“What I found so empowering was the lack of division between those who had lived experience and those that didn’t.”

Mat first came to Groundswell in 2017 as a volunteer on a joint Citizen Journalism project with the Pavement Magazine; he progressed into a Supported Permitted Work (part time supported work whilst on benefits) role in our research team. In October (2020) Mat began a full-time role in Groundswell’s national #HealthNow team, leading on our project ‘monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on people experiencing homelessness’.  Here he talks about how his lived experience is valued and a crucial part of the work he does for Groundswell.

I can’t express just how cathartic it has been to find an organisation like Groundswell where I don’t have to hide stuff – my issues with addiction, mental health and homelessness. Instead, I’m encouraged to talk about those experiences and utilise them in the work we’re doing to help others who are still out there.

It seems that as a society we want to talk about ‘the homeless’, but we don’t much want to see them. I’m fully aware what that feels like – to be talked about and not noticed. It wears you down and tears at your sense of self until there is very little left. At 40 I owned a four-bedroom house in Brixton, outright. I was set so I thought, for life. But life can be fragile and so it proved; I lost everything and spiralled into depression; over the next six years I went through every stage of homelessness including a stint on the streets.

Eventually I said enough is enough, I set a date to be clean by…and things started to change. I got the counselling I desperately needed. I’d previously been denied counselling because I was in active addiction; yep they didn’t give the counselling I needed to get clean because I wasn’t clean – go figure! I could write a whole other piece on the catch 22 of what is known as ‘dual diagnosis’ (those who suffer from addiction and mental health issues). From this counselling my Case Worker got me onto journalism training with the Pavement magazine, which took me to Groundswell and where I am today – working a full-time job doing something I have a genuine passion for.

I knew I loved Groundswell from when I first met them. I didn’t think about it at first, but what I found so empowering was the lack of division between those who had lived experience and those that didn’t. Although the experience is valued and utilised here, there is no judgement attached to it – we use the knowledge like anyone uses skills they have learnt in life to do our job. The trust and support you get from your colleagues and the Progression Coaches at Groundswell is considered, but the human touch it’s delivered with makes you want to engage.

I now focus on ‘insight and action’ – finding stuff out through research and citizen journalism, and using that to do something about it. One thing that has impressed me since the day I arrived at Groundswell is just how geared towards impact everything is. It’s easy to end up doing research for the sake of it to fulfil your own agendas; but it’s vital work is necessary and predicted by a desire to change things for the people who are giving you their time and taking the trouble to share their stories with you. The project I’m currently working on around the impact of COVID-19 on people who are homeless does exactly that.

I’ve noticed as an organisation Groundswell doesn’t rest on its laurels – there’s a culture of constant evaluation that keeps things going. At the end of the day being able to share my story has gotten me over some of the shame. Recently I’ve been managing 15 community reporters with experience of homelessness, I’ve heard so many stories – challenges and how people deal with these situations that need attention. But I’ve also heard positives, and you have to take an open mind in research to get the full picture, we can’t always look for problems. I mean when you’re shaping policy what’s better than finding out what works so we can do more of that.

Nothing is simple. The way we used to do charity in that top down, hand out way is rubbish – it doesn’t work. The only way that works is holistic and circular with each part supporting and nurturing the rest. When I first joined Groundswell, I realised how the experience of being homeless had robbed me of my sense of identity, confidence in myself and my ability to use my initiative. Half a dozen years of being blamed and feeling useless had done that. Groundswell’s holistic approach has taught me how to use my life experience to help others, which coupled with the research and admin skills that I have picked up, both from doing the job and from the various courses I taken, have given me back my sense of self, as well as a valuable skillset.