A couple of years ago, inspired by a speech at a conference by a man in recovery who had founded an organisation to support people on the recovery journey staffed by people with the same lived/living experience, I pondered about should we take a similar approach. The Cyrenians movement in Britain was founded in 1963 by a man called Tom Gifford who himself grappled with addiction and would be seen as someone with lived experience so it was something which could be argued to be in our very DNA.
Knowing we did employ some people with lived experience either of homelessness and/or of the other issues which formed their work I asked how many colleagues would use the description about themselves.
The response was illuminating and as is so often the case when exploring this kind of reflection of peoples understanding of their own journey, the answers shone a very different light on my question than the one expected. Just over 10 percent of colleagues said they would describe themselves as having lived experience. Others said whilst they did have what might be seen as lived experience, it was not a description or a label they would apply to themselves. They felt it wasn’t why they had got the job in the first place and so wasn’t more significant in how they approached their work than other experiences. Similarly, others said whilst their journey into Cyrenians had begun through their lived experience, they wanted now to not be known as “someone with lived experience” but simply as someone who was a professional and good at their job; as it felt like they were being defined by one part of their story.
Those responses, honest and human as they were, seemed to me to suggest valuing lived experience, whether it’s of homelessness or addiction, or family conflict or mental health or whatever the challenge in life with was both something positive and yet something to be very careful about in its use professionally. It suggested letting people decide for themselves how their lived experience would be viewed and drawn upon in a work context was a wiser approach than making a virtue about how many staff would apply the label. What’s important instead is to always see the potential of lived experience to have a positive impact on what we do and how we understand the experience of those we journey with but not make it the defining factor in someone’s ability to be a good at their job.
Those reflections did something else for me which again I had not expected. The stories I heard about the journeys through tough realities taken by colleagues provided a clear and present rebuttal to the often tragic and misinformed response to our work and that of our many partners in the world of homelessness; the “charity begins at home” response which is often to be found in the land of Social Media. Too often we see anti-immigrant nonsense; baseless claims which reek of racism or at the very least a fear of difference which need to be challenged. In none of the stories I heard about the lived experience journey was the root cause of challenge faced by colleagues with lived experience immigration. None. Poverty, family breakdown, mental health, loss of employment, struggles with childhood trauma, drug and alcohol addiction either as cause or symptom, barriers making the best of education; these and many other life events which happened not by choice were the starting pint of experiencing a tough reality. It was never because someone from another country had taken a house of a job or in any other way impacted on people’s lives.
The powerful and precious stories of my colleagues, which are theirs and theirs alone to tell and share, undermine the simplistic and simply wrong blame statements about homelessness merely being a consequence of an influx of people from other countries. The journey from tough reality to transformation and hope is hard enough as it is without tainting its origins with unfounded blame and ill-informed prejudice adding another layer of misunderstanding and exclusion.
Ewan Aitken, 19th July 2018