At the launch of Mayday's Personal Transitions Service and our report Homelessness System Under Deconstruction, Pat McArdle describes why the sector requires a paradigm shift to transform how we tackle homelessness. 

I would like to begin by sincerely thanking The Lord Mayor for choosing Mayday as one of her charities of the year. Having the privilege of working with The Lord Mayor this year, will enable us to maintain a focus and raise the profile of an issue that many of us feel very passionate about - homelessness.

There are few social issues, though often misunderstood, that I feel so strongly about, seeing people trying to survive, and not just from a night on the street, hunger or poverty or a decent roof over their head but trying to maintain their dignity, overcome rejection, isolation, aloneness, seeking a place to belong, to escape pain, emotional or physical, to find somewhere where you can feel a sense of purpose or self-respect. Watching people trying to survive is hard, with some even judging those very survival strategies apportioning responsibility to the individual, pathologising or labelling but homelessness is a state, a state from which it is hard to climb out of, no matter how strong, how resilient, ultimately over time it takes its toll, it wears people down.

No one was born to be homelessness - Charles Darwin once said:

“If the misery of our poor is caused not by laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin”.

So over the last 3 years, I have begun to think how I, over the last 30 years, maybe have not listened enough, reflected enough, educated myself enough to understand the role that I was playing in building and colluding with a system that in essence has disempowered, not empowered people to get through their tough transition, overcome whatever demons they are facing, or barriers they are climbing.

When did it happen that we became so system led not human led, when did ticking the boxes become more important than doing what's right for that person.

This is why our report is called: “Homelessness System under Deconstruction.”

In the summer of 2014, I stood with a safeguarding officer watching a vulnerable man get into a taxi with a known drug dealer. His worker told me that the man was being taken to the cash point where the drug dealer would take all his money in return for drugs that was forced upon him. A pattern repeated often over a long period of time

The man was receiving the traditional support, but however well-intentioned we were, what real impact would referrals to drug rehabs, or engaging with mental health services or help with keeping his room tidy really have. Would it stop him feeling threatened, scared and intimidated, would it stop him being a target for the drug dealer? With all our blanket policies and rigid offers, would the man feel safe to trust us enough with what was really going on in his life?

People don't have complex needs, the situation has become complex. As a homeless sector and as a community we must focus. We need to find good homes for people in the community where people are safe. We need to treat people as people, not clients, and as individuals we need to respond to real world and impactful solutions, we must build trust, listen and not assume that everyone needs a service some people just need to belong, find a purpose, a way back to belong and be part of the community. As a sector, we must not be distracted by government agendas or all the many debates going on in the homelessness sector. Our resource is limited and while austerity has brought about many new and interesting responses to homelessness, the place to start is by listening to people, listening to frontline staff and really trying to understand what is happening. This is what Mayday has tried to do over the last 5 years.

I would like to sincerely thank Oxford City and County Councils who gave Mayday this opportunity to deliver the Proof of Concept. The authority with other providers have often supported what we were doing, other times questioned, concerned, challenged; and overall made a huge contribution to over two years, the richness and depth of what we have learnt, the changes that we have experienced has been invaluable.

This is why it has been so difficult, so challenging to produce a report that is just a straight forward model evaluation. Thank you to our funders who have bared with us. And great thanks to a member of our board Andrew Meehan, who very succinctly categorised our report into 3 areas:

Advocating for the PTS

From our qualitative evidence and experience, the period of the proof concept makes us even more committed to advocating for personal transitions - personalised and strength based approaches. The feedback and individual achievements of people we work with have told us that people feel respected and treated with dignity. To me, that is a fundamental element of what people experiencing homelessness have asked from us and absolutely deserve. Small numbers who started with us just over / years ago have sustained positive life changes which give us great motivation to continue to a larger scale research project.

Independent evaluation

The report also contains Logical Thinking’s independent evaluation of our service model, despite 5 years of evolving and co-producing a personalised and asset-based approach, I don't think we are there yet but the work and results have demonstrated the scale of the task in not only introducing a new model but one which demands cultural, structural and system change both for the organisation and staff involved. A total new way of thinking and acting around the problem.

Learning and experience

Finally, the report discusses our overall learning and experience of delivering the Personal Transitions Service. During the Prooof of Concept, we inadvertently discovered what system change was and just how failing a UK needs and deficit approach was in helping people out of homelessness.

My hope for today is not to persuade you that Mayday has discovered the magic solution to ending homelessness but to ask that you play a role in bringing about the paradigm shift that is needed to radically transform our approach to tackling this problem. Whether you are  an interested party, a provider, a funder or commissioner, it can't happen without all of us coming together starting with each one of us challenging our own thinking and perceptions. Start by helping to deconstruct this broken system. Homelessness can be a brief transition in someone's life, we can make that happen if we chose to believe it. We at Mayday believe that with personalised responses, seeing an individual’s strengths, helping them see a different future for themselves, believing in them, can make this happen.