“Donkeys, cats and new furniture’ — The many impacts of creating a ‘Home’ in a Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE)…
17.03.2022: 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 spending some time working at home, managing teacher and train strikes(!), to start writing the PIE 3 year Evaluation and Impact Report (more details to follow in the future). It has been interesting reflecting back on the work we have undertaken in the PIE team, since we commenced our PIE journey in October 2019, and moreover the specific impact we have made across the organisation in this time. Whilst there are many different outcomes measures we are considering, for me personally (and why I do this role) the best outcome or feedback that we are making a difference comes directly from staff and young people in our ‘frontline’ services.
Consequently, for this week’s PIE blog, I wanted to shine a spotlight on one particular cluster of services in Brent, North West London, as they have really been on a PIE journey over the past couple of years, with amazing results that I wanted to share more widely. The Manager of this service cluster, Annette in conjunction with the Operational Manager, Mandy and her wonderful staff team (Sharon, Charles, Ishona, Dushka, Nahid, Noella, Sadaf, Bernice, Denise, Heather, Ifeyinwa, Omobolaji, Temi, Dara, Paulina & Tolu) have worked hard to create a more psychologically informed environment or PIE in their 3 services; Kingshill, Llanover Road and Canning Road.
As PIE Lead, I know that I can’t be everywhere all the time, so rely on staff within different services (and the PIE Team) to take forward and adopt the PIE approach locally as appropriate. Under the direction of Annette and Mandy, this team started by thinking about their approach to working with the homeless young people they support, and following reflection in their team meetings and reflective practice sessions devised a great summary of the key elements of the PIE approach in their support work. This concept of the need to ‘SPARKLE’ in how they practically operationalised PIE was featured in a previous blog (c.f. https://medium.com/@drhelenmiles/a-psychologically-informed-new-year-time-to-aim-high-and-sparkle-79b89e49c6be).
Most recently, this team has focused on the importance of the physical environment in a PIE because as Keats et al (2012) note ‘designing and managing the social environment is central to developing a psychologically informed service. Thoughtful design, preferably one with service user input, based on thinking through the intentions behind a service, can result in useful changes in the way a building is used, and how it is valued by staff and clients’ (p.17). The impact of our physical environment on our psychological well-being has also been highlighted in a previous PIE blog here:
Therefore, this staff team has worked with the young people that live in their services to radically transform the spaces so that they move from being a simply being a homeless hostel or house to a ‘home’ (as per the aims of a PIE). With some small funding from the Centrepoint PIE Physical Environment Fund, some repainting via the Centrepoint Property & Maintenance Team budget, and lots of hard work and discussions involving the young people themselves, these services are unrecognisable from what they were previously. This has highlighted to me how difference parts of our organisation can work together, to bring about positive change, where there is will, motivation, ideas and of course, just a little bit of funding!
So over to Annette (Service Manager), to talk more about the PIE journey that her services have undergone in terms of the physical environment:
“When I started two years ago, the Brent Services looked and felt very tired after the Covid-19 pandemic. The lounges needed redecoration, the furniture needed replacing and the offices needed a clear out and refresh (see photographs below). As a result, the services did not feel homely and young people that lived in them never used the communal spaces:
The outside spaces were also not utilised and somewhat neglected:
Our first mission was to clear the office, make it clutter free and remove the temporarily installed Covid-19 screens. We then applied for PIE funding to obtain some new furniture for the lounge. The young people that lived in the services were very excited about the proposed changes, giving us ideas about what they wanted the spaces to look like, what furniture and interior décor style they would like and how they could be used in the future. They were even helpful in clearing the old furniture, whilst the team found a local youth club that took the unwanted ice hockey table:
We were able to re-paint the main communal areas (e.g. lounge, hallway and staff office) with colours chosen by young people and staff that would be living and working in the spaces. Even the painter that came to one service went ‘above and beyond’ by painting an extra hallway, because he reported that, as he had once been a homeless refugee himself, who had been “helped by kind people like ourselves” he wanted to make the space as nice as possible for the young people living there. After the painting was complete and the new furniture was added, we also chose some new pictures for the spaces — the ‘Donkey pictures’ have been a particular hit and created much amusement and joy!
We repurposed one of the old sofas (that was still useable) with some new cushions to transform one of our staff offices, making it a more comfortable environment for young people to come into when they wanted to speak to staff as well as for staff to have a more pleasant working space:
Finally, the services feel like ‘homes’ and the change in those that lived and worked in the services was instant. Our staff team started to do more events (e.g. communal meals), the young people began to use the space every day to relax and watch television as well as eat together. For the first time the young people that live in our services have been proud, rather than ashamed (because they live in a ‘homeless hostel’), to bring back their friends and show them where they live. The lounges are now safe and calm environments, where conversations naturally flow, and meetings feel more relaxed.
Even our outside spaces are more useable by staff and young people, with the addition of some garden furniture ready for the warmer weather:
As a result, the feedback we have had from young people have been overwhelmingly positive. For example:
“The service is very homely, I feel relaxed and safe in my home. I really enjoy [being at the service] as it encourages inclusivity with the monthly display board in the lounge. I have helped created the LGBT+ display and educated other young people on this”.
“I feel supported and encouraged with my keyworker and support staff, who work care to create a safe and supported environment”.
“There is now a wide range of activities for young people to access and expand their learning skills”.
“The new decoration is very nice and the colour it’s very nice, and the pictures are amazing. Now it’s different than before, I think it’s more relaxed than before”.
As the Service Manager it has been a pleasure watching our services grow into psychologically informed environments, and as well as the young people, the impact on our staff has been tenfold. For example, feedback from the staff team about the new spaces and how they are now being used has included the following:
“[Our service] previously felt dull, the lounge didn’t feel a warm and homely space for me to go and sit with the young people. When we had meetings with Social Services and young people, I would do it in the office and not in the lounge. My office is now brighter; the young people quite often come and sit in the office on the sofa for informal and formal chats. Since the decoration work, I have really noticed the difference, young people are much more relaxed in the lounge, we quite often see them with their friends over, feet up on the sofa enjoying the space and it feels like their home. It is cosy, welcoming and has a feel of warmth. It has been really lovely doing all the recent celebrations (e.g. Jubilee Party, EID), which were highlights for me as the young people felt confident to bring their friends over”.
“Having the PIE funding and changing the environment has made a profound effect on young people’s wellbeing and given them more of an opportunity to socialise more. I feel as a staff member it has made the service a more homely and a welcoming environment. When we have reflective practice in the lounge it is a lot more open space than it used to be and it gives the staff members a safe welcoming environment to unwind”.
“The PIE funding has helped our young people use the spaces a lot more; they feel more comfortable inviting their friends over. We recently had two young people move in as emergency after their [previous] placement caught on fire. They said immediately said they felt safe and started using the communal areas together immediately, having meals together around the table. The day before we had also attended the new PIE training [Practical PIE], which really helped us support these young people in a trauma informed way”.
As highlighted above, the staff team have been encouraged, focused and pro-active in providing a safe welcoming psychologically informed home for the young people that has enabled them to work alongside the young people in a safe space to help them overcome their past traumas. Seeing the young people enjoy the space but also feel confident enough to bring their friends has been the most rewarding part of this process for me. We are looking forward to developing the services further, and are now discussing with the young people about future developments in the outside areas, including plans for a small allotment and maybe even some chickens!”
In summary, as PIE Lead, it has been a complete joy to hear about the progress that the Brent Services have made over the past year or two in becoming more psychologically informed. Although the staff training from our excellent PIE Trainer; Adelle, and reflective practice from our equally wonderful PIE Clinical Psychologist; Sophia (as mentioned by the staff above) has clearly been very helpful, the changes in the physical environment have also been instrumental in the radical transformation within these services. Our physical spaces affect our psychological well-being, in terms of whether we feel valued and safe, but also how we interact with one another, potentially creating more opportunities for engagement and relationship building — the heart of any psychologically informed approach to overcoming homelessness (Keats et al, 2012).
However, I cannot take really take that much credit for these changes in Brent, I might be the ‘voice’ of PIE across the wider organisation, but this local expression of PIE, has all been down to Annette’s leadership (alongside Sharon, Mandy and her wider staff team). They have run with the concept of PIE fantastically (as many other teams across our frontline have also done, who I would love to feature in future PIE blogs!) and it is wonderful to see the pictures of the changes and hear about their work and the wider impact. I am therefore so grateful for their energy and enthusiasm in making my ideas for Centrepoint’s PIE a ‘reality’ rather than just a ‘vision’.
Finally, speaking to Annette earlier this week, in preparation for this blog, she commented to me that as a result of the recent changes in the spaces, the young people in one service have become more outward looking, which apparently led to them briefly adopting a local ‘homeless’ stray cat that turned up. Although sadly it was not possible to keep this cat in this particular service, I noted to her that this highlighted to me how creating spaces that make people feel valued and cared for (perhaps for these young people for the first time), increases their potential to want to value and care for others (people or animals!). This is arguably a secondary, but important, consequence of creating and embedding a PIE approach in services that work with previously traumatised individuals. However, this is something I am discovering, as I having been writing the PIE impact and evaluation report this week, is somewhat trickier to formally evidence just with data…