Here at BYH we’re sitting comfortably on a Big Lottery funding cushion for the next year or so (we’re not; we’re sitting wrapped in blankets in a very cold and unglamorous outbuilding that we affectionately refer to as ‘the office’, but you get my meaning). There’s only six of us, all part time, all passionate about what we do and why we do it – carrying on the tradition that has inspired BYH to improve the lives of young, homeless people for the last 32 years. But the cracks are starting to show. Again. Rocking about on the stormy waters of the third sector, clinging desperately to our ideals and independence, we often come up against challenges. Yes, challenges aren’t new to us – one minute we’re planning new initiatives, researching needs, strategising with the best of them, the next – we’re struggling to buy some biros. And so we see the beginning of the latest tidal wave…
Our core work is around delivering homelessness prevention workshops in schools, led by our fully-trained and nurtured peer educators – young people who’ve been on the sharp end of homelessness themselves and want to share their stories with other young people. It’s an awesome project, it really is. It changes lives and makes a difference, it goes way, way beyond its original intention of bringing that ‘real-life’ element to our work in schools.
Peer Impact is based on the three week intensive training that transforms battle-scarred, disengaged young people into social activists with a drive and passion and depth of motivation that puts the rest of us to shame. They also get a Level 2 qualification – something that feels totally unachievable to many of our recruits. The training itself is good, it gives them all the basics in volunteering and understanding their role, but the informal training, now that’s where the magic happens.
Someone quite prominent (someone who, frankly, should know better) recently said to me that living in a hostel or shared house following homelessness is, for young people, comparable to leaving home to go to University. It’s not. Not unless your average Fresher is entirely financially independent, has experienced severe and unimaginable trauma and has no one, not a single soul, who cares about how they’re getting on. Education and training is important, even vital in improving a young person’s life chances, but qualifications only mean something in a context where they can become a tool for success. They’re not a finishing point, they’re just the start.
It might be clearer to use an example. Take Claire (not her real name), who reluctantly came along to the introduction day of a recent course. She scowled her way into the building, slumped in a corner and glared for a bit. We made tea, welcomed everyone, did our tutorly duty with fire exits and directions to the toilet. Claire informed our Peer Support Worker that she couldn’t read or write, wouldn’t be able to take part and generally didn’t want to be there. She didn’t want to leave either, thankfully. Fast forward three weeks and Claire is sitting in the same room, pen in hand, writing about the catastrophic twists and turns that led her into homelessness. In front of her is a two inch thick portfolio of work – her work – representing the biggest academic achievement of her life to date, and a rise in her self-confidence, self-esteem and motivation that is as unmeasurable as it is invaluable.
Claire is one of six young people who were on that course, the others have similarly brilliant stories. As tutors, we always finish the formal delivery of these courses in a strange headspace – exhausted and inspired and frustrated by turns. Learners and tutors have heads full of the Learning Outcomes: Rights and Responsibilities, Personal Development, Homelessness, Presentation Skills, interwoven with the subjects that the learners brought with them: self-harm, depression, anxiety, suicide, violent relationships, exploitation, abuse, hunger, fear… the list goes on. These three weeks of intensive training are three weeks of intensive relationship building, supporting, advising, role-modelling, nurturing, reassuring. And when the portfolios are assessed, the certificates framed, the other stuff continues. It is that stuff that leads so many of our trainees to stay with us, to take what they need and give what they can, as they continue with renewed purpose to make their way towards relative stability.
So we come to funding applications, goal-setting, identification of needs. Something as woolly as ‘nurturing’ isn’t worth a bean. We need tangible, countable, tick-offable results if we want funding. Many of our recruits struggle to find work – we could train 50 of them to write a CV. Many of them struggle with the traumas they have experienced and the subsequent impact on their mental health – we could train 30 of them in coping strategies and signpost them to the waiting lists of other services. But then James comes to the office.
James was homeless at 16, he stayed in a hostel for two years, was trained and supported to develop independent living skills before he moved into his own place. He was lucky to be provided with a washing machine and a pack of washing powder. He had access to an outside washing line and inside drying racks. And yet he was visibly dirty and he smelled terrible. It’s suddenly clear – you can train someone how to do things – get jobs, wash their clothes, leave their violent partner, not take overdoses – you can’t train them to want to. The wanting to comes from feeling invested enough in themselves to care if they smell or get hurt or stay alive. And that investment in themselves is nurtured by our investment in them. I’m not for a moment taking credit for any of the things that these young people achieve, that’s all on them. But I do know what it means to be valued, to have someone care what is happening to you and to listen without judgment to your thoughts. I do know that these things inspire self-belief which inspires a million other things.
This – this sense of belonging, worth, potential – completely intangible though it is, this is what should be fundable. This is what makes the difference to the young man with a handful of CV writing course certificates, with nothing but CV writing courses to write on his CV, to the young woman with an armful of scars and a number for the Mental Health Crisis Team; to those young people without a single relative or friend or worker who makes them believe in their own importance. That is what we should be doing.
And so, back to the rocky waters of life in a small charity. We’ve lost our schools work in one area, we have to reduce services in another… cost cutting imposed on Local Authorities trickling down. We’re looking at our service provision – what’s needed? What’s fundable? Are they ever the same thing? We hope so, and we hope for the eloquence to explain ourselves to those with the purse strings – to inspire the same hope in them.