Martin Gavin: People with lived experience will tell us what works

Martin Gavin: People with lived experience will tell us what works

Martin Gavin

The response from the homelessness sector to COVID-19 continues at pace. Assessing whether the measures introduced in the past two weeks are the right ones, and what aspects we might want to retain, must be guided by people with expertise both as practitioners and through their own lived experience, says Martin Gavin – head of external relations at Homeless Network Scotland.

What’s been done so far is so obviously the right reaction to a crisis on this scale – removing barriers, eliminating delay and reducing bureaucracy to save lives and maintain services in whatever form we can. As we move forward in this new reality the voice of people with their own experience of homelessness can fine-tune and adapt policies shaped in an emergency.

Great strides have been made in the past two years since the ‘Aye We Can’ research gave voice to more than 400 people with lived experience, feeding into the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group (Harsag). In December 2019, All in for Change launched in Edinburgh. Some of the 30 or so members of the ‘Change Team’ have personal experience of being homeless, others have frontline responsibilities in local authorities, housing associations and third sector support providers.

Facilitated by Homeless Network Scotland, Cyrenians and Scottish Community Development Centre (SCDC), this Change Team is designed to place lived experience at the heart of system change. The inaugural meeting was attended by the Housing Minister, Kevin Stewart MSP, and the team had started supporting thinking around the Government’s Ending Homelessness Together plan before the pandemic took hold – setting out what’s working, and what’s getting in the way. This is proper co-production, bringing all the moving parts together, and is attracting attention beyond the homelessness sector. If the voice of lived experience matters when it’s ‘business as usual’ then it matters even more now.

COVID-19 was the theme at the most recent Change Team gathering. Some are concerned about the impact of this lockdown on their own mental health and the wellbeing of people they know. And key workers in the Change Team expressed guilt that they are ‘not doing enough’ (they are). 

The Change Team had three clear messages on COVID-19 and how it impacts on homelessness:

  • How will housing applications be affected – faster, clearer information must reach people who need a house and those who support them. The Change Team can help with that. For people in hotels and temporary accommodation who are fast-tracked into housing, will furniture and starter packs be available?
  • The team are seeing change at local micro-level, in streets and communities with more people and more community organisations getting involved. Can energy and resources be committed to ensure this collaboration continues?
  • There’s an opportunity to assess and maybe retain remote and digital approaches to supporting people. For example, homelessness applications taken by phone. Digital tools and understanding of how to use them are not common to everyone, so a large training and support programme would be needed to make that work.

At the heart of All in for Change is the knowledge that services in the past have too often been designed ‘for’ people experiencing homelessness, rarely ‘by’ them. Far-reaching and potentially game-changing solutions are surfacing – how we evidence which of these are having the most impact and prevent abrogation of the best parts should be guided by people on the frontline.

Dr Beth Watts, a Senior Research Fellow at I-SPHERE, Heriot-Watt University and an expert on homelessness policy, summed up the current circumstances at the All in for Change meeting, saying: “We are currently in a critical and unusual window of opportunity in terms of having a positive impact on change around homeless services and delivery. We need to be bold and aspirational, shout about what is making a difference and what works.”

All in for Change is starting to gather evidence of what works, changes to policy and practice in recent weeks, and starting to build a picture of a new landscape in homelessness. If you would like to get involved in this work contact us at Homeless Network Scotland

  • Read all of our articles relating to COVID-19 here.
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