Victoria Waller’s Interview with Mustard Tree Facilitator

A first in a series of interviews from LPC student Victoria Waller is her interview with Jez Green (Mustard Tree Facilitator, Manchester Homelessness Partnership).

  1. Why did you choose to work for an organisation like Mustard Tree?

It’s been 8 years now since I started working there. I’ve always worked with people, I’ve done youth work and work with children and families in primary schools and that is where I was when I got a call from Mustard Tree’s previous chief executive Paul Wenham, who was a friend of mine. He had been running Mustard Tree for a while and wanted to transition the charity from more than a handout and transactional model into a place where people with barriers to progress such as homelessness, offending backgrounds or addiction recovery could come and we would work with them on a longer-term basis providing volunteering opportunities, training, mentoring and counselling. All of this was in his head at that time and it was basically the seed for the Freedom Project.

I had had an active interest in homelessness for a long time and had been volunteering in soup kitchens since about 1997 so I followed the opportunity up and applied for the job. Initially I started on a job share basis and we launched the Freedom Project in January 2009 which coincided with the recession – the need that was already there was growing rapidly.

Out of all the places I’ve worked and lived this has been the most helpful for my own learning and development. Whatever you think you know about life or whatever values you have, sooner or later you come across people who for whatever reason or circumstances are an exception to that and I love having my world view challenged by the diversity of people who come through the door and having to grow and adapt as a person. I also love seeing that happen in other people, for example enjoying somebody from the business world and someone who has been in and out of prison and using drugs for the past twenty years, meeting as human beings across a table and helping to undo some of the assumptions that exist and shift their thinking around social issues a little bit. It’s a very human place to work.

  1. What changes have you observed in the city in recent years?

Since 2009, there has been a gradual but persistent erosion of some of the safety nets that we have as a society. I have watched the number of people who have multiple or complex needs gradually increase as well as the number of people living on the edge of poverty grow. I think when you take Manchester as a city, what you’ve got is some very wealthy people and businesses who were never affected by the recession and then you’ve got an increasing proportion of the population who have been really hit hard by austerity and there’s a widening gap between the two. For me, that’s a really important issue as research shows that that inequality gap is very unhealthy for any society, the bigger it is the worse it is, not just for people who are experiencing poverty but actually for everybody, even the super-rich. I don’t like the thought that we’re living in a city as well as a nation where that inequality gap is growing.

In terms of homelessness specifically, I think that it has persistently been around as have the hidden types of homelessness. However, rough sleeping is more visible than other forms of homelessness and is considerably easier to measure. I think it’s been two years really since the numbers of rough sleepers started growing rapidly and what happened was that the latest round of cuts that the city council were experiencing meant that they started closing hostel beds and cutting back on key frontline services. A lot of advice services were going, a lot of different support services, both from the public sector and the charitable sector were being hacked away at, and there was a dramatic rise in homelessness at the same time. The capacity to meet that need had already been shrunk to levels that weren’t close to meeting it. Then there were additional x-factors such as the activist protest camps throughout the city and the squat in Gary Neville’s boutique hotel which brought a lot of public attention into the mix. It was basically a perfect storm of factors that meant the problem had grown in number, in visibility and as a result it was also growing politically.

That was the context we found ourselves in just over a year ago with the idea of working together on a homelessness charter and partnership. When the initial meeting was called last October by the council, it was felt that we really needed a new approach, we really needed to talk about partnership and people seemed to acknowledge that. We were either going to continue trying to protect diminishing resources and doing very little about the problem growing wildly out of hand or we were going to find a new way of working together.

People working in the sector were up for working together more closely, and they’ve increasingly remained up for it. This time last week I was in a room with nearly a hundred people as we had our first post-launch event to mark 6 months since the charter was established. Not only did people from all different sectors and levels and people with lived experience show up for a full nine to five day to talk about this, but it was a really participatory day, there was no sitting back, it was all about getting involved. The energy level in the room again was just absolutely buzzing. There was that togetherness, that desire for people to do things collectively and in a new way, it definitely still had a momentum to it.

Homelessness and rough sleeping are still growing. The context is still one where we are a city in crisis; but in terms of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, that’s where the shift has taken place.

  1. Can you describe the homelessness charter?

It’s a new approach, a partnership approach and it’s a bit of an experiment trying to ultimately overcome homelessness in Manchester. Importantly it has co-production at its heart. That’s co-production between professionals and people with lived experience of homelessness working together, not just in consultation but actually generating solutions, designing and redesigning the services for people experiencing homelessness. And it’s partnership in terms of the breadth of organisations coming together.

The idea was initially suggested in October last year by Manchester City Council. I had my two days a week at Mustard Tree donated to the city and we started with consultation. We went with an idea for a charter and a blank page and asked people with experience of homelessness questions such as ‘if we are going to have a charter as a city what should be in it?’ ‘What problems are you facing?’ ‘Why are they not being solved?’ ‘What would it look like if we were successful in this?’ What came out of that really clearly first of all was a vision to end homelessness in Manchester. The strongest proponents of that were people who had experienced homelessness. It felt like an insult to aim for anything less, it felt really challenging to say we wanted to end homelessness at a time when the problem is so huge and so out of control; but anything less was an injustice.

Then there were values around human rights, things that you and I would take for granted like feeling respected, feeling safe on the streets, having a right to somewhere to call home, being protected from abuse and being able to access services that help in the situation you’re in.

Talking about the problems was very insightful partly because again there were soon very common themes which came through and a real strength of feeling from those who have experienced homelessness. There was also a great sense of cynicism and disillusionment that maybe people didn’t really care but there was a sense of urgency that something needed to happen and so that’s why we chose two ways that people could act in response to the values of the charter.

The first is to make a pledge – what are you going to do or how will you work differently to be a better part of the solution to this problem?

The second way of doing something is through the action groups – this is where co-production really comes to the fore. The issues that came out in consultation were things like the poor and sometimes dehumanising experience that many people had when they went to the town hall to declare themselves homeless, or the lack of emergency accommodation in the city. Those where just some of the issues we formed groups around. We asked for chairs of those groups to be people who worked in the sector (either the council or charitable organisations) around those specific issues; and we asked for people with lived experience to get involved in those groups, ideally having somebody with lived experience to become a co-chair. We trained the chairs and co-chairs in working co-productively which is the only non-negotiable aspect of the groups. Then we let them loose to come up with innovative ideas and solutions to those particular thorny issues. We’ve had people who have run and volunteered at night shelters and those who have stayed in night shelters working together to draft a set of minimum standards for those who want to provide emergency night shelter accommodation in the city. The results of the work of that group have been that the duration of the provision of night shelters has gone up from three months to six, so that there’s more of it with those improved standards also being implemented.

You could point to each of those action groups and show where co-production has been doing something really interesting and equally you can show incidences of dysfunction or where co-production hasn’t happened. I think that’s really natural because as much as it can sound like common sense on paper it’s really tough to make sure that all of your processes include that other voice: voices of lived experience and from other sectors at every stage, to really allow you to get beneath the skin of the issue and to hear what can be done.

The final part of the puzzle at the moment is what we’ve called the Partnership Board. This comprises of people of influence within the council, the police, businesses, universities, charities and people with lived experience across the city that come together. They have been trained in co-production and function very differently from a strategic board which usually comes up with a plan and then tells other people what to do. Instead they acknowledge that the plan is in action already, but there are things that need to be done at a more senior level to help protect that work and nurture it, and overcome some of the bigger hurdles that people are coming across. It’s responsive, it’s about hearing what’s coming back from the groups and determining as people with influence and authority what they can do that no one else can. The Bishop of Manchester chairs the Partnership Board and the Diocese have pledged to increase night shelter provision and contribute the Bishop’s time to chairing that board as their pledge.

  1. What impact have the action groups already had in relation to the Big Change project?

Big Change exists as an alternative way for the public to give money to people who are experiencing homelessness rather than giving it directly to them on the streets. An individual can apply for anything up to a £1000 if registered as homeless and working with one of the many charities or grass roots groups that are linked to the Big Change, such as Mustard Tree. People might apply for small amounts for something like a mobile phone so that they can be contacted by loved ones or employers who might want to offer them the possibility of work or an interview. Any application under a £100 tends to be turned around really quickly and it’s a very simple process. For anything over a £100 the application goes to a panel. The panel consists of a mixture of professionals and people with lived experience on a rotational basis. If there’s an undecided panel, one of the members with lived experience has the final say.

People can apply for anything at all that they feel will help them in their move away from rough sleeping and homelessness towards stability. The variety of things that people can apply for is limited only by what people think will help them. It comes from the individual themselves and they are assisted as needed by the professionals.

The concept of the Big Change as another way for the public to give money is in part a way to discourage people from giving directly on the street. This is because people will sometimes use that money to fund a habit, or they may not even be homeless or rough sleeping. But to paint that picture quite two-dimensionally has been the downfall of city councils all across the UK who usually get as far as demonising people as ‘drug using homeless folk’ and don’t get any further than that. The idea of the campaign here is to focus more on the positives. If you hand out money to people on the street you may well be helping them to survive or cope a little better on the streets; but you’re almost certainly not helping them to find a bed for the night because there simply aren’t rooms for anyone who is experiencing homelessness to find a B&B and pay for a room. What you might be doing is helping people to have a slightly more comfortable life whilst remaining on the streets. That’s the best-case scenario. What we’re saying is we need to help people to move away from rough sleeping into a much safer, more secure lifestyle.

Sleeping rough is enormously bad for you in so many ways. Your mental health deteriorates very quickly as does your physical health. By virtue of sleeping rough you are 35 times more likely to commit suicide than somebody who is housed.  And there are shocking statistics from every angle. We think that by gathering the public’s efforts together into a pot and organising it in this way is the best chance we’ve got of using that money to meaningfully and sustainably move people away from rough sleeping into more secure forms of living. We know that housing is vital but not the whole answer. What people experiencing homelessness need more than anything else is somewhere safe to call home along with the appropriate support to help them to secure that tenancy; to overcome any remaining barriers and to move on successfully with their lives. Big Change has strong advantages over street giving and is being increasingly well-used.

  1. What kind of rights are being curtailed in the city for homeless people?

It varies wildly from person to person but at a basic level looking at the values that people came up with for the Homelessness Charter it’s a human right to have a home, but the homeless aren’t able to exercise that right and are therefore subject to all the dehumanising treatment and abuses that come with that. For instance, 50% of rough sleepers say that they have been urinated on.

Something that causes people a lot of problems is having unpaid rent arrears. That can become a huge barrier to being rehoused because that hangs over you until the arrears are paid off, even if they were incurred a very long time ago. It just feels horrifically unjust that something you created in another part of your life or in other circumstances can travel with you for years and years, preventing you from being housed. There needs to be a way for those kinds of debts to be written off.

Similarly, with offenders coming out of prison there are a lot of complex difficulties that I feel very strongly about. You committed a crime, you’ve been to prison, you’ve paid for that. Nevertheless you still carry a criminal record around with you, possibly for the rest of your life, which acts as a barrier in several ways but particularly with regard to housing. You may have a historical offence but it should in no way detract from your right to have a place to call home.

There are a lot of difficult and complex issues around refugees and for asylum seekers who often have no rights at all to housing. I think there’s a great need for lawyers within that sector to better represent people, whether it’s appealing asylum cases for leave to remain or just intervening at any level to ensure protection of human rights.

These are human problems and when you try to put yourself in the shoes of another human being in a vulnerable position who doesn’t have any power or legal recourse, particularly since legal aid seems to have all but disappeared, where can people turn?

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