Mayday Trust CEO, Pat McArdle reflects on her experience working in supported housing, resident meetings and how sometimes we need to question whether we really are providing a psychologically informed environment (PIE)

This week at our Housing Moving the Model Forward (MTMF) day we had a really interesting discussion about resident meetings within supported housing schemes. It took me back to a previous situation and reminded me of how important it is to question and reflect on our practice, even if it is something we have always done.

Years ago I was a Director of Homelessness Services which included a 30 bed shelter. We had weekly resident meetings and staff raised the same frustrations time and again; how do we get more people to attend? How do we get people to take responsibility and set their own agenda? How do we stop X from taking over the meeting?

We tried many ways to increase attendance including ‘pizza parties’ and telling people that attendance was part of their commitment to keep their room. However, after 6 months someone in the team had the revolutionary idea of simply asking people why they didn’t want to attend?!

As I had built up good relationships with many of the people we worked with, and as I was seen as the ‘boss’, I was tasked with speaking to people. I didn’t want the excuses, I wanted some ‘real world’, honest feedback.

I see now that you can only get that real world feedback if the power dynamic is balanced so a positive relationship can develop.

I set about attending various meetings and asking people to stay behind so I could have an individual chat about the resident meetings. I also wrote a note to everyone saying I would be catching up and why.

I haven’t forgotten what I heard in those conversations. Despite having worked in homelessness services for a while I was shocked and embarrassed that I didn’t predict what would be said.

People started out by saying they were busy and couldn’t be bothered but the more I continued the conversation the reality of those resident meetings emerged and, of course, it wasn’t rocket science.

People explained that they were embarrassed and by attending they felt like the ‘homeless person’. They also described how dealing with younger staff members left them feeling humiliated at being there, living in ‘that homeless place’.

Quite a few people revealed that they were terrified of certain individuals, “The more he sees me, the more he asks for money. He wants me to buy drugs, wants me to go out drinking…. but I know they end up robbing each other’s benefits.”

Others said they simply didn’t want to listen to the people who moaned constantly or they preferred to talk about repairs or issues with a staff member directly rather than speaking up in a group.

Many felt that talking about days out and Christmas parties was nice for some people. However, their reality was hard to face and these conversations left them feeling low. Christmas reminded people of the family they no longer had contact with. They just weren’t in the right head space for those types of conversations.

In one case a woman was angry that people thought it ok to ask her when it was predominantly men in attendance. She simply didn’t feel safe and she felt it was insensitive to be asked.

Some people did have good things to say. They used the meeting to make friends with other people living in the building and it was seen as a good way to break up the day. People explained that staff were great at making sure their discussions were on the agenda and it was a forum where problems could be aired and settled.

I suppose I was left feeling that in a truly psychologically informed environment (PIE) the platforms that WE were providing for people to be involved were not always the right ones. Even in situations where they were working for people currently, it was important to remember that they may not be appropriate in the future.

Back then, and even after this week’s discussion, I feel that we need to either keep out and not patronise people, or listen hard to how, when and for what purpose we were involving individuals. Otherwise, I believe that we are not using the huge power that we have as accommodation providers positively and with the best interests of people at heart. Ultimately, I was left wondering if providers even have that critical awareness of this power at all?