Jenny McAteer on listening to rough sleepers in Newcastle

People who rough sleep are often seen but rarely heard – to end rough sleeping we need to listen to voices from the street.

First published January 2019 by Jenny McAteer, National Development Manager, Groundswell.

On a cold December evening, Groundswell’s Insight and Action (I&A) team trod the pavements of Newcastle Upon Tyne to talk to people who are rough sleeping in the city to ask them what support they need. Over the course of three days the team delivered a rapid peer-research project that aimed to capture a ‘snapshot’ of perspectives of people who sleep rough and have recently slept rough in the City of Newcastle about what would support them away from a life on the street. Over the course of three days we interviewed people on the streets, conducted focus groups in services and presented our initial findings back to a room of people working in homelessness services.

This was the first stage in Newcastle Voices, an exciting and innovative project that Groundswell and Newcastle City Council are undertaking to embed the participation of people with experience of homelessness in commissioning and service delivery. By capturing the perspectives of people who have fallen through the safety net of support services it can help make better decisions about how services work in Newcastle.

A full report will be produced, so I won’t pre-empt that here. But what I would like to reflect on are my top 5 take away messages from my 3 days joining the I&A team:

At number 5 is the ‘Lines in the Sand’
Sometimes people draw lines around services and often assumptions are made that lines can’t be crossed. This can stop people from accessing help or prevent people who care and want to help from being able to do it in the way the person needs. Often these lines could be easily washed away if we made it easier for people to access help or know who to ask for help rather than assuming it’s not there.

We can help create a tide change towards a willingness to be flexible and to do what works for the person we’re seeking to help. Let’s start with “Hi, what’s your name?”, “what help do you need?”, “this is what I can do”, “will that work for you?”.

In at number 4 is ‘Real Time’
We challenged ourselves to turn around research, analysis and presenting initial insights to stakeholders within 3 days. This left the team physically and emotionally drained. But, the power of being able to present real time insights from people who we spoke to only a day or two before was incredible and important to the messages they conveyed.

While there may be consistency in the types of challenges people face rough sleeping over time, assuming you know what they are risks meeting the needs of people now. Listening to what people need, keeping the information live and being responsive means that you are better able to support that need and build trust with people. Now the imperative for those stakeholders is to go back and tell people what has changed as a result of what they told us.

In at number 3 ‘Prevention’
It’s better to prevent homelessness happening to begin with, rather than allow the damaging effects that it has on people’s lives. We listened to the stories of how people came to be on the street and the frustrations people had about how it could have been avoided. Being on the street can be prevented by better planning and support and better information about rights. If the time, commitment, planning and support to challenge where needed is in place, street homelessness could be avoided. This requires change nationally as well as locally but listening to people’s stories gives a compelling push for change.

At number 2 is ‘Peer Power’
As always with Groundswell, I was struck immediately by the power that shared experience has. There is a connection that leads people to open-up and trust the researcher or advocate. The value of that goes beyond any formal qualifications and deserves recognition. This doesn’t just happen, it requires nurturing and support to make the most of this experience, not everyone can do it but when it works it’s so powerful.

Topping my chart at number 1 is ‘Being Human’
Unlike many of my colleagues, I have not had the experience of being homeless. Therefore, the most enduring message for me is the personal experience of being dehumanised because people thought I was homeless. I know this happens but experiencing it, however briefly, was something I will never forget.

By just changing my position on the same street immediately changed the way people viewed me. Purely based on context. One minute I was walking along the streets of my childhood enjoying the Geordie friendliness I am familiar with, the next minute I was sitting on the street ignored and avoided at best (with the exception of one kind offer of a sandwich) and at worst feeling hostility towards me. The only thing that changed was my position. It doesn’t need to be this way. I was at a Museum of Homelessness event recently and had the privilege of listening to Dr Lasana Harris from UCL present the findings of his research on dehumanisation. I would urge you to watch this video that explains how to change hearts and minds through the power of stories.

In conclusion, I should congratulate Newcastle City Council and local partners for making real efforts to listen to people’s views and acting on them. I know they are already taking action based on what people shared with them. To other authorities and agencies, this proves that listening to people who are the least heard doesn’t take vast resources, is possible within reasonable timescales. People in their position have incredible insight into where the system isn’t working and it will change the decisions you take.