Mission critical 

7 June 2023
Ewan Aitken

As we approach our staff conference and the opportunity to come together as an organisation, our Chief Executive Ewan Aitken reflects on how our values will steer us in redefining our mission to help prevent homelessness. 

This weekend I found myself dancing at a Ceilidh in a barn on the ross of Mull celebrating the silver wedding of a couple of old and valued friends. It was a great evening amongst good friends and people I had never met before. Ceilidh dances are wonderful for bringing folk together and no-one has to worry about being good at dancing to enjoy themselves. 

In conversation with many of the new friends made during the evening, the question of “What does Cyrenians do?” was asked several times.  In each case, I began with the straightforward answer: “We tackle the causes and consequences of homelessness”. But of course, accurate a statement as that is, it doesn’t tell the whole story.   
Our simple strapline is usually followed up by me, not with a list of our 60 plus services, but by saying: “In everything we do, we live our values and we create trusted relationships because good things happen when values are lived and trusted relationships exist”.  

What we do matters a great deal, but how we do it is what makes us different.  Our core organisational values which guide the way that we work are compassion, respect, integrity and innovation. There are many organisations engaged in the alleviation of homelessness. Cyrenians’ distinctive approach is being deliberately values-led and relationship-based. Putting the people we support at the heart of decision-making is what defines our success.   

When our values are clear, relational and regularly referenced, three things are allowed to happen: 

  • The innovation and decision-making involved in providing genuine person-centred support can be in the hands of those directly providing the support and does not require “permission from above”. It will be different for each person but consistency in quality and approach is inherent because those decisions will be based on the same values. 
  • Difficult decisions have solid criteria against which to be tested. Asking “How do I act with compassion and integrity when saying this thing which will be difficult to hear?” already frames the solution within a relational approach and keeps the focus on the person and not the system. 
  • Regularly referencing and reflecting on what our values mean to us and our practice feeds our inner selves, increasing our capacity to cope with the ever-growing challenges of our work and the circumstances of those we support. 

Our Cyrenians way of working draws on the work of Carl Roget who spoke of “unconditional positive regard”. It is here where compassion is required, especially when the choices of those we support have not been wise or have harmed others.

The person being supporting knowing we are seeing them as a person not a problem, is an act of compassion which can be the first step to change.  

Our Cyrenians way of working also draws on the work of Gerald Egan, whose “skilled helper” model places transformational support in the grey area where the personal and the professional meet. It’s there that real, human, trusted relationships grow. It will necessarily be different for each situation. Knowing the boundaries and managing the differences involved in each relationship require us to act with integrity for ourselves and respect for the person being supported.   

Our Cyrenians way of working is built on innovation. Every relationship is unique so needs different approaches. Staff can innovate based on the quality and depth of trusted relationships, in some cases building new trust and in others doing more because trust has been created.   

All of these things require staff to work with a high level of uncertainty as the trust required to make the relationships work is often nurtured from a very low base or starting point. That uncertainty needs solid anchors and our values are the strongest anchors we have.    

Homelessness is almost always a consequence of relationship breakdown triggered by a wide variety of factors. A loss of trust in human relationships and the trauma that creates deep in people’s souls is at the heart of the issues which lead to people becoming homeless. People often ask why Cyrenians has so many services. It is because the journey into homelessness – the breakdown of trust and relationships - starts in many places and for many reasons. It’s why our mission for the last eight years has been very broad, articulated as being to “support people excluded from family, home, work and community”.   

The time has come to review our mission in the context of what we have learnt over the last eight years and the current political, social and economic landscape. Clarity of mission is core to knowing how to apply our values and who we work with to create trusted relationships in difficult circumstances with the resources we have. We will, of course, start with the people who know the most the impact of the big changes, those who provide our services, engage with our supporters and work in our enterprises. The first step is a big conversation at our upcoming All-staff Conference. 

It might be a difficult conversation – change is often hard - but because it will be informed by our values and built on our relationships, difficult conversations are not something we fear; they make, in the end, for better understanding of the task and the opportunity.  

I may not be dancing at the conference but I myself will be asking the question what does Cyrenians do and how do we do it when we are tackling the causes and consequences of homelessness.