Asset Manager, Rebecca Nelson, shares her initial experiences of joining Mayday as an Asset Coach. Reflecting on what it means to be a high functioning person, versus being a low functioning problem.

On writing this blog I had been in my role as an Asset Coach with Mayday Trust for about eight months and found myself reflecting on what I had learnt since embarking on the challenge.

Before I came to Mayday I spent most of my working life in Financial Services in a variety of roles including; sales, compliance training and coaching.  The bit I have always enjoyed most, my passion, has always been coaching - working with people to discover who they are and how they would like their lives to be.

I came to the role as an Asset Coach with a naivety about the homeless system and how it works – or as it happens, doesn’t work! What I brought with me was knowledge of working with people, coaching, creating direction, helping people to recognise their own strengths and how they can nurture and value these. 

I have worked with a range of people and along the way I’ve learnt that tough times are not exclusive to people without homes. In our lives we will all experience something, in some capacity. This is because whether we have a home or not, we are all just people experiencing a range of emotions, including fear, confusion, vulnerability, creativity, strength, weakness, and resiliency.

Our circumstances may change, but this doesn’t mean that we change - we are still the same people inside, but with different external circumstances. The thing that does change is how society and the systems we’re engaged with start to amend their view of us and treatment of us, ultimately this changes how we see ourselves.    

I used to work in central London, and I’ve been thinking about a couple of people I worked with during this time. The first was my Manager, we used to work in a small office in a beautiful building in the West End. Every morning he would come in to work, put the kettle on and then go to his office and rack up a couple of lines of Cocaine, which along with the cup of black coffee would  “start the day off nicely”.  I am not sure if the Senior Management knew, but he worked well and was a good Manager (well an ok Manager!). He functioned effectively, got the work done, often late into the evening and it was never perceived as a problem.

The other colleague was someone I met later in my career, at a different organisation. We were responsible for the same team of Financial Advisors. I took care of their training and compliance and he worked within business development. He was a lovely gentleman in his late fifties and very good at his job. He used to always smell of alcohol but it wasn’t a massive problem because back in that era, after lunch time in the city, most people would smell of alcohol! He was always on time, but one morning he arrived slightly late for a meeting and was very cross. I asked him if he was alright. His reply was no. He was really annoyed as the 7.45am to Waterloo was so packed someone had bumped in to him while he was drinking his morning Martini, it had spilt down the front of his shirt and there was barely any left! 

Both of these individuals maintained their jobs, they were good at what they did, so no one was worried about the fact that one was a drug addict and the other an alcoholic. They both wore suits, they both lived in big houses, they delivered the required level of occupational output, and therefore it was accepted behaviour.

Many of the people I am coaching now have similar relationships with drink and drugs. The difference between them and my two ex-colleagues, is not the people; the difference is how we as a society view them.  Whether they are sitting on a bench drinking a bottle of Lambrini or drinking a Martini out of a silver hip flask, whether they are snorting cocaine or injecting heroin, it is the same thing, but why is one a “problem” and the other not?

We would label my Martini drinking colleague as a “high functioning alcoholic”, but imagine if because of his morning cocktails he had been sacked, consequentially he could not pay his mortgage, resulting in the breakdown of his relationship, leading to potential homelessness. He would still be the same person, smart, funny and kind, but would he still be considered “high functioning” or would he now be viewed as “low functioning?” It appears that as a society we have decided, we have labelled, we have judged and then we have determined who is worthy and who isn’t, based on circumstantial evidence. If you have money and a house and no visible problems you are marked as acceptable in society. However, if you don’t have a house, no money and have evident problems – you become the problem.

The difference seems to be determined by where you are and what you have, not by who you are. When someone ends up in the homeless system there is an assumption that there is something wrong with them and they need to be fixed. We stop seeing them as a person, but as a problem. Decisions are made for them, that they need to be clean and sober. These decisions of course are made in a “person centred- strength based” way – a term I have heard a lot in the past few months. From what I’ve seen, this manifests itself by someone completing a very lengthy questionnaire which is generally very personal and deficit based, but they’ve learnt that the person likes music and reading, therefore they’re working in a person centred, and strength based way! 

If the two gentlemen I had previously worked with had turned up to work and were only seen as problems that’s what they would have been – problems, with no known solution. Their lives could have been very different, they were lucky they were in a place that put more value on what they could bring to the company. People put the emphasis on their strengths, not their deficits, which meant their strengths outweighed their issues. As it happened in time the Martini man did get sober, when he was ready, and this was supported and his treatment paid for by the company insurance. His job was left open for him until he was ready to pick it up again – because he was good at his job and they knew that.

When I discovered Mayday and the Personal Transitions Service (PTS), I found an organisation that knew something was very wrong with the homeless system and they were brave enough to stand out and shout about it. I found an organisation that wasn’t frightened of change, would chance sometimes getting things wrong and was courageous enough to step away from the normal approach. I like that about Mayday, but what I LOVE about Mayday is that it’s an organisation which puts the PTS and strength based work at its core. It is an organisation that wants this to be its heartbeat and the driver for everything they do, and it genuinely is.  

In the first few weeks of working with Mayday sadly my Mother passed away. It was a difficult time, where I felt my world was spiralling out of control. I was in a new job, I was finding the homeless system frustrating and I was organising a funeral and dealing with my own emotions. My first thought was maybe this is too difficult now and maybe I will just hand in my notice, I had only been at Mayday for 4 weeks. I obviously didn’t leave and this is why; my manager checked in and asked how I was and then crucially she asked how I wanted to manage this, I had been here 4 weeks! I wasn’t told to stay off work, I wasn’t told I had to be back in a certain time, I wasn’t quoted a standard company bereavement policy. I was handed control of a difficult, emotional situation and trusted to make decisions which would make this as easy as it could be for me. My Manager checked in regularly to make sure I was ok and was available if I needed to talk, but ultimately I was in control. This might not seem like much but it was huge, it had felt like everything was slipping away but I was given an anchor, a foot hold. This is strength based, it was about me making decisions which were best for me, and not being dictated on what was good for me.

I have learnt from this and it has helped my understanding of what the PTS really feels like. I take it into my coaching role and I believe that it has made me a better Coach. I work with people to recognise their own strengths and how they can nurture them. I try to assist them to broaden their worlds, I broker opportunities, but much more than this, I give people the trust and ability to make decisions for themselves, to have control in a world which must seem like it is very much out of their control.

I work with people to be “high functioning” individuals, even if they are caught up in a “low functioning” system.