard it from the people I worked with and then I saw it in the data; people’s asset scores were improving, they were adding more and more of the good stuff to their lives; the good stuff which would eventually make no room for the bad stuff.
The real systems-changers are the people who access services and the coaches – every decision they make, every action they take, chips away at the system. But we are able to do this, because we operate in a micro-system called Mayday that gives us the freedom to break the rules, challenge assumptions and change practice.