One of my Thames Reach colleagues is a former drug dealer. He used hard drugs himself too. This is a bad combination. Now he works at our drug treatment project. The residents there tell me it is pointless to pretend you’re clean when really you are still using drugs because he has a ‘built-in bullshit detector’ (wouldn’t you like one of those - especially when a general election is in full swing?).
Understanding what motivates people to change like this obsesses me, as it does others who work with homeless people. Many of our clients are chaotic, traumatised, destructive individuals who often appear hell-bent on rushing towards an early grave. Plenty achieve just that, but others pull up short; they change, blossom and become inspirational role models.
My colleague tells me that his moment of realisation came about through a combination of fear and love. The fear arrived when, strutting the streets of south London, he was unceremoniously bundled into the back of a van, kicked around and told to pay off his debt to those higher up the drug dealing pecking order by the end of the day.
But of greater significance was the moment he was visited at the police station, yet again, by his parents after being arrested, this time for credit card fraud. His mother was in tears and his father looked a broken man. Yet after all this they were still backing him, hoping against hope that he would find a new life.
He carried this image of them through his subsequent jail sentence and when he came out of prison, got clean, volunteered at a day centre and secured a trainee position. He now spends his working life patiently and professionally helping others deal with their drug problem. These days he lives at home.
The question of what leads someone to transform their life when everything appears hopeless and bleak was comprehensively tackled by Groundswell, a self-help network for homeless people, in its illuminating 2010 research The escape plan: advice and thoughts from people who have escaped homelessness. Groundswell interviewed 25 homeless individuals and cross-referenced their accounts with those of their family and the professionals working with them. From the research it appears that the sheets that must be tied together to break out of homelessness jail are: forgiveness of oneself and of others, taking responsibility for yourself, and a supportive network of friends and family.
The latter is especially crucial and links to trust and self-belief, as encapsulated by one escapee: ‘Trust. I’m still having issues with trust, but basically I have started trusting people again. I believed that she [his sister] believed in me and she thought I was worth it. So I started believing that too.’
More than a home
What does all this mean for organisations working with the homeless? Groundswell’s homeless research group did not explain their escape from homelessness in terms of being allocated a nice flat. Their concept of homelessness stretched way beyond bricks and mortar.
Instead, they wanted to talk about the weightier matters of life: identity, family, spirituality. Intriguingly some participants considered the most respected support workers to be the ones prepared to ‘blur their professional boundaries’, which raises interesting questions about homelessness organisations’ notions of those boundaries. It does seem that the staple diet of key worker/client meetings such as discussions about rent arrears, and developing ‘life skills’ as part of ‘move-on’ plans is just not hitting the spot nowadays.
Meanwhile seismic shifts are underway, associated with choice and control, that will lead increasingly to demands being made by clients of homelessness services for access to more natural, organic and mutually beneficial types of support. Increasingly commissioners are expecting organisations to offer clients individual budgets through which they can purchase services directly. Expectations around increased self-determination will rise. If you could spend your money on a trip to the coast with your peer support group, why wouldn’t you? Concurrently, the role of carers and family in sharing decisions will be greatly enhanced.
This is a tough challenge for support workers because the problem for many homeless people is that they are often heart-breakingly distant from their families and frequently the past has wreaked devastating damage on these relationships. Yet despite the grim prevalence of such family breakdowns the task of helping to rebuild these relationships cannot be ducked, not least because our desire to change for others is a powerful force and family members are frequently in the best position to make demands and bring on that moment of self-realisation.
It is never too late. One of the most remarkable examples we have witnessed involved a hostel resident who was on the point of death. For years he had been drinking copious quantities of super-strength white cider and, despite brief periods of sobriety, the inexorable decline continued. His liver began to fail and he was taken into hospital.
Through this period his family stayed in contact and, as a last throw of the dice, they enacted an extraordinary scene around his bed wearing formal dark funeral garb to make the point with brutal directness that this is how they would be dressed when they next gathered around his body. He rallied after this and was taken back to the family home in Ireland where the latest reports are that he is not drinking and his health continues to improve.
It seems that even if you are hanging on to the cliff edge by your fingertips, if someone demonstrates belief and love, there is a way back.
Jeremy Swain is chief executive of homelessness charity Thames Reach