The Homelessness Strategy for 2022-27 which was published by the NI Housing Executive aims to foster collaboration with partners across the homelessness sector to address the varied complex factors that lead to homelessness, many of which extend beyond the provision of accommodation.
One of the most welcome aspects of the strategy is the emphasis it places on the importance of listening to the voices of people who have lived experience of homelessness in the design and development of services. In the Year 1 Action Plan produced under the strategy, the Housing Executive committed to running four Lived Experience Groups. Homeless Connect were approached to facilitate these groups.
Our Lived Experience Coordinator Nikki McConville played a central role in setting up and running these service user groups. In the blog below, she reflects on what she learnt from the experience:
In September and February, I was tasked with helping to run four service user groups for people experiencing homelessness. While I have had some experience of working with service users, this was the first time that I had been involved in co-ordinating groups of this nature.
We set about contacting individuals with lived experience in Belfast and the Derry/Londonderry areas and invited them to come along to share with us their experiences and views.
We held four meetings, two in Belfast and two in Derry/Londonderry. These meetings were attended by senior staff from both the Housing Executive and Homeless Connect.
During these meetings we listened. We listened to what people had to say. We were not there to argue or defend or justify. We did not steer the conversation to suit a pre agreed agenda.
Reflecting on the groups, two benefits of the groups were evident to me. Firstly, we heard first-hand from the experiences of those who have in the past or currently are using homelessness services. Participants had a range of experiences in engaging with the Housing Executive and the wider homelessness sector. Some of these experiences were deeply challenging while in other areas there was some positive feedback
Secondly it builds confidence and creates a sense of belonging and purpose to those feeding back on their experiences.
The focus of the first two meetings was on homelessness prevention. A key theme which struck me was the emphasis on stigma and language. Significant issues were raised around the education system and a lack of awareness in wider society of what can lead to homelessness. We listened to who participants felt was best placed to prevent homelessness, early intervention, and even homelessness prevention models in different countries.
The second set of meetings focused on Tenancy Sustainment. We often hear about those ‘entering homelessness’ or what caused the individual to have this experience. What can sometimes be overlooked is the transition from homelessness. This is a unique, subjective experience. There were some identifiable shared characteristics with some folks pointing to a lack of support at this stage. Participants highlighted the need for high quality advice around things such as finance, budgeting, healthcare, and practical issues. Such advice can be the difference between a person maintaining a tenancy or potentially falling back in to homelessness with all of the trauma this can bring.
Toxic masculinity was brought up at our Belfast meetings and mentioned in our Derry/Londonderry meetings. Unfortunately, this skewed self-perception is not confined to men.
Having a healthy view of yourself and how others perceive you leads to positive mental health and confidence. Having an unhealthy view can lead to challenges to mental health such as depression or anxiety, Not trusting in yourself and even those around you can lead to a multitude of issues.
Senior representatives from NIHE and Homeless Connect have listened during all these conversations. We are already aware of positive impacts which have come out of the sessions and we know that the insights which have come out will help to inform the development of the next action plan being produced under the homelessness strategy.
The face of homelessness has changed throughout the years, and we now know that homelessness can impact people from a wide range of different backgrounds and experiences. Recent statistics highlight that contrary to the imagery often highlighted in the media, families make up a significant cohort of those experiencing homelessness here. The experience of homelessness is not unique to those living and sleeping on the streets of Belfast. There are people in temporary accommodation and those who are ‘sofa surfing’ or staying with relatives. And this certainly was not confined to our capital.
We must reduce the stigma associated around homelessness and rewrite the narrative. We owe this to our most vulnerable.
‘The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.’
In the months and years to come, Homeless Connect will continue to advocate for the involvement of people with lived experience of homelessness in policy development and service design. If anything, these service user groups have shown me the unique and crucially important insights which people with lived experience can bring. Too often in the past these voices have been ignored or sidelined, to the detriment of both people experiencing homelessness and the sector trying to support them. It is our hope that we can play a part in bringing these voices to the fore.