‘Compassion at Christmas … and the ‘homeless’ nativity story’

Dr Helen Miles
5 min readDec 20, 2019

20.12.19: Like most people I would imagine, this week has been a busy week getting everything ready for Christmas; finishing the Christmas present shopping and finding time to wrap them all, ordering Christmas food and drink, making last minute arrangements for family and friends to visit, attending numerous school related Christmas performances (and remembering seemingly even more numerous things that I need to do/provide/remember for the kids for school!), and attending Christmas parties with work colleagues and friends, all whilst finishing off work in my role as the Lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) at Centrepoint before I take my Christmas holidays. Even working in the homeless sector, in the midst of all this Christmas chaos, one can forget that for many young people in our country, especially those in temporary, insecure, inadequate or even no accommodation, Christmas is a time of year that is particularly difficult and challenging.

Centrepoint have reminded us this year that approximately 22,000 young people aged 16–26 years are facing homelessness this Christmas (c.f. https://centrepoint.org.uk/what-we-do/the-22-000/ and https://centrepoint.org.uk/media/3776/xmasreport.pdf), a truly staggering and distressingly high figure given that the UK is the 5th richest economy in the world. However, it is not just young people facing homelessness this festive season, over 135,000 children (c.f. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/dec/03/at-least-135000-children-in-britain-will-be-homeless-at-christmas), and almost one in 200 people in the UK are without a stable home over the coming festive season (i.e. https://www.bigissue.com/latest/280000-people-are-homeless-in-england-this-christmas/). There are many reasons for homelessness (c.f. https://www.homeless.org.uk/facts/understanding-homelessness/causes-of-homelessness), that range from systemic failures in housing policy, including the provision of adequate amounts of housing stock and rising rental costs, to family and relationship breakdown, unemployment and inadequate wages, to individual challenges and consequences of social care needs or disability, past trauma including armed service or early attachment breakdown/childhood abuse, mental health, physical health or substance use issues. However regardless of cause, which is often complex and multifaceted, it can be hard not to notice this Christmas the rising rates of homelessness upon our streets, particularly in our big cities but increasingly so in our smaller towns. There used to be a saying that ‘we are all never more than three pay checks away from being homeless’, something that feels increasingly acute in our modern society.

I was reflecting this week on the actual Christmas Nativity Story (after various school productions!), which regardless of your religious beliefs, tells the story of a young unmarried and pregnant woman and her partner, both refugees, who on arrival at the place they are sent to as part of a census, find there is ‘no room at the inn’. The very ‘Saviour of the World’ (and His family) that Christians celebrate on Christmas Day, was Himself ‘homeless’ and started his early life sleeping in temporary accommodation in a stable surrounded by animals. For those of us that have had a baby, we know this is hardly an ideal start in life! I therefore think that Christmas is naturally a time to consider those less fortunate than us, particularly those young people facing homelessness this festive season, as even the nativity story highlights the issue of homelessness. Therefore, for those that can, please do consider donating to Centrepoint’s Christmas campaign and make a real difference to young people facing homelessness this year via this link: https://centrepoint.org.uk/xmas?utm_medium=referral&utm_source=main&utm_campaign=HelenMilesBlog&utm_content=ChristmasCold

I have also been fortunate this past week to visit some new Centrepoint services in the boroughs of Greenwich and Havering/Romford that have been supported by a partnership of statutory funding and generous donations, like the campaign above I have just highlighted. These new services offer a fantastic opportunity to embed a Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE) from the outset of delivery, with a real focus on staff training / support and reflective practice, as well as a safe and welcoming ‘homely’ physical environment for the homeless young people that have been moving in over the past few months. These young people have had a difficult start to their lives, with many leaving the social care system after early traumatic experiences and family breakdown/ruptured attachments, but as I entered the service I was struck by the passion and importantly, ‘compassion’ that the staff had for these young people as well as their determination to #changethestory. Simple things like having an ‘open door’ policy for the young people to approach staff whenever needed as well as the decoration of the communal spaces with some Christmas decorations made the services feel like they were ‘home’ and not another ‘institution’ that the young people had been referred to. During my visit, staff shared stories of how they have already gone the ‘extra mile’ supporting the young people resident in the services, including one who noted that a young person had commented to them earlier this week that since moving in they “have already learnt that someone does care for me after all”.

Such ‘Compassion’ as argued at the #WhyPIE conference I attended last week, is arguably key in a Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE). In their original paper on PIE, Johnson & Haigh (2010) suggested that ‘for the moment, at least, the definitive marker of a PIE is simply that, if asked why the unit is run in such and such a way, the staff would give an answer couched in terms of the emotional and psychological needs of the service users, rather than giving some more logistical or practical rationale, such as convenience, costs or Health & Safety Regulations” (c.f. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/241675789_Social_psychiatry_and_social_policy_for_the_21st_century_-_New_concepts_for_new_needs_The_’psychologically-informed_environment’). Therefore, the ‘psychology’ part of a PIE is that emotional intelligence, empathy and compassion that are displayed by all those working within it. It was wonderful to see such evidence of this already in the services I visited this week, and I am excited about what the New Year will bring following the roll out of our Centrepoint 2-day PIE Training and monthly reflective practice sessions for staff to support their development even further.

Finally, Christmas has always been a time for compassion for those who are less fortunate than we are, and for gratitude, for all that we do have. I would argue that as we enter a new decade, we need to cultivate compassion for each other more than ever. It would amazing if after the close of the year that Centrepoint celebrated its 50th Anniversary, there was no need for the charity by the end of the next decade as we had succeeded in our mission to #EndYouthHomelessness. For now though, I am optimistic that Centrepoint’s PIE is already helping us to ensure that get the best outcomes of ‘a home and a job’ for the homeless young people that need our help. I would also like to sincerely thank all those who have worked with me (i.e. staff, young people and external supporters), since May of this year on our PIE journey. I really could not have started to make the positive changes that we have without you, and I wish you (and the readers of this blog) a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you in 2020!

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Dr Helen Miles

Consultant Clinical & Forensic Psychologist & Head of Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) at Centrepoint @orange_madbird