Homelessness in Oxford - RSA

Using a strength based approach to help combat homelessness

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Why is homelessness still such a problem? You could cite the lack of housing as a direct cause, and yes, the lack of affordable housing is certainly a factor. But from my experience of working in the homeless sector in Oxford, simply putting someone who doesn’t have a ‘home’ in a ‘house’, doesn’t solve their problems.

Is it time we stopped looking at homelessness as a prescriptive housing problem, but more as a result of deep rooted poverty and marginalisation? Perhaps we should just re-focus, and instead of pushing individuals who have experienced trauma and isolation their whole lives into ‘houses’, we should instead, create ‘homes’, in the much broader definition of the word. Homes which are rooted in human connection and purpose, which have foundations and safety nets which are not services, but instead friends, families and jobs.

At Mayday, we look to address these deeper issues and also re-examine the systems which are supposed to move individuals out of tough life transitions. What we have seen is that the constant focus on the failings of individuals, their needs and their problems, keep them in a negative cycle which further deepens their divide from their community. Instead, we take a different stance, by using a strength based approach, we focus on what people are good at, what their skills are and what they can use to lift themselves out of the poverty they are in. It’s not about ‘fixing’, it’s about empowering. It’s a person centred, holistic approach, designed to make tough times in people’s lives truly transitional. We are looking to transform the way we respond to key social problems such as homelessness, rehabilitation from prison and leaving care.

We are a grass roots movement. Our model is based on direct feedback from the people who use our service and it is them who continually shape and direct their provision. The people working on the ground are coaches, not key workers or support staff, but individuals who are here to guide and provide opportunities. We promote self-determination and look to facilitate agency; we want to instil self-belief rather than fear of not ‘coping’. When we put people in ‘houses’ we ensure there is a ‘home’ to go with that. We work with the community as a whole and strive to break down barriers which create social isolation and direct individuals towards meaningful activities in their communities.

Working as a coach myself, this is often challenging, but also exciting. My role has taken me go-karting, dog walking, filming parkour, playing chess, watching local films and learning the intricate details of how to build a remote control car. I did not come up with any of these ideas, they were goals of the people I work with; I simply facilitated. This allows them to follow their passions, feel good about themselves and as a result they meet new people and start to recover from years of feeling like they don’t belong. This is not to say we ignore problems, we understand that there are negative behaviours in many of the people we work with, such as using drugs or offending. But these are not the priority. They can be addressed then the person feels ready. They are secondary to them using their skills and talents to thrive in their community- because once we have established a reason to stop negative behaviours, it becomes a lot easier to give them up.

We are now looking to our community to welcome individuals who have fallen out, back in. We are creating a movement and we need everyone behind this for it to work. We need people to connect the people we are working with to their community. Perhaps you have a shared interest with someone we work with and together you could explore this further. Or you have volunteer or work placements you think that someone we work with could excel in. Or maybe you would like to come along to Mayday to volunteer and start a different conversation, not based on problems, but based on possibilities and the future. Together, we can stop defining people by what has gone wrong in their lives, but instead by what they have done right; together we can all have a home.

Sarah Hughes FRSA, spoke at a recent RSA Oxford event and the Christmas meet up on 15th December will include a voluntary donation to the Mayday Trust for its work.

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  • Hi Sarah

    Good piece and very relevant. Homelessness, including rough sleeping, is on the increase and not enough is being done to fix it. But if we leave it to national or local government, the issue will continue to deteriorate - too many needs, not enough money, and even less relevant expertise. For a model that just works, see www.emmaus.org.uk. Key people in the Emmaus Federation are FRSA (Chair, CEO, Trustees) and have linked with such RSA projects as Transitions and Whole Person Recovery either in practice or in spirit. Fundamentally, Emmaus provides homeless people who want to turn their lives around with a home, food and meaningful work. The key to commencing the journey back to recovery is to enable them to help folks who are even worse off than they were before they came to Emmaus. Being able to help someone provides a feeling that they have something to give which is great for self-esteem. Then, with other ex-homeless people, they run a social enterprise which generates a surplus, so they no longer need handouts. Apart from housing benefit, they come off all benefits - reinforcing the sense of independence. Then Emmaus helps them to learn skills that are needed in the big wide world, and when they're ready, Emmaus helps them move on back into a community - or into employment within Emmaus. Selwyn Image, who brought Emmaus to the UK from France in 1991, was awarded the RSA's Albert medal for his Emmaus-based work with the homeless, and became an honorary life Fellow. Tonight, over 750 ex-homeless individuals across the UK are working towards becoming independent, contributing members of society. Independent research shows that for every £1 spent with Emmaus, there is an £11 social return on investment, with social, environmental and economic benefits. There is an Emmaus establishment near you, and  I'd be happy to make the link. I think you'll find a partnership, formal or informal, would be of great value. Oh - one last comment. Emmaus, notwithstanding its name, is secular.

  • Hi loved your piece Sarah but a note of caution about letting those in power off the hook for the messes that they create!!They need to understand outcomes and be flexible enough to believe them and change. afterall the rest of the world is becoming increasingly flexible in many ways.

    I don't know why but this piece seems to connect with Anthony Painter's piece about the failures of education and the NHS. the people whom I have known who have fallen out have often been victims of those who have achieved success in the education system defined by Anthony- and exercise local power from that narrowly educated basis and that is very violent and scary.

  • Although our Christmas event at The Randolph, Oxford on 15th Dec., will not feature a speaker, there's an opportunity to meet Sarah Hughes FRSA who with me and Dorian Tallbody FRSA will greet you at the door, with your contribution (to the Mayday Trust's work in Oxford) and a ticket for good wine, good food and good company!