Sue O’Neill-Berest, Food Education Manager, writes for our blog following her talk at this year’s Pathways from Homelessness 2021 conference:
Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, gave the keynote speech on the first day of the conference and what really struck a chord was when he said:
‘We can bring everyone in, shouldn’t we be ashamed that it takes a crisis to bring everyone in?’
I would take this sentiment one step further and add that as a society we should be able to meet everyone’s basic needs. It isn’t right that people are experiencing homelessness or being trapped in poverty. Nobody in one of the wealthiest countries in the world should be going to bed hungry at night. Why has it taken a crisis for people to act? For people to collaborate and for people to care that we all have access to the basics of nutritious food and a safe place to live?
He talked about the quality of housing, as a home is more than just a roof over someone’s head. He talked also about dignity and the link between health inequalities and poor housing and how we should follow the Finnish model that has enshrined the right to good housing into law because it gives people the foundations for success in life. He talked about all the important things that have informed our work for many years across Cyrenians; but mostly how when you give people back their dignity and respect, change can happen.
In my own talk I spoke about how we had continued to build community through food and facilitated dignified access to emergency food throughout covid-19, despite the many obstacles that we thought would have prevented us from working in our usual relationships-based way. I spoke about the unexpected outcomes; about volunteer drivers who told us how important it was to them to have a sense of purpose and space for continued human interactions at a time of disconnection for most of us.
Volunteers told us how building relationships with the recipients of the meals helped their own mental health during this time. It meant they got to interact with others in their community that they would not normally have encountered. One individual who lived alone and volunteered in the kitchen during lockdown spoke about how being part of a community of friendly, fun and hardworking people had made such a difference to her own mental health. This surprised her because her initial rationale for volunteering had been an altruistic one of helping others. Every volunteer without exception thanked us for the opportunity to volunteer at some point in those initial 6 months.
Throughout the conference there were examples of this power of relationships and the need to understand the ‘why’ and not just to stop at the ‘what’. There were examples that showed the importance of forming and nurturing normal human relationships, and not just concentrating on solving problems as workers. Importantly, there were examples of people working together to challenge systems that are simply not working for some - broken systems that have started being challenged and questioned in the harsh light of the COVID crisis.
We can choose to either work with the system and effect change, or to be active dismantlers of a system that is not working for so many. Throughout the world at the moment we see people actively challenging the status quo and this can be done in ways that are either destructive or constructive. On reflection I tend towards active dismantling and Cyrenians has I believe long forged a path of actively dismantling systems that fundamentally do not work for people. Our person-centred way of working, that amplifies the voices of those not often heard from and seeks to put power back in peoples’ hands, is the essence of who we are as an organisation. Attending this conference reminded me of why I am proud of my colleagues and the organisation we work for, it also gave me hope for the future, listening and learning from others’ work to change broken systems, whose use-by-date has been expediated by COVID.
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