Rough Sleeping, to citywide teaching
Lee Dale, Expert citizens, VOICES
In 2014 I was invited to do a short interview with Darren Murinas, Expert Citizens. At the time I was very much still ‘in the fight’. I say this because I was addicted to substances, including benzodiazepines and, although I was staying in temporary shared housing accommodation, I was technically homeless. In the film I shared my lived experiences of addiction, mental ill health and homelessness. The film was later used for 1001 Lives storytelling. My story begins….
I came from an impoverished family and received free school meals which meant I was ‘different’ from the start –this resulted in me always having a low opinion of myself. I have grown up with these feelings which have affected me as an adult.
I have recently found in my recovery that I was suffering with a mental health illness known as Social Anxiety Disorder. This is a result of my experiences at school, not to forget the depression I experienced due to the death of my father when I was fourteen years old and later the death of my mother in 2009. The latter sadly meant that I became homeless -this was a result, in my opinion, of, not necessarily poor practice, but definitely poor procedures.
I had not been living with my mother for twelve months prior to her death–I had stayed with her for just three months. In that time I had been the sole carer for my mother. The local authority turned their back on me, stating that I was ‘ineligible’ for re-housing. I was given just two weeks to remove my mothers’ belongings from the property, pack my own things and find somewhere else to live – all at the same time as dealing with administration for my mother’s service providers and her funeral. I had no time for my bereavement. I had no time to pack my things properly. I had not time to find a ‘home’. Local authorities told me to ask friends and family for help – they would not believe that I had neither of these; it’s a general assumption that all people have a support network but I was alone. The day of the funeral was the first night I was to sleep rough. This was the start of a six year period of homelessness and rough sleeping. Slowly, over the next two years, my mental health deteriorated; I became involved with a group of people using heroin and it wasn’t long before I became addicted myself.
From my first hostel experience back in 2010 I recall that the first thing I was required to do was to complete a housing benefit entitlement form. This was perfectly legitimate and I understand that it needs to be done, however, it took me almost an hour to complete – for someone who cannot read and write, as I do, it would have been much longer. I clearly remember thinking that I’d just spent three weeks rough sleeping on the streets and, for me, a more welcoming experience would have reduced my anxieties about entering the service – the best thing for them to do would have been to offer me a cup of coffee and ‘lend me an ear’.
During my experiences I had seen and been affected by many instances of ‘bad practice’. I don’t use this term lightly and I don’t point blame at any specific person or organisation that was involved in my care. One example is that there were several services who seemed to welcome me along with my benefit entitlement yet, when things became ‘tricky’ I was shoved out of the back door. As a customer this made me feel used and, ultimately, I became apprehensive about engaging with other services going forward.
Things changed for me in 2016. I was given a ‘Golden Ticket’ by my Community Drug Support Worker who advocated for me and found me a place in a 24 hour staffed supported housing scheme. Here I was able to address my substance misuse and my mental ill health. I was receiving the right support and the team there had the right knowledge to support and motivate me. Thankfully, in February 2017 I beat my problems and was able to move into a resettlement property. Once I was ‘drug free’ the big question for me was, “What is it I do now?” It felt like there was a huge hole left in my life and that, if I didn’t fill this hole with something soon, the probability was that I would end up back where I had been.
So, I heard about the Expert Citizens group and contacted them immediately. To my surprise they invited me in to introduce myself and to discuss options. I wasted no time and within two weeks I was part of the team. I soon learned all about VOICES and began to develop my skills as a Peer Mentor. It made sense straight away – for once all my experiences and awareness of services became useful. As well as the peer mentoring I started to interview people as part of the 1001 lives project. This role felt as though it came naturally to me and it helped me to realise that it wasn’t just me who had had a bad time – many of the people I interviewed got a true value from being spoken to like a human being.
Since then, in my work with the Expert Citizens and VOICES, I have been given so many opportunities to learn; TIC (Trauma Informed Care), PIEs (Psychologically Informed Environments), Solution Focused Practice and NPS (New Psychotic Substances) – these are to name but a few courses that I have attended all of which have come through the VOICES citywide learning programme.
Everyone here has so much faith in me; I honestly sometimes go home thinking, “Where have these people been all my life?” I have lost count of the times throughout my life when I have felt like a failure but I’ve learned that this is OK; I am someone that get things done and, sometimes, that means getting things wrong. The key is to reflect and to put the learning into practice going forward. The thing is, there are loads of individuals who feel that way still – who think they are a failure and who can’t see a place in society for themselves.
I want to open their eyes – just like the Expert Citizens and VOICES team have opened mine.
I recently sat and worked out on paper all of the staff and the organisations that have been involved in my care; there were almost forty individual names. I can genuinely say that I feel like only five of these people truly cared about me, my recovery and my development – four of those are based in our offices now. I can see a future for me now – I thought I would never say that. So – what have I been involved in?
“WOW!” “What can I say?” It’s been like a whirlwind in which I don’t see the extent of what I am part of. I spent some time last year learning about NPS, then went on to co-deliver NPS training to the VOICES partnership alongside Resolv. I have since delivered several sessions to groups of staff and also customers in housing support. I continued with my learning and research and have even wrote my own NPS awareness presentation. I aim to deliver this to individuals who may be at risk, new hostel tenants and shared accommodation tenants. I have developed this due to my own experiences of NPS; I can see the benefit this could have had to me when I was a hostel tenant.
Another project I was a part of was workshops around a citywide suicide campaign; I am really proud of this because I have lost too many friends through suicide and overdose.
I also took part in a research project in which I interviewed people in the city centre participating in Street Activity: City Centre Rough Sleeping and Street Activity Project Report (November 2016); Expert Citizens, VOICES, CHAD and Staffordshire University. This work has developed and I am now working with the VOICES, Staffordshire University, My Community Matters and the local Community Drug and Alcohol Service. We have designed learning workshops which I will be co-delivering to people who work in the city centre. We are offering learning around asset based engagement, safety and support for people on the streets and we are designing resources and guidance. The sessions are scheduled to start in April 2018 – I am especially looking forward to this work.
So what have I got from all of this? Well – you would not believe how ashamed and guilty I felt during my homelessness; I believed that I was a scourge on society and I often just wanted to die. Now, I can truly say that I am valued by my peers and colleagues. Sometimes I pipe up, “I’m only a volunteer”. I am quickly reminded that, “You are so much more than that”.
As a nation we look at social issues in a way that we think it’s impossible to tackle them; we couldn’t be so wrong. There are loads of little things we can do – one of these is to treat people individually with a humanistic approach. Let’s face it, it’s not hard; yet so many can’t do it. We also talk about equality yet are sometimes too blind to see where it’s actually needed.
Thinking about these issues used to make me mentally poorly, but I realise now that I can share my observations and my experiences and put them to good use through offering them as opportunities for others to learn. I can demonstrate the importance of listening to and valuing those who are having hard times. Some of these things are, in fact, common sense, but some of you would be alarmed at how few people don’t realise and don’t do the right thing.