Involving Service Users in creating community
Involving Service Users in Creating Community: Homelessness and community (part IV)
In our previous blog post we considered how we cannot eradicate homelessness without building community (Homelessness and Community Part III). Therefore, if social exclusion and poverty of relationship are at the heart of homelessness, it follows that inclusion and community are part of the solution. Involving service users creates community. It is not just about providing a community but rather being a community to which the service users have a sense of belonging and acceptance.
“Them and Us”
Jeremy remembers a time back when All Nations was running a soup kitchen. An insufficient number of volunteers had shown up to be able to prepare the food and serve the guests. They therefore had to make an announcement that the soup kitchen could not go ahead that night. One by one a number of individuals who were there to receive, stood up and volunteered to help out and serve. He distinctly remembers this, as the point at which any notion of “them and us” evaporated and the atmosphere shifted to being one of family.
Involving service users and getting them to participate are key parts of building a community. There is no sense of real community where there is a clear distinction between the people in need of help and those who are helping them. This kind of binary view of homelessness is not helpful at all. We have to realise that we all live in a continuum state between those two extremes. And under different circumstances something like this could happen to anyone.
As charitable workers we are not knights in shining armour. We are not somehow superior or better than people who have fallen on hard times. Homelessness and poverty are not things to which the “elite” are immune. They could happen to anyone if things began to stack up against them.
Involving Service Users in the life of the community
We need to listen to those we are working alongside, give them a voice allow them to help shape the conversation. After all they are the ones with lived experience. I don’t even think we can empathise with their situation. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. I don’t have a clue, to be honest, what it is like to sleep rough and have all my earthly possessions in a bag. I can try and picture it or begin to imagine but it is probably nothing compared to the reality of having experienced it. The only way to bring that framework of reference to bear upon how we operate is to learn from those who know.
A great example of local service user involvement has been set up by Good Shepherd Ministries. They have started a peer support group for people moved into accommodation from rough sleeping. It’s now being led by a service user with support from staff but is essentially already entirely service user led and feeds back into some of our wider discussions in relation to the specific issues they are facing. They are also starting a formal service user involvement meeting as well that will embrace all of their service users (not just rough sleepers).
The primary benefit of Involving Service Users is the impact it has on community
Interestingly a number of surveys related to the benefits of involving service users in the delivery of mental health services, have highlighted the fact that it leads to increased opportunities for social interaction (which comes with its own therapeutic benefits), as well as increased levels of self-esteem and confidence. To put it in layman’s terms, when we involve people in the conversation and even sometimes the decision making about how we are seeking to help them and shape the services they access, it makes them feel good about themselves. They feel valued, accepted and a sense of belonging and partnership with the organisation. This in turn leads to a sense of community and better outcomes for everyone involved. The same goes for staff and valuing their input into how things operate and giving them a sense of ownership of the vision and direction of the organisation.
Involving service users in service delivery and development is essential. It creates community through increased social interaction by giving a sense of belonging and acceptance. This is another means of tackling the emotional homelessness that accompanies an individuals physical homelessness.