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    "It hands back power, it could change perceptions of people going through tough times... it could change everything" Becky Lee, Changing Lives
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A different way of thinking about support

Gwyn writes up his visit to an event run by Mayday Trust and Homeless Link in Manchester last year, where he found out about Mayday Trust's Personal Transitions Service (PTS), a radical way of thinking about support for people experiencing difficulty. Mayday Trust CEO Pat McArdle will be speaking at our Annual Conference on 14 March.

 

Last year I travelled to Manchester for System Reset, an event where Mayday Trust and their partners spoke about their Personal Transitions Service – an approach to supporting people “going through tough times”. There, I heard people talk with excitement about building a movement, and changing the whole way we think about support.

The event’s chair was Maff Potts, the founder of an organisation called Camerados. Maff said his organisation’s ethos is based on the idea that every individual needs friendship and purposein order to be happy, and I think this was a very simple and effective idea that rang true to me, especially in light of the Mayday Trust’s work that I heard about during the day.

 

The Mayday Trust journey

CEO Pat McArdle set out their mission, and explained the formation of the Personal Transitions Service. It was based on the opinions of people who’ve experienced homelessness, she said;  the aim was “to listen to what people are saying, and respond meaningfully and respectfully.” They produced a series of blogs called Wisdom from the Streets and Wisdom from Behind Closed Doors, which you can read online.

What they concluded from speaking to people:

  • Being homeless “in the system” is humiliating, dehumanising and, at its worst, institutionalising.
  • Focusing on problems and trying to fix people means that outcomes are poor. Trauma and structural causes are ignored.
  • The homelessness sector has facilitated a “them and us” mentality: a homeless identity, which is hard to shake off.
  • The focus on needs and risks means that homelessness sector is “part of the problem.”
  • People become segregated, only interacting within the homeless “bubble” – when they’re cut loose, they’re expected to be independent but are actually isolated.

In light of this, their organisational strategy changed:

Previous strategy

Problem: People experiencing homelessness with complex needs

Mission: End homelessness

 

New strategy

Problem: The systemic institutionalisation of people experiencing homelessness

Mission: Make systems work for all

 

Pat defined the Mayday Trust’s approach in three principles:

  • Trusting people that they know what's best for them.
  • A more equal relationship between funders and stakeholders
  • “Forget the politics - we can create a paradigm shift!”

 

The Personal Transitions Service

The Personal Transitions Service (PTS) is described as a person-led, asset-based approach to supporting people who other organisations might describe as experiencing complex needs – people who are homeless, sleeping rough and have a history of other, interlinked issues such as trauma, addiction and mental health issues.

You won’t find Mayday Trust’s team using these words, if they can help it. Their ethos is that “tough times”, such as homelessness, should be brief transitions. The aim is not to “end homelessness”, (this is the stated mission of Crisis, for example).  Instead, they aim to work towards ensuring that when it does happen, it’s only a brief transition in people’s lives, rather than becoming an identity.

As I came to understand it, PTS revolves around outreach staff – known in this case as “asset coaches”, rather than “support workers” – who build trusting relationships with people who have often been homeless for a long time. A single Asset Coach can work with a caseload of up to thirty people, which is made possible by the fact that people choose their level of interaction: some may only want one visit or a call each month, while others may want to meet much more regularly.

The work is “person-led” in that it’s driven by what the person wants, and “asset-based”, or “strengths-based”, in that it focuses on the person’s interests and character, rather than on “problems” or behaviours that may be perceived as preventing access to accommodation.

What sounded novel to me was that there is not even any discussion of problems like substance misuse between individual and asset coach unless it comes from the person being supported. We heard from Louise Green of The Brick, another PTS Innovation Partner, who told how Joe was always waiting for “the bomb to drop”: the question “what are your needs?” But it never came. There were just conversations, meeting wherever Joe wanted – even at art galleries. Through getting to know Joe and what he wanted to do, the coach arranged for him to attend art sessions that were funded through personal budgeting.

The Asset Coach gradually made excuses, joining him at the sessions less often, and Joe began going alone. He chose not to drink at art sessions as it wasn't socially acceptable. Joe is now in his longest tenancy ever, and not drinking harmfully. He was never told to stop drinking.

It seemed to be all about what people’s assets are and what they want to achieve – whether it be learning to drive or singing in a choir. Some outcomes of one PTS client are listed as: “learnt to ride a motorbike, drastically cut his drinking, moved into a flat, and is exploring employment.”

 

Barriers to providing support in this way

Funding presented a problem, Mayday Trust development director Lynn Mumford told us, as it was such a different way of working. Commissioners often didn't like or understand the model, as they weren’t used to it, or if they did, their tender criteria hadn't changed so they weren’t able to award the tender.

Some things I heard during the day that were reminiscent of opinions I heard during the ongoing encouragement of services to adopt psychologically-informed approaches:

  • “It’s not about people who don't engage – we’re not engaging properly. When it becomes voluntary to engage, engagement increases dramatically.”
  • “’Yeah, we do that already’ is the biggest, most frustrating challenge from other organisations when the new approach is encouraged.”

 

Monitoring

Ashraf Hamzah, Mayday Trust’s Social Impact Manager discussed their strengths-based model, and their approach to monitoring. He emphasised the importance that data gathering is ‘asset-based’ as well – based on what people value, rather than merely the traditional “outcomes” such as reduction in substance use.

It’s important that monitoring doesn’t interrupt trusting relationships, which are the most important thing. For example, if you have been building up a relationship with someone that has never been defined by an attempt to “get them off drugs”, like their previous, failed ‘support’ relationships, but you suddenly begin asking them about their drug use.

Mayday Trust partnered with a US organisation who have tested asset-based approaches on a large scale. Asset Coaches work in a way that is based on these Developmental Assets and Internal Assets and Mayday Trust have developed an asset assessment form. Find out more about the Search Institute’s Developmental Assets Framework here.

 

Partnership

We heard from Mayday Trust’s Development Director Lynn Mumford about partnership. Their approach exists in partnership, with only 9 Asset Coaches working for Mayday Trust at the time of the event, and 37 more across partners, each with individual organisational nuance.

A PTS approach felt like a luxury at first, Becky Lee of PTS “innovation partner” organisation Changing Lives told us, with the new Asset Coach making off-the-wall suggestions like starting a regular film night at their project, simply because that’s what service users wanted, regardless of planned outcomes. But this approach became a pivotal part of what they did. A challenging but fundamental part of adopting the model was giving autonomy to frontline staff, she said.

Changing Lives didn’t get extra funding to adapt their approach, just changed things around. The reason to adopt this approach, she told us, is because it hands back power. It could change perceptions of people going through tough times – it could change everything, she said. She gave the example of a young man they’ve been working with who’s been a prolific user of ‘new psychoactive substances’ (NPS), and is now playing football with a team outside the homelessness world – and this is an important and meaningful outcome, she said.

 

What I took away from the event

There were some interesting questions from the audience. From the back of the room, a voice asked: “How damaged are the people you work with?” It felt rather brutal, and created a bit of a shocked silence, especially in light of the language of the speakers and the focus on strengths. The question highlighted the difference in discourse between different organisations and individuals.

This question of language came up in other questions. There was a question about the Asset Coach title for PTS support staff, which Mayday Trust staff say is still unsettled. There was tension with communications teams in bringing in the PTS model over the use of the term “vulnerable people,” which the Mayday Trust team dislike.

Even in writing this blog I have thought a lot about the language I am using to describe the issues around homelessness, and it’s always uncertain territory – but perhaps that’s unsurprising. Is PTS a service model or a movement? Do we work with people experiencing tough times, or service users with multiple complex needs?

There was a question about how Housing First sat with the Mayday Trust’s approach. Pat McArdle said that Housing First is still part of a “deficit model”, and therefore out of step with her belief that organisations and commissioning systems need to change to create a truly person-led system. I wonder about this conflict between different ways of “changing the system”, and how to get around that.

The defining points they told us to remember about PTS:

  1. Approaches are personalised and strengths-based
  2. Support is transitional
  3. Organisations transform

The day had been a very strong sales pitch, or an offer to join a movement, depending on how you looked at it. An important aspect of the accreditation criteria for becoming a PTS Innovation Partner is “systems change, culture change and disruption”, along with quality delivery of PTS.

It sounded like a brilliant approach to supporting people out of homelessness through creating bonds, re-entering society, and finding purpose. I’m nothing like an expert in the provision of homeless services though. I’d be interested to know more about what service providers in Wales think about these ideas, and how the differences in Wales’ devolved policy areas affect some of the things I heard about the conference. I look forward to hosting Pat McArdle at our annual conference in March.

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© Cymorth Cymru 2019
Company Registration No: 5093332
Charity No: 1116774