‘A psychologically informed New Year — Time to aim high and SPARKLE!’
07.01.2022: As I write this week’s PIE blog, as the lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE), at the national youth homeless charity — Centrepoint, I have been reflecting on the start of another year. For those of us old enough to remember imagining what the year 2000 would be like (and perhaps dancing away to the Pulp song — Disco 2000!), it feels quite a shock that time has already flown by and here we are in 2022 (as well as making me feel quite old this week)! However, as the saying goes; ‘Time waits for no man (or women)’ and before long it will be 2037! This date is particularly significant for Centrepoint because our current strategy has at its core a focus on aiming to end youth homelessness in the UK by then. This is a challenging goal, especially as it is now only 15 years away and that isn’t really that long to argue for, create and sustain the level of wider system change needed to prevent a young person born now from facing homelessness when they reach the age that our services might need to support them (i.e. 16 years of age).
However, just because something is a big, scary or even a seemingly impossible goal, it does not mean it is not achievable or something we should be aiming towards. This is a goal that is arguably needed more than ever because of the increasing rates of youth homelessness in the UK (c.f. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-59473490), particularly because of the consequences of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic (c.f. https://www.homeless.org.uk/sites/default/files/Policy%20Briefing%20-%20Youth%20COVID-19%20final-2.pdf). Moreover, as the blog picture above shows, even goals that might appear so distant or unachievable are reachable if the steps we take towards them are small enough to be manageable. We often reflect in staff reflective practice sessions about how we can support young people to achieve their goals, which from their background can sometimes feel impossible. However with just ‘small steps’, taken one at a time, our Centrepoint young people can achieve amazing things. This was particularly highlighted to me when I was reading about some of the winners of our Centrepoint young people awards just before Christmas. For an example of one of our winner’s stories please see here: https://centrepoint.org.uk/youth-homelessness/real-stories/camerons-story-1/).
As a result, my professional new year’s resolution this year is to focus on what steps, however small, our Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE) team can make towards this goal to end youth homelessness by 2037. For example, this may be ensuring that we support our amazing ‘frontline’ teams to deliver the outstanding services to homeless young people through staff support, psychologically informed training and/or reflective practice sessions. This work can then be ‘amplified’ nationally to highlight what is helpful to break the cycle of trauma, mental health issues and homelessness, and how services for homeless young people can be optimised and offered in a psychologically informed manner. It will also be to ensure that the physical environment(s) that our staff work in, and our young people live in, are fully optimised to be the most conducive to psychological well-being and importantly, create that sense of ‘home’ that can facilitate recovery from the experience of homelessness.
Moreover, this year will therefore be about highlighting ‘what works’ in the homelessness sector through research and evaluation that can contribute to a wider debate about what is needed to address the issue of youth homelessness in the UK. This will be working alongside our colleagues in Support and Housing (e.g. through the next phase of our HOMES: Housing Operational Model: Environment & Services Project), as well as Audit, Research & Policy and Data Team(s) to ensure that Centrepoint, as a national charity, has a significant role in driving the agenda forward in addressing youth homelessness. I am also keen this year to work with colleagues to start to consider the issue of ‘prevention’ more broadly. Sadly, over Christmas the world lost a significant figure with the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Whilst he said many wise words, one of his quotes that particularly resonated with me was this one — “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in”. Centrepoint as a youth homeless charity has been in existence for over 50 years now, a need that in a developed country like the UK I think is very sad.
Consequently, in order to end youth homelessness by 2037, it is important that we do not just focus on the symptoms of the issue but we start to examine and address the cause. Otherwise, we are arguably only ever sticking a plaster on a wound that is not going to heal. Moreover, there is plenty of psychologically informed research that can contribute to this discussion such as this international review by Schwan et al, 2018 (https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/32541/1/Preventing-Youth-Homelessness-full-report.pdf). This includes but is not limited to the impact of early trauma on mental health and homelessness, the issue of transition for post-16 care leavers that can leave them vulnerable to homelessness, the issues around housing availability for future generations, and the high rates of family relationship breakdown in later adolescence that can increase the risk of homelessness (e.g. Centrepoint, 2019). I believe as a national charity, we are well placed to work with our partners in both academia and the charity / statutory sectors to utilise this evidence to inform our clinical practice and lobby for appropriate changes in social policy. After all, although it can take time, only last year our policy team successfully campaigned for changes to the Shared Accommodation Rate in Housing Benefit for young people. This #ChanceToMoveOn campaign allows more young people to access rented accommodation when leaving our supported accommodation services and even resulted in a UK Housing Award (c.f. https://mobile.twitter.com/centrepointuk/status/1464181638921871363).
As I was reflecting on returning to work this week and the challenges ahead for 2022, I am aware that these may be huge but I remain optimistic. This is in part because I am hoping to expand our PIE team resources later this year to ensure our objectives can continue to be delivered. However, most importantly, I have a renewed focus on the importance, as we enter the third year of our Centrepoint PIE journey, of continuing to build relationships with our colleagues within and outside of the organisation. As a very small team, one of our goals this year must be to continue to ensure that the implementation of PIE in Centrepoint is not just seen as something ‘we do to’ others. As per a PIE, ‘co-production’ is key. We must ‘do with’ others. We cannot be everywhere all the time, and whilst as PIE lead my responsibility is to ‘oversee’ the Centrepoint PIE journey, nothing pleases me more than to see others ‘get PIE’ and run with it or apply it to their area. PIE does not just belong to the PIE team! PIE is of course for everyone and without others in the organisation embracing a psychologically informed approach, we won’t succeed in creating a PIE within the charity! Important examples of this ‘co-production’ so far have been our PIEineers (i.e. young people advising our team), ‘frontline’ staff requesting specific PIE training module topics that would be helpful for them or their collaborations with young people to suggest changes to the physical environment within our supported accommodation services.
Another more recent example, that was highlighted to me just before Christmas, is one frontline service team that have been reflecting upon and exploring what building relationships and engaging homeless young people, a key part of a PIE, actually ‘looks like’ or involves. This operationalisation of PIE in a way that they find helpful and practical is exactly what our team hopes for, and I hope to see more of this year. Specifically, the staff in one of our North London services spontaneously came up with the concept of key-workers needing to ‘sparkle’. As we are just post New Year, I wanted to highlight this because it reminds me of the ‘fireworks’ that we all enjoyed (at least on TV!) this year. Specifically, ‘SPARKLE’ as a mnemonic stands for the following:
S — “Smiley — Always welcoming to our young people no matter how busy we are”
P — “Passionate / Proactive about our work”
A — “Accountable for our actions”
R — “Realistic time frames when working with young people and supporting them to improve their independent living skills. Each young person’s journey will be different”.
K — “Knowledgeable about why a young person behaves in a certain way and the things we need to know and do in order to support that young person positively”
L — “Listening to what our young people tell us”
E — “Energetic — self-motivated to make a difference to our services and the lives of our young people”.
What I really liked when ‘SPARKLE’ was shared with me, was that this was developed by the key-workers in the service when asked about what PIE behaviours would be helpful when engaging and working with homeless young people. They also developed their own ‘SPARKLE’ posters that they have displayed in their service as a daily reminder and I believe have now shared with other ‘frontline’ services. This for me was a great example of staff taking on board PIE outside of a training or reflective practice session, and ‘making it their own’ by applying it to the way they work. ‘SPARKLE’ covers some key points about what working in psychologically informed manner needs to be in order to build relationships with the homeless young people we support. It also shows how PIE is of course more than the ‘PIE Team’ and is just something that psychologists’ do but instead must be applied by everyone if it is to be embedded within the organisation.
Therefore, I am hoping that all of Centrepoint this new year continues to ‘SPARKLE’ in its PIE journey, and I remain curious and open as to how other colleagues in the organisation may decide to take forward PIE and apply it specifically to their own areas. Perhaps as you finish reading this blog, you can reflect on what you can do wherever you work in the organisation (or elsewhere within the homeless sector) to take forward a psychologically informed approach to your work. I will certainly be aiming to ‘SPARKLE’ in my relationships with others and focus on those ‘small steps’, particularly when it can feel that what we are trying to achieve is somewhat overwhelming. This will be key to not only embed a PIE, but also to ultimately achieve our strategic aim of ending youth homelessness by 2037. Most importantly, although the next 15 years are likely to fly by, if we can work together in partnerships both within and outside of our organisation, I believe we have the potential to achieve so much that will positively benefit some of the most vulnerable young people in the UK and #changetheirstory…