• Hebe Foster

Learnings from our homelessness programme

Bringing together 12 people passionate about ending homelessness to run a fast-paced engaging programme over the course of the January-March 2021 lockdown is something we will always reflect on with pride. It is testament to the passion, expertise and knowledge of our participants that we have far too many insights and ideas to share in the space of a short blog post. We hope, over the next few months, to share more with you and to support our participants to share their experiences too. In the meantime, we’ve been reflecting on the key insights gained during the programme - about the homelessness system broadly, as well as about our approach to collaborative policymaking.

The Centre for Public Impact’s recent report “Learning to Listen Again” has been a real inspiration for us in reflecting over our work. The report highlights how vital it is to have open conversations with “seldom heard” communities, especially within and across silos, in order to build back effectively after the pandemic. Their focus on genuine listening resonates across many of the comments and insights shared by our participants, as well as some of the feedback we received about our longer-term impact and ability to support meaningful change.

What we've learnt about homelessness

Complexity in the system

Our first few sessions focus on empathy-building between participants, using active listening and network mapping tools to help participants to think more deeply about which stakeholders have power and influence in the system, versus who is most impacted by the decisions that are made. It immediately struck the group just how many people are out there, all working hard to help end homelessness in a potentially chaotic and confusing system. John found the exercise revealing “because it's very visually illustrative - it shows how important it is for services to be flexible and tailored”. Edmund, too, highlighted the importance of different perspectives, explaining that he valued being able to undertake this kind of mapping exercise with “a genuinely representative group of people”.

From despair to hope

Despite the complexity of the system, participants were clear that they believed strongly in the power of the individual at the centre to change their own journey. This theme came up throughout our journey mapping exercises, as we encouraged participants to imagine a persona and their experience navigating the system. We’d discussed the level of influence individual people experiencing homelessness can have on policy versus the impact of policy on their lives, thinking about the big picture. But then Caroline brought us back to the importance of small steps, saying, “being a service user myself... we do have influence in our own direction to navigate the massive system… if your links to the service users [from support workers] are good, progress can be made”.

John agreed, explaining “there has to be a point where despair turns to hope. It’s important for the person involved to be engaged with systems, to try to undermine that lack of confidence in themselves and the system. Once that hope is seen, that’s something to go towards”.

Longer-term inspiration

We spoke in our last newsletter about “dissonance moments” - those moments in time where things change unexpectedly and we are forced to adapt, quickly and suddenly. During Covid, actions have been taken and support has been given that would have seemed impossible 18 months ago, from the Everyone In policy to suspension of Section 21 evictions to drastically increased public sector spending. As Alex said, “Covid has shown that where there is a will there's a way. If we can put our heads together we can tackle these issues”.

It was in that spirit that our group worked towards some exciting new ideas for making change. One team focused on Housing First, a high-potential approach to ending homelessness that is gradually gaining ground across England. Another looked at changing the narrative around homelessness, considering launching a school campaign. As John explained, “We do need to combat fatalism… we don’t need to convince people there is a problem but convince people there is a solution”.

What we've learnt about Telescope

Ongoing change

This and other programmes we’ve run have shown that the tools we teach can make a difference - whether supporting the development of new pilot programmes at a local authority, or improving communication skills among people with lived experience to help them work with a broader range of people. These tools may seem radical to many people working within government systems - they’re designed to challenge existing ways of thinking, encourage “failing fast”, and include qualitative data and stories as equally important as quantitative.

But despite appearances, this way of working does not have to be hard to adopt. As one participant highlighted, the exercises were valuable because they were “practical” and “collaborative”. We believe that introducing this kind of mindset to the policymaking process could help UK public services and structures become more agile, responsive and effective.

At the same time, we have realised there is increasing need among participants for support to carry on with interventions. As we’ve heard time and again, great ideas are out there, being considered and discussed among people with real expertise of the system - but they’re often stymied by lack of time, resources, or supportive environments for this kind of radical change. Caroline highlighted in her feedback that we need to work on “more serious aspects of homelessness that will actually make a big difference in a short time”. So we’re asking ourselves how we might better be able to increase the longevity of our participants’ projects by offering post-programme support and inspiration going forward.

The importance of connection

Our entire business is built on the principle of empathy - we believe that empathy can build meaningful change. It was a delight to see participants connecting through the programme and building positive relationships. With their clear understanding of each other and a strong ability to work together creatively, Alex from Glass Door and Tasia from Groundswell really stood out to us.

This kind of connection has prompted us to consider how we could build the Telescope community over the longer term. We have two previous participants on our board already, who contribute their expertise to our work and with whom we have good lasting relationships. But what about the rest of the courageous, innovative, forward-thinking participants in our portfolio? We’re thinking hard about how we can support them and bring them together, to spark the possibility of new ideas and unusual relationships across sectors and silos.

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