By Jenny McAteer
I was lucky enough to join Groundswell three years ago to expand their services and peer led approaches across the UK.
Eventually my work took the shape of developing and leading the incredible #HealthNow partnership and campaign which aims to tackle health inequalities for people who are homeless.
As my time at Groundswell ends this week, I feel akin to a bird leaving the nest, ready to test my new wings. I am reborn and now I am resolved to ‘be more Groundswell’.
So, I thought it would be useful to share what I have learnt so, you can consider being more Groundswell too.
The ingredients of #HealthNow
Groundswell was set up by and is primarily staffed by people who have experience of homelessness. Groundswell peers were clear that in expanding outside of London, Groundswell’s core beliefs should remain at the core of the partnerships. Notably that there is no them and us only us and that participation works.
In the spring of 2018 I started my ‘grand tour’ around England, meeting organisations, people experiencing homelessness and, commissioners, local authority leaders; like a travelling salesperson trying to convince them to set up Homeless Health Peer Advocacy (HHPA).
Although there is great inclusion health work happening across the UK, it became clear that homelessness and health wasn’t always strong enough on the local political agenda. Homelessness strategies rarely mention health, the health sector doesn’t always prioritise homelessness and vice versa. Peer led work is often the exception rather than the rule.
I knew that without changing this, without everyone uniting to understand and tackle homeless health inequality, things wouldn’t change. From the strong track record of HHPA in London and Groundswell’s established peer research methodology and experience in co-production, they had all the ingredients I needed to pull the strings of this together into a peer led system change approach to tackle homeless health inequality.
Crisis and Shelter got on board to work in partnership, and the National Lottery Community Fund awarded us £1.5million over four years – #HealthNow was born.
In only 18 months since the work began in earnest (despite and perhaps in part due to the pandemic) there is a network of over 50 volunteer peers across England working with national and local government to really change the system and remove barriers to accessing services.
Based on my learning, here are my top 3 tips on how ‘Being more Groundswell’ can support change:
1. People with experience of homelessness truly leading creates change
#HealthNow has a network of people who have experience of homelessness, they are truly creating change. Decisions about #HealthNow priorities, partnership and even the research questions and action plans are led by them. We learnt very quickly that to do this you need a dedicated resource (we have the awesome Peer Coordinator, Emma).
The peer network hold paid staff and stakeholders to account. For example, when the Government launched testing for COVID-19 last summer it was not accessible for people affected by homelessness.
Peers from Birmingham were there pushing me (very regularly) to escalate it to Department of Health and Social Care who eventually piloted testing in the area. The issues are so close to home, they do not accept inaction.
In addition the peer network have given their views on national consultations including the review of the mental health act and the rough sleeping strategy. People in the peer network don’t just represent their own experience, they represent the experience of all the people who have accessed advocacy or participated in research. That makes all the difference.
So, be more Groundswell, invest in a group of people who have lived experience and support them to represent the views of their peers to decision makers.
2. Being evidence based but getting better evidence = better solutions
Groundswell has a strong track record in peer led research. Through #HealthNow Groundswell has worked with partners Crisis and Shelter to deliver local peer led research which is specifically tailored to local areas to inform local plans (see the Birmingham and Newcastle research).
Listening to people who are experiencing homelessness to understand the barriers they face is important, but peer research means you get better evidence because of the shared experiences and trust. This means solutions created are different and more likely to work.
The COVID monitoring project where with the support of NHS England, Groundswell gathered the views of people who were homeless during the pandemic, illustrated the value of ‘live’ data. Stories that can be shared in briefings or through peer journalism really make an impact. Groundswell is hoping this approach can be scaled up.
So be more Groundswell and support people with experience to design, deliver and analyse findings from your research and engagement activity- you are much more likely to find solutions that work. Find out more about working with Groundswell on peer research methodology.
3. How relationships are key to creating impact
I was always keen that alliance building was central to the approach to creating change. Bringing people together who have a stake in an issue isn’t a new idea, but it doesn’t always happen effectively (or at all).
#HealthNow has supported people locally and nationally to come together, develop a joint vision of how to tackle health inequality and act together, utilising the joint intelligence, their strengths and influence to really effect change, leaving ego at the door.
All stakeholders are there, including people who have experience of homelessness as equal contributors. Never has this been more important than during a pandemic where the health vulnerabilities and living environment of people who are homeless make them more at risk.
Greater Manchester alliance mobilised to ensure provision of sanitation facilities for rough sleepers during lockdown. Organisations have pooled information to provide insight into the roll out of vaccinations for people who are homeless. Collaboration works.
So, be more Groundswell, facilitate opportunities for all stakeholders to work together for change. Don’t wait to be invited to the table! Create your own table and invite people to join you.
It has been a huge privilege to build and work alongside the passionate and talented Groundswell and #HealthNow teams, in particular the national peer network. The #HealthNow ingredients truly lead the way in how to tackle health inequality with people in the lead.
When I stopped being a local Healthwatch Director to join Groundswell I pronounced I would always be a dedicated Healthwatch Alumni member. As I move onto my new role as Deputy Head of Engagement and Sustainability at Healthwatch England, I hope my Groundswell Alumni status will mean I can continue to be more Groundswell through helping people with experience be firmly in the lead of creating change.