Let’s offer people what we would want

If you or I feel stuck, lost or in crisis, we might well look for a counsellor, life coach or career coach to help us. That person is not going to put us through a long and gruelling paper-based assessment. They will not focus all of their attention on itemising all of our problems, weaknesses and what we can’t do. They will establish that we understand and want what they have to offer, then get to know us and help us to identify what we want to work on and what our goals are. They will try to help us see our strengths as well as our problems clearly, and to find our potential. They hope to give us confidence so that we can make our own changes and move on. We may well be willing to spend considerable amounts of money on such support, but we probably don’t demand the evidence base first: it’s common sense that having space to focus on ourselves with someone who’s sole aim is to build us up, is likely to work, and if it doesn’t, we move on and find someone who feels like a better fit.

Large and growing numbers of us choose support when we are going through tough times because we expect it to be a positive experience which may have painful moments but will ultimately help us grow. There can even be a status attached to being able to afford and valuing yourself enough to seek ‘executive coaching’ or a personal trainer.

It shouldn’t be revolutionary to suggest that support for people who are going through the toughest times, like being homeless, should also follow that model, if we want it to work, but it still is. People who are homeless often have so many labels attached to them, with so much ‘risk’ and ‘complexity’, and have so little value attached to their lives, that even dedicated professionals can struggle to see a past and a future beyond the current moment of chaos, or strengths and potential beyond a long list of risks and needs.

In the two months I’ve been at Mayday, I’ve heard countless stories from our coaches about people making changes through working with someone who has the freedom to think like a sports coach rather than a support worker. It always starts with people building trust: “You are the first person who has actually listened to me in years”. And it progresses to potential and achievements – big or small – that enable someone “to feel like a human being again”. Much of it has been with people who are homeless, but we’re also using the approach with young adults and with people with long term health conditions, as part of a social prescribing programme. It’s not rocket science, but it is complex, nuanced work with a huge body of resources and learning behind it, and a strong community of practice and support structure including clinical supervision. The openness of the front end of the model (less assessment, paperwork & lots of freedom to act) has to be matched by the rigour with which we collect data on impact and outcomes.

Last week, some of the evidence from that data, and from tracking people’s progress over two years, was published by new economics foundation. It showed that the PTS Response enabled people to take control of their support and to form a respectful and dignified support relationship, which gave them the space to set their own vision for the future based around the practical actions and social achievements which mattered most to them. People reported huge improvements in their wellbeing including an increase in self-esteem, sense of purpose, and optimism, as well as better mental health including feeling happier, and a reduction in anxiety. The approach and culture of the services that coaches were working within made a huge difference to the levels of success, and to work well, services offering it need willing to reshape a range of their work around a strengths-based ethos. The full report is here.

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