Expert by experience: interview with John McGlone
“Structural and systemic causes within the system are human-made. They don’t just exist, they’ve been created. And because they’re human-made, those systems can be changed.”
John began his career as a civil engineer working for the electricity board. He then gained qualifications in ancient history, archaeology, and English literature & language. He continued to work in full-time employment until he had an accident and became homeless a couple of years ago. John began his involvement with Crisis whilst staying at a hostel and is now back to independent living and volunteering at Crisis.
One of our core beliefs at Telescope is that in order to build a more inclusive society we must bring together policy makers and those on the frontline with lived experience and that empathy can power this change. We were delighted to talk to John in more detail about the power of lived experience and how these insights can be used to improve public services.
How has your own lived experience impacted your day-to-day life?
It doesn't have much impact on my life now, but it has given me important experience in the sense of how homelessness can happen, all the underlying issues that are causative to a person becoming homeless. The structural, societal reasons, and the means and ways through that. There’s an understanding that the resolution of homelessness is not just putting a roof over someone’s head, it’s solving all the other issues.
What does the power of lived experience mean to you?
Lived experience compared with an educational background - those two things are very complementary. It’s the theoretical side of ways to move through homelessness - Housing First rather than the “treatment first” approach, which can sometimes be too onerous for people - plus the knowledge of what is available and missing in the system.
The fact that a person has been through homelessness - that lived experience tends to increase their resilience to bounce back. Their knowledge of homelessness increases their curiosity to want to know how to solve homelessness and any other social issues - they are often interlinked. It helps to increase their willingness to want to make change - wanting to make an input with their own experience.
What do you think is the main issue with public services currently?
A very important issue is building the relationship up with public services. Sometimes people get so apathetic and they feel that “I’ve tried all this before and it was unsuccessful, it’ll be the same again”. Somewhere along a person’s journey in homelessness they have to turn that despair into hope.
When I was on the road to homelessness my first problem was that I knew I was going to be evicted and when I approached certain organisations all they could do at that time was tell me to come back when I had actually been evicted - they had no preventative services. Since the HRA in 2017 there has been some progress to stop that happening, so it’s about building the relationship up with public services so people can trust them to give the support they need, and so they can see a way out of the situation.
Once that trust has been built up, a person is much more likely to see hope at the end of homelessness, and far more likely to engage and look forward to a way out of it.
Somewhere along a person’s journey in homelessness they have to turn that despair into hope.
What would your advice be to the minister for Housing, Communities & Local Government if you could speak to them today?
Sometimes with regards to homelessness & housing, a lot of the service provision is quite disparate because they’re set up as independent units. Someone who was homeless has to go through each of those units within the same organisation - for every department you have to start at the beginning again. Things could be integrated so that it can flow far more smoothly for the person presenting as being homeless, and for the staff who are working in those organisations so they’re communicating better as one entity.
Also it could help to expand the staff’s knowledge of homelessness issues with external organisations, like Mind on mental health issues, or other charities focusing on substance issues, thus creating a flowing continuum. This would reduce so much friction and pain points in the system.
Initially there’s likely to be a great deal of mistrust in the system when someone presents as homeless, so it’s important to build a trusting and communicative relationship from the beginning, which enables the person who is homeless to co-produce their own way out of the situation. What interests does the person have, what opportunities do they see in the future, and where do they want to end up in that journey?
What problem are you setting out to solve and how?
For me, it’s about engaging with people. One of the barriers is an us vs them mentality, and I want to contribute to breaking that down, by helping organisations to become more accessible.
Say we look at local government; they might be knowledgeable about the ways to get through homelessness with regards to legislation, but perhaps not so knowledgeable about mental health issues, so I want to link those up so that all of those organisations aren’t operating as an independent silo. I also want to try to decrease those silos that exist within one organisation and help transition from department to department within those organisations.
One of the barriers is an us vs them mentality, and I want to contribute to breaking that down
Could you tell us a bit about the power of language in making social change? When you were on our homelessness programme in January, you talked about changing narratives with school children - why do you think it is important to start early?
This is important around the language we use - the “self-making” narrative that some people in society have, where the blame is sometimes attributed to the person and their “poor choices” in the past that led to homelessness. That’s just not the case - there’s always other issues that contribute to that situation, and they’re generally outside the control of the person. We have to explain the structural/societal causes as well.
Sometimes, when they view homelessness as something that is self-made and down to the individual, people often have a fatalistic attitude that “it would never happen to me”. But through my experience and the backgrounds of the people I met when homeless, coming from all professional backgrounds and lives, I know it can happen to anyone.
People assume that those who are still homeless haven’t even tried to use the solutions that exist in the system, but often they have and it’s the wrong help or the wrong time.
When we use language effectively, using lived experience as a story & narration in stories of homelessness, we can then relate homelessness to other aspects. People may not relate to homelessness, but they may relate to anxiety, mental health, issues of debt, substance abuse etc, so that allows people to understand how homelesness can come about.
Our work revolves around empathy and collaboration, how important are these to you?
Extremely important, because empathy is a means to build up trust in the beginning, and without a trusting relationship, regardless of whom you’re dealing with, the relationship would struggle to move further. That empathy has to be there from the very beginning.
What opportunities do you have to collaborate with policymakers?
In the past, we have met with local councillors, local MPs of all political persuasions, and had a discussion about social issues and causative aspects of homelessness. I’ve been able to explain how homelessness arises from the point of view of a person who is homeless or has been homeless, how MPs and councils deal with it from their side, and discuss the challenges they face. We’ve discussed how legislation that is currently in place can be used to resolve issues, and shared ideas to try and move things forward.
How optimistic do you feel about the future? Will this narrative change and will the structural factors causing homelessness change any time soon?
As awful as Covid is, it does mean that people have become more aware of the situation they’re in - that sometimes things are completely out of their control, and they’re dependent on other people sorting things out. They’re realising the domino effect, where anxiety leads to sickness and someone being off work, loses their job, falls behind with their rent payments, then reaches homelessness. Spreading knowledge of how that first domino can fall over and knock over all the ones after it is vital.
I am confident for the future. It’s about sharing knowledge and insights, learning from other organisations.
Also organisations like Crisis, Power With, Telescope, Homeless Link now have a greater ability to work together, which means that what is working well currently can be shared, providing a greater insight into the causes and solutions of issues that people may face. In that respect I am confident for the future. It’s about sharing knowledge and insights, learning from other organisations.
What's your main message to our readers?
One of the most important things is to reduce that initial judgement, and bring empathy and trust in to enhance that relationship. Support for people experiencing homelessness should provide a means to look forward, provide hope, so that person can help co-produce the path that they want to go through and direct that to where they want to end up.
I was in a taxi once when the driver asked me: “do you think the other people in that hostel want to be there, that it’s their own fault?” People think homelessness has always been there and always will be there. But that’s not the case - structural and systemic causes within the system are human-made. They don’t just exist, they’ve been created. And because they’re human-made, those systems can be changed.