‘If we build it, they will come’: Reflections on the Centrepoint National Youth Homelessness Conference’…
31.03.2022: As I write this week’s PIE blog, as the lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE), at the national youth homeless charity — Centrepoint, I am reflecting back across a busy week, one of the highlights of which was attending the National Youth Homelessness conference in Coventry on PIE (c.f. #YouthHomelessConf). This PIE blog is therefore going to be a reflection on that conference from both myself and Lisa Waring (Head of Partnerships), who along with her brilliant team Mandy and Francesca, have delivered another thought provoking and valuable event that has brought together many individuals working in the youth homelessness sector to discuss various issues with the aim to #EndYouthHomelessness. It was a pleasure to be invited to speak at the conference and to have the opportunity to talk about psychologically informed environments with other youth homelessness charities, both sharing Centrepoint’s PIE journey so far as well as learning from and sharing good practice with other colleagues working in this area.
Reflecting back on the day, I was naturally quite nervous as it has been a while since I have spoken in front of so many people! The nerves were also not initially helped by the great turnout, with organisations from across the UK involved in supporting homeless young people coming together to ‘connect’ and share ideas and good practice! Within my own session on PIE, it was very heartening to see the high levels of interest in a psychologically informed environment (PIE) approach to addressing the impact of youth homelessness. The presentation involved information about Centrepoint’s PIE journey so far, and some of our initial outcome and impact data, as well as a reflective discussion with attendees that I was supported to facilitate by my PIE Team colleague; Dr Joanne Wood (PIE Psychologist: Manchester).
During the table discussions, it was very useful to meet other individuals working in a PIE way within their organisations as I value all opportunities to share good practice and learn from others implementing a PIE approach as we consider our next steps in Centrepoint’s PIE journey. As I have reflected before, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to PIE, despite similar core ‘ingredients’ (e.g. focus on relationships, staff training and support, reflective practice, evidence based decision making and the physical environment). What was clear from the table discussions was that many different organisations may be working with some of the ingredients of PIE, but did not perhaps identify that their approach was ‘PIE’. I hope they therefore found the discussions helpful and validating, as well as a place for stimulating new ideas to build on their current practice.
For example, some attendees reported that whilst they may not have formal reflective practice with a psychologist, they were actually utilising reflective questions in team meetings and debriefs that create space for their staff to reflect upon incidents or issues, and modify their practice or approach as a consequent. Other service providers may not have embarked on specific modifications to their physical environments as part of a ‘programme’ but they it was clear that they were instinctively trying to create ‘homely’ and ‘welcoming’ spaces for the homeless young people they support. However, it was clear that many smaller providers could struggle to access suitable PIE training for their staff, and as a result I intend to have further conversations with our partnerships team about ways we could potentially offer our ‘Centrepoint PIE Training Offer’ to other organisations in the future.
Another highlight of the conference was the opportunity that the event created for me to network further, and to meet others from across the UK working in the youth homeless sector. It was also great to see some of my Centrepoint colleagues in person, who I have primarily just seen on a video screen in meetings over the past few years! However, the most significant highlight for me was having the opportunity to hear young people speak directly about their own experiences of homelessness and hear what they wanted to see future support approaches and policy interventions to address. Those with ‘lived experience’ are often the most powerful and important witnesses and unfortunately, without events such as this, they are also often the least heard in any debate. Several young people (either current or ex-Centrepoint residents) spoke very eloquently and passionately about their homeless journey, and moreover what helped them to move on from this and start to fulfil their potential.
In particular, all the young people that spoke at the conference either in the individual testimonies or the panel discussion, described the critical role that their key-worker had played in their recovery from homelessness, naming and thanking them. I often note in my daily role in Centrepoint that the most important people in the organisation after the young people themselves, are our key-workers. It is through the relationships that they build with their young people, that these individuals can move on from their past traumatic experiences and #changethestory to reach their potential. ‘Relationships’ are of course central to a PIE, so in effect the homeless young people were evidencing further the impact of taking a PIE approach on their positive outcomes.
Of note, the young people also spoke about what characteristics they had appreciated in their key-workers, again all key PIE approaches to relationship building and recovery. Specifically, they reported that their key-workers had been ‘firm but fair’, had been ‘authentic’ as well as ‘kind’ and had been available to offer support even after they had initially moved on from their supported accommodation. Most importantly, their key-workers had listened to them, perhaps the first time they had had that experience of being listened to by an adult. That importance of listening to homeless young people really resonated with me. It was an important reminder that sometimes it is not always about offering training in a specific psychological technique or ‘tool’ to our staff but instead reminding them of the importance and power of ‘listening’ and ‘hearing’ another person in distress, something we can all do as human beings and should perhaps strive to do more of in our busy daily lives.
Finally, as noted above, in this week’s PIE Blog, not only am I able to share my reflections upon this year’s Centrepoint National Youth Homelessness conference, but also Lisa’s reflections. Consequently, as well as thanking Lisa and her team for such a brilliant event, I will now hand over to her to share her thoughts about why such events are so important, the challenges of organising such an event and how a PIE approach featured in the planning and delivery of the conference…
‘I am not an avid fan of Kevin Costner — do not get me wrong, he has been in a few good films but, I would not say I was a huge fan! Nevertheless, I do find myself quoting a phase from one of his films this time every year when we are thinking about and planning the Centrepoint National Youth Homelessness conference. Specifically, “build it and they will come” was the iconic phrase whispered to the character Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) in the film ‘Field of Dreams’, when his character decides to build a baseball field in his garden. Every year, we organise a national conference to bring together many youth homelessness charities from across the UK, who are part of Centrepoint’s Youth Homeless partnership (see here for further information: https://centrepoint.org.uk/what-we-do/partnerships/). This is a wonderful opportunity to share good practice and learn from each other, but it is not without challenges. As a result, every year our small Partnerships Team take on a roller coaster ride of emotions whilst undertaking this considerable task.
Of course, there are many things we worry about in the run up to the event. As well as the practical aspects of organising such an event, including ensuring that we have the right location, catering and spaces for the event to be a success, we also have to consider carefully the programme for the day. The area of youth homelessness is substantial and there are many different organisations working across the UK to address the need and try to #EndYouthHomelessness. We therefore need to consider carefully the content of the conference. For example, will we get the right speakers that can help Centrepoint to ‘amplify’ the needs of homeless young people? Will the agenda be inspiring and interesting enough to bring colleagues working in this sector from all over the country together to share their experiences and learn from each other? In short, will they come?
However, our mantra has stood us in good stead so far and this year is no exception. We have once again had a sell-out event, which brought together over 30 speakers for 15 sessions on topics ranging from ‘The Impact of Psychologically Informed Environments’ to ‘Getting ready to register: OFSTED’s regulations for supported accommodation services’. Other sessions included ‘Weathering the Cost of Living Storm’ and ‘The Tight Pinch: How to make your organisation attractive to funders’. Therefore, we have tried to have a range of session topics to appeal to all attendees, and as a result it was great to see our session rooms buzzing with conversation, networking, and the sharing of good practice and information.
As per a PIE, the physical environment of the conference spaces was also really important, especially as this was our first conference post COVID-19 that was back to a face to face rather than remote format. Consequently, our team have carefully considered the layout of the rooms to make sure that attendees feel comfortable and psychologically safe to speak about their experiences with a topic, as well as providing connection with different activities and space for discussions that can get those attending involved. This year, we have also used technology to help attendees to interact, which is particularly important for the less confidence, but equally valued, speakers in the rooms.
Over the course of the event, the best part for me, as always, was where we heard the first hand experiences of homeless young people themselves. For example, Cameron, a young man with lived experience of homelessness, opened the conference with a fantastic, uplifting speech about finding strength when you hit rock bottom and the unique strengths of homeless young people. Often when we work in the homeless sector, we can focus on the deficits or risks of this population and ‘doing to’ them in order to help. It is an important reminder that that homeless young people can also be very resilient and deserve to be heard from directly or ‘done with’ (again as per a PIE) with regard to their recovery from homelessness. Similarly, the young person’s panel discussion at the end of the day challenged all of those attending to consider how we can improve homeless services for them.
Finally, after a thrilling but exhausting day, again as per a PIE approach, our team are planning to have a reflective space with the Centrepoint PIE Team to review the event and take some time to reflect on the whole experience from planning to delivery. We will also be looking at follow up actions to learn from this year’s conference with the aim of making next year’s Centrepoint National Youth Homelessness conference even better than this year! Hopefully, this means we will be able to quote Mr Costner with even more conviction again next time’…