Reward and re-traumatisation

Recruit people who’ve been homeless because they understand others in their position, they say. But what’s it like for workers in the homelessness sector to be reminded of their own plight?

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People who have experienced homelessness face multiple challenges when trying to gain employment, including health problems, a criminal record, digital illiteracy, and a lack of confidence.

“It’s difficult at times because I’ll always be an addict in recovery. I face lots of triggers and stress.”

Thankfully, employers working in the homelessness sector tend to be more willing to employ people with experience of homelessness, knowing the mutual benefits of hiring someone who can empathise with service users on a deeper level. But would people with experience of homelessness choose to work in a job that reminds them of their trauma every day, if they had other options?

Karen Wallis faces this dichotomy of reward and re-traumatisation in her role of head of support at Emmaus in Preston and Burnley.

She can pinpoint the moment her life “spiralled out of control”. It was one year after she’d taken her children and escaped her violent husband, and he tracked her down and forced her to take heroin until she was addicted.

Wallis’s children were soon taken into care, and she experienced street homelessness on and off for 15 years, in and out of prison. At the end of her final prison sentence, homelessness charity Emmaus Preston gave her accommodation, work experience and training.

When she was ready to move on, the charity’s director offered her employment as a support worker instead, and she’s been working her way up ever since. Wallis believes that being open about her past at work means she’s more approachable, because service users know she won’t judge them.

“But it does have a slight hindrance, because something might trigger a memory of something that happened to me, or take me back to a place I didn’t want to go,” she says.

However, Wallis knows she can talk to her boss, who will support her as best he can – and her colleagues, with whom she has a good relationship.

Chris Sylvester also faces triggers in his work as a support worker helping men experiencing homelessness. He was addicted to heroin from the age of 12, and in and out of prison until the age of 37.

“When I found recovery, I realised I had an opportunity to use my experiences in a positive way to help people, but I didn’t have an education and my development was quite stunted. I’d picked up a lot of negative behaviours. All I had was my life, which is experience, and every experience is valuable.”

He managed to gain employment in the homelessness sector, and later set up a community interest group supporting recovering addicts and dedicated himself to using his life experience to support other people.

“It’s difficult because I’ll always be an addict in recovery. I face lots of triggers, stress and temptation, so I have to be constantly vigilant. It wouldn’t be the same if I was tarmacking roads or working in an office. I come face to face with people suffering the same problems I had most of my life.”

For Darrell Tinsley, chief executive of Emmaus Bradford, working in a role that means he’s “constantly” reminded of his addiction on a daily basis serves as a reminder of his own progress – and this drives him to have an ice bath at 5am every morning.

“I need to be uncomfortable and challenged. I’m always reminding myself that I’m one poor decision away from a life of crime, drugs and drink, and I can’t allow my mind to be weak to that,” he says.

Tinsley became homeless at 18, and sofa-surfed at friends’ houses until he was sentenced to 18 months in jail for drug dealing. After his release, he volunteered and then worked in a youth club, gained a degree and has been working in the charity sector since.

“I want to recruit around lived experience. We need more people with lived experience in the sector, because no one can fully empathise unless they’ve been in that situation. You can teach people skills, but you can’t teach them to love what they do, which is vital to this sector.”

But working in the homelessness sector isn’t the only way to help to improve the lives of people experiencing homelessness – and it isn’t the only sector with employers who see the benefits of hiring people with lived experience.

Joanne Coombes was in and out of care as a child, consuming alcohol and drugs from the age of eight. After a string of violent relationships, her children were taken into care and she became homeless, with a £500-a-day crack and heroin addiction.

Six years ago, Coombes had a long stay in hospital after she was attacked while sleeping rough and developed sepsis. When there, she met a researcher from Kings College London, who was looking into how people experiencing homelessness are discharged from hospital.

“It was the first time someone looked past my drug addiction and homelessness and treated me as a human being,” Coombes says. The researchers helped her get off drugs and alcohol, get accommodation, and enrolled on a college course.

Coombes worked for the researchers on a voluntary basis, before becoming a peer researcher. She is just about to start a full-time role at Kings College London as a research associate. Despite still having pain and mobility issues from the attack, Coombes is happier and healthier than she’s ever been – and gets a lot of purpose from helping to conduct research with people experiencing homelessness.

“I do get upset when I see people suffering. But research can change things, and I want to make a difference because I know what it’s like for them,” she says. “People look at me like: ’Well, if you can do it, so can I.’”

Coombes is often a go-between with researchers and participants. “I explain things in simple terms,” she says.

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She has also been involved in talking to policy-makers about improving services people experiencing homelessness.

“When I say something, because I’ve got that lived experience people listen to everything I have to say.

“I didn’t go to school. I had no education. I’m not stupid, but when you’re from a disadvantaged background you feel like people look down at you and you’re not worthy. I don’t feel out of place at work at Kings. They all treat me with respect, and listen to me.”

This isn’t always the case for everyone, including Rob Rowe, development manager at Sanctuary Trust in Greater Manchester, who has faced some stigma during his career from other professionals in the sector.

Rowe experienced homelessness between serving 12 prison sentences over 20 years, and addicted to heroin and crack, before he started working in the homelessness sector eight years ago, when he realised that it wasn’t as far from his old life as he’d once imagined.

“When I sorted myself out, it was strange to get my head around the realisation that the world isn’t perfect. I left a dishonest world and thought I was coming into a new world, but I soon realised that this was just another dog-eat-dog world, and just as dishonest,” he says.

“The first time I experienced stigma, I was at a meeting and another professional asked their boss what I was doing there, as I’d once been to their agency for a methadone prescription. I’d been clean for some time.”

The question got back to Rowe, and he felt “deflated”.

“For people with less resilience, this could’ve sent them back to drugs. Luckily, it’s water off a duck’s back because I know who I am and what I do. Sometimes I just have to bear this cross of my past.”

And his past, he says, makes him better at his job.

“I see both sides of everything, in terms of understanding how systems work, how provisions are rolled out. I’m able to sit with commissioners and speak in their language, but also in a way that gives them an idea of how it looks to individuals receiving support.”

But Rowe knows he’s had quite an easy time compared to others with lived experience working in the homelessness sector.

“I’ve progressed quite rapidly, but for a lot of people, work in the homelessness sector is their only option and it’s a long process to get paid work. I see lots of people being exploited, volunteering more hours than they should be.”

While more and more organisations are becoming open to hiring people with lived experience, Rowe says, sometimes employers offer low-paid roles with no prospects as a “token gesture”.

As well as hiring people, organisations sometimes ask new employees with lived experience to talk about their past to colleagues. But Rowe feels this too can be exploitative.

“I was the person to go up on stage and talk about my past. But we don’t warn people – when they’re newly employed, and suddenly feel valued and respected, and they’re keen but misguided – before we parade them out.”

Learning from the lived experience of people who have been homeless is not a new concept. Back in the 1990s, Michael Preston-Shoot, professor emeritus of social work at the University of Bedfordshire, recruited people with lived experience of social problems in the training of social work students, and helped them speak to researchers, civil servants and senior managers.

This work taught Preston-Shoot about the importance of asking people to reflect on whether they want to engage in speaking as someone with lived experience, supporting them during the process and helping them to manage their feelings afterwards.

“The human stories people have to tell are really useful, but we shouldn’t exploit people in order to tell these stories,” he says.

One common trait among those who’ve channelled the worst part of their lives into positives at work is a strong sense of knowing who they are and what motivates them. But even so, trauma has a habit of lingering.

“My past would’ve been much further away from me if I worked in a different industry,” Rowe says decisively.

But for many, this personal cost is far outweighed by helping people who are going through something few others can really understand.

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