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Cymorth21: Annual Conference Recap

Our Policy & Communications Officer, Tanya Harrington, looks back at the Annual Conference we held in March.

Annual Conference graphic with sponsors.jpg

A month ago, we had our first annual conference since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Cymorth had been due to have one in March 2020, but... you know. 

Cymorth21 was a series of firsts for me: first annual conference as a Cymorth team member, first digital conference we’ve ever held, and the first time offering free sessions specifically for the frontline staff who have worked so hard during the last year. Plus, on the final day, we launched our manifesto for the upcoming Senedd elections in May. No pressure! 

The event had a fantastic line-up of events, all themed around the learnings taken from housing support staff and people with lived experience throughout the pandemic, and how we could use these to build an improved system going forward. 

The main event sponsors were ClwydAlyn and Digital Communities Wales – a big thank you for helping us to put on the conference. 

Day one: Transforming homelessness services 

Our first day, sponsored by The National Lottery Community Fund, was all about the enormous changes undertaken by services once the pandemic hit. Organisations hurried to acquire PPE, deliver services according to social distancing guidelines whilst still maintaining that all-important human connection, and expand their digital offerings to accommodate existing and previously unreached communities. It also reflected on the journey of transformation ahead of us and our aspirations to end homelessness in Wales. 

We opened with an address from Julie James MS, Minister for Housing and Local Government, who used the opportunity to thank services and frontline staff for their huge efforts during the pandemic. She also reflected on the action to reduce homelessness over the last year and stated that there is no going back. From there, Jon Sparkes, Chair of the Homelessness Action Group walked us through their roadmap to ending homelessness in Wales - a pivotal aspect of transforming services for the better during this time. We also had the opportunity to learn more about the route to rapid rehousing, which the Welsh Government is now placing at the heart of homelessness provisions in Wales. 

In our first free frontline session of the week, our Director Katie Dalton plus PATH trainer Viv Mumby came together to talk with frontline workers about psychologically informed approaches in the housing and support sector, as well as supporting clients and staff to cope with both direct and vicarious trauma. 

In the afternoon, we heard from sponsors The National Lottery Community Fund about their Helping End Homelessness programme. 

Next, we learned about the impressive partnership work undertaken during the Covid-19 pandemic between mental health and substance misuse services, as well as how we must now build upon this foundation ensure that integrated support is available as soon as possible for experiencing homelessness, mental health and substance use issues. 

Finally, we heard about the bold new approaches to ending homelessness that some organisations have taken on, in particular Crisis with their new Critical Time Interventions project, and Platfform’s new team of Asset Coaches. 

Much of the last year here at Cymorth has been about representing the people on the ground and their views, so it’s always great to see Welsh Government among other organisations coming together to recognise their hard work. Knowing that we were able to utilise the conference space not just to spread knowledge of the strategic approach to ending homelessness in Wales, but also to communicate that recognition back to the people who deserve it the most, was an excellent feeling. 

Plus, seeing so many organisations and individuals committed to using this time of change to learn and grow toward even better services in the future was incredible. Which brings us nicely onto day two... 

Day two: Learning from the response to COVID 

Our second day, sponsored by Cadwyn, opened with a presentation from Dr Peter Mackie from Cardiff University about the different responses to homelessness across England, Scotland and Wales during Covid-19. Main themes included nations’ different approaches to funding, provisions and central leadership. 

Sticking with the theme of leadership, we then heard from Clare Budden from ClwydAlyn and Dr Lindsay Cordery-Bruce from The Wallich all about leadership during crisis, particularly in the context of adapting services and supporting frontline staff with the pressures of working in the ‘new normal’. 

Then, in our second free frontline worker event, our very own Gareth Lynn Montes spoke to frontline staff about the resources available from the Frontline Network, as well as feedback from a recent frontline worker survey, and opened the space for people to talk about their personal experiences during the pandemic. 

In the afternoon, we learned about the practicalities of embedding digital support, from apps to online support and activity groups for staff and service users. We particularly enjoyed seeing the amazing activities set up by people supported by Innovate Trust! 

To finish off the day, we heard about the issues facing those with no recourse to public funds. Currently, the Welsh Government has stated that emergency accommodation must be available to everyone, including people with NRPF. We heard from several experts about potential methods to ensure that these people will still have access to housing and support after the pandemic is over. 

Our second day was filled with learning about how the changes the sector has made out of necessity will actually help us to support people better in the future, particularly those who may not have been able to engage before digital support was available, as well as those from marginalised communities. 

Day three: Building back fairer 

Even though I had the tricky task of presenting one of the sessions, our third day still managed to be my favourite. Sponsored by Mirus and United Welsh, the end of #Cymorth21 took all of the context of the learnings outlined in the previous two days and used them as a platform to hear from experts about how to build onward in the best and fairest way possible. Day three left me feeling inspired and invigorated – a much-needed burst of cheer after a year-long pandemic! 

First, we heard about the immense value of the work done by frontline staff over the last year, and how important it is that the next Welsh Government ensures that frontline workers across Wales get the recognition and reward they deserve, as well as learning about some of the work that has been done over the last year to achieve that. 

Then, we were able to hear a valuable discussion between several experts about challenging racism and improving equality. It covered the disproportionate impact Covid-19 had on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communitiesthe reasons why, and what must change in the sector and in our society to ensure this inequality of treatment and opportunity is rectified. The need to challenge and refuse to tolerate racism and systemic inequality, plus the need for people from BAME communities in positions of influence, have always been apparentHowever, we still haven’t made enough progress. We must all play our role in doing what is necessary to make our communities and our sector places of equality. 

Next, we screened a compilation of interviews undertaken by me and my colleague Gwyn, that I had edited. The interviewees were people with lived experience of using housing support services, who were kind enough to offer their time to tell us how they think policy and services could improve to end homelessness in Wales, as well as what they hope for from the next Welsh Government. Their input was really valuable, as genuine experts in the reality of homelessness and related issues, and in the support provided in Wales. 

This led on to our Director, Katie Dalton, launching the Cymorth Cymru manifesto for the upcoming Welsh General Election. Our manifesto is built from five main components, all of which we’ve learned from working with researchers, organisations, staff and services users over the last Senedd term:  

·      Implement the Homelessness Action Group recommendations 

·      Protect and increase the Housing Support Grant 

·      Deliver 20,000 energy-efficient social homes 

·      Recognise and reward homelessness and support workers 

·      Improve access to mental health services 

Finally, my colleague Mandy and I rounded off the conference with our last free frontline staff session – this time all about the upcoming election and the best ways to get informed, involved, and make yourself heard. 

Final thoughts 

#Cymorth21 was an awesome experience, and both during sessions and behind the scenes I learned so much. What I liked best was getting to engage with different topics from a broad range of perspectives – hearing from experts in policy and strategy, as well as experts by lived experience, and especially people who occupy both roles at once. 

The interconnectedness of strategic thought with individual experiences, and the way that they loop around and influence one another, is one of the best parts of working in this sector – a place where people truly have the chance to be heard and represented.  

The conference left me feeling motivated in the knowledge that now more than ever we have an opportunity to make the sector truly equal, and secure a future where everyone’s voice carries the weight it deserves. 

...I hope we get to do the next one in a nice hotel, though. 

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© Cymorth Cymru 2021
Company Registration No: 5093332
Charity No: 1116774