With this blog we want to show a bit about what we do and you can draw your own conclusions about the arena we work in. A young care-leaver, James, that we’ve just started working with has found himself in a council flat, lonely, waiting for his benefits and immediately facing eviction due to non-payment of rent. He reached out to us for help and has openly admitted that he hasn’t been as pro-active as he could have been in getting things sorted out. He has received confusing communications from his landlord and due to a lack of support, his own anxieties and complex system has struggled to know what to do first and to represent himself appropriately. He was asked to attend a meeting with his landlord on 25th November and asked my colleague Alex to go with him. She nearly didn’t go, as her diary was already full. Thank goodness she did. It turned out that this meeting was in fact an ‘eviction hearing’. James froze as accusations of his inaction and reluctance to put things right were thrown at him. It is not our style to do things ‘for’ young people. We prefer to work ‘with’ young people to equip them with the tools for next time. However, on this occasion Alex had to step in or he would have lost his home and been street homeless that afternoon. Alex convinced the landlord that James was engaging with us, was putting things right and wanted to keep his home. He has been given one week to put things right pending a full decision. Colleagues at MAP are supporting him with his benefits, budgeting and managing correspondence and he will now attend our Tenancy & Independent Living Skills (TILS) training next week. This is the right support at the wrong time. James, and others, shouldn’t be abandoned without sufficient support to help maintain a tenancy in a complex system of housing, benefits and moving in and out of low-paid work. Support for a group of people five times more likely to be homeless needs to be more responsive, empathic and ‘care-leaver-proofed’ to support a group of people that any society should be doing the utmost to help.
It’s not long now to go until Christmas. Having spend most of my adult life working with young people in and leaving the care system, I find this time a difficult one to discuss. I am acutely, and probably overly conscious of what a fraught and frightening time it can be for many young people. Having grown up away from parents, many adolescents decide with trepidation to spend a few days with family over the Christmas period. Like many of us, they are pray to the media’s portrayal of an idealised image of families eating and laughing together. When the reality is quite different, it can be a painful reminder of everything that defines you and your current situation. I can’t help but think of our young people over this period and want to make our bit of it as festive and warm as possible. I’m not pretending we’re compensation for families, but some moments of Christmas warmth and cheer don’t go amiss. We’ll be decorating a tree with young people on 1st December showing as much empathy, sensativety and warmth as we possibly can.
People who know Your Own Place know that we’ve years of experience of working with fantastic young people facing all sorts of challenges as they transition to adult life. We believe wholeheartedly that with the right support at the right time, this often difficult time can be be made smoother, happier and less difficult. I have to admit that even I have felt challenged on this belief this week. In the last week two young people that we have just started working with, both leaving care and both living independently at age 18, have found themselves in total crisis. Just as winter arrives. Both have received benefit sanctions for one reason or another, one has had their Housing Benefit stopped and both are hungry, cold and totally alone. Apportioning blame to local agencies isn’t especially helpful here. It’s systems that we’ve created that are impossible to navigate if you’re young, alone, unsupported and have emotional barriers to resolving difficulties. Both young people take responsibility for their actions but don’t know where or how to start to unravel the mess they’re in. The traipsing around, with no bus fare, inadequate clothing and an empty stomach to try and put it all right would test anyone, let alone someone who neither values themselves nor the cold empty home they are returning to at the end of it. I’m not saying we have all the answers. I am glad that we were there at the right time to at least alleviate the worst excesses of hunger and cold and can now start the slow process of recovery for a young person who deserves a better start to adult life.
Social investment appears to be a term that means different things to different people. It started with old-school philanthropy when some well-meaning (usually) men wanted to alleviate suffering of people begging on the streets in the late eighteenth century. I’ve no doubt that at an individual level early philanthropy eased individual suffering on a particular day and the philanthropist went away feeling a bit better about themselves. It’s no different when I give a few pennies to a homeless person by Norwich station today. Fundamentally though, it doesn’t change anything for the long term. Social entrepreneurs want to solve big problems like inequality and poverty, not provide handouts. Then Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) comes along and lots of big businesses and shareholders again get to do some good by making substantial contributions to third sector organisations who hopefully use them wisely. The issue with both of these is that they are top-down and short-lived. For more impact I like an approach that sees an ongoing partnership and shared outcomes. Let’s have business involvement in achieving those outcomes with a view to bringing about systemic changes in attitudes and ways of working. At Your Own Place we are now actively seeking social investors who get something back. They do this not just by being active agents in our social impact, but by bringing new skills and empathy to their own workforce through volunteering, broadening the skill sets of future employees – and we’ll allow them some good brand awareness too! Click here for more detail.
Being new to this sector I’ve had an awful lot to learn. I previously had some volunteering experience with young people. Coming into this role I wasn’t sure about the ways to communicate as a professional working directly with young people. In my first few months with Your Own Place I’ve learnt an awful lot on this.
During my first few weeks, on a handful of occasions, I was mistaken for a young service user. I took this as a compliment, naturally. But I was so disheartened by the way I was treated – little to no eye contact and little interest in listening to what I had to say. In these moments of confusion I felt like a burden, I felt judged and I felt uncomfortable.
Don’t get me wrong, 99% of the experiences I’ve had throughout my journey so far have been positive and there are some amazing organisations working with Norfolk’s young people. But these handful of experiences still resonate with me.
For me this was the best learning experience I could have. While professional boundaries are fundamental to the work I do, I place mutual respect at the same level of importance. We cannot build up the aspirations of young people whilst rolling our eyes at them and muttering under our breath.
There are oodles of articles in the related press about the purpose of social enterprise. Each one confuses me afresh and I’ve decided that my conclusion is to sit on the fence. There’s no doubt that we’ve got to be at least solvent to exist. And we’ve got to exist if we’re going to have social impact. It’s making social impact pay that’s the hard bit. I increasingly wonder if the broad spectrum of social enterprises is being reflected in these articles. I have maintained for a while that like every sector, social enterprises are a broad church. Some, like ours, sell services mostly to local government (cash-strapped) customers. Others, like Innocent Smoothies, sell healthy drinks to the general public. Which of us most depends on profit? Personally I struggle with the concept of ‘social enterprise’ and having shareholders. Is it ever transparent to have a proportion of your profit going to private individuals? Here at Your Own Place 100% of our profit goes back into adding value and opportunities to our interventions. Will that be the case when we grow? You’ll have to wait and see.
As a social enterprise we’re always looking for ways to generate income that is not funding-based. When I started the enterprise three years ago I was determined that I wouldn’t be a slave to pursuing endless pots of funding. Today I remain just as determined (having been that slave for three years!). It’s about more than just not wanting to spend my evenings meeting someone else’s random deadline. I genuinely don’t believe it results in good outcomes. How can jumping through the hoops of a national funder create a project that meets local needs? We have our mission and whilst keen to avoid mission-creep, in a world of lessening funds, we are required to twist our objectives to fit the requirements of a funder, some of which are sometimes frankly ludicrous in their demands. That’s why I prefer to talk about ‘customers’. Our commissioners are customers. They know best what they want. If they are buying, then they are in charge and should be getting the outcomes they want. In times of austerity we accept that their purchasing power may not be high. That’s why we’re looking at models of joint funding. We can secure a proportion of the project costs through traditional funding routes and a proportion from a our ‘customer’. That way we get their literal buy-in, they get a project better matched to their needs and it stays local and outcomes-focussed.
This week has genuinely been one of the most amazing of my career. We’re all very good at telling everyone how amazing everything is on social media, but this week it’s really true. Those who know me know I’m capable of cynicism with the rest of them. However, with the development of our Tenancy Training Flat I have genuinely had my eyes opened to corporate goodwill and the scope of social enterprise to do differently against a backdrop of local authority cuts. We have been overwhelmed by personal and corporate donations. Individuals have recognised immediately the value of our work and reached deep into their pockets to help us. As a fledgling social enterprise we are able to act quickly and efficiently and take advantage of these amazing opportunities. We are leveraging support we never knew was possible. Partners such as B&Q and Ikea, whilst wanting to help us furnish and equip our venue, now want to offer our young people work experience and develop a long partnership with us. Is this the future? Is social capital and social investment how we are going to make up for the shortfall of the state? If it is, then it’s great fun, full of possibility and has the potential to reap rewards we didn’t know existed.
1. What is the average amount of debt (excluding student debt) that a 16-25 year old is in? £3000
2. What is the average age young people start shopping online? Ten
3. What is the average house price in Norfolk? £280,ooo
We’re getting tricky now…
4. What is the shared accommodation Local Housing Allowance rate for Norwich £61.45
5. What’s the new name of the social enterprise for young people’s supported housing services that was part of Flagship? Empanda
6. Which ward is our Tenancy Training Flat in? Town Close Ward
7. To the nearest 20 how many young people has Your Own Place worked with in the past year? 134
8. What is the APR at Norwich Credit Union? 19.6%
9. Which type of rented accommodation is responsible for most evictions? Social or private? Private
10. Most young people lose their tenancy by being evicted because they don’t pay their rent. True or False? False. Young people tend to abandon their tenancies because they get in a muddle and don’t know when, how or where to get help.
This is why Your Own Place exists. We aim to prevent failed tenancies from ever happening to ensure all young people have a safe and secure home.
Most of the time I’m not even sure we’re talking about the same thing. When speaking with colleagues across sectors and across the county we seem to be variously using words such as ‘philanthropy, social investment, investment, social impact bonds and corporate social responsibility’. Like any good conspiracy theorist I’m in no doubt that there are people making this field overly complicated so that laypeople like me need their help to unravel it. However, here in Norfolk we’re not even off the starting block. I frequently have to telephone funders to ask whether they fund social enterprises and they don’t know themselves. When putting together a business plan, how can it be robust if we don’t even understand the different methods of raising finance ourselves? We’re in a vicious cycle of needing to scale-up and not having the funds to get the funds. Many of my colleagues across the social enterprise sector are pretty sceptical about social investment and the barriers and demands that a group of people that don’t understand their socially minded world don’t understand. Personally, I’m a magpie. I like new shiny things and I want to explore it. But I’m also an experiential learner and until we’ve actually tried it ourselves, I’ll reserve judgement. But will anyone give us a chance?
Another step forward for Your Own Place. Last year our supporters generously raised money through our crowdfunding campaign. Combined with The Tudor Trust funding we employed Alex to support young people into work. And now Children in Need funding means that Alex goes full time and we’re on the way! There are loads of good providers across Norfolk supporting young people furthest from work. And we want to work with them so that our young people have equality of access to all these great services. However, our ambitions go further than that. You’ll know that social impact is everything and we need to maximise it. So whilst we want to support young people into work, we want some of those young people to have very real work experiences as our Peer Trainers. With all this lovely funding we will be developing the Peer Youth Worker Training Academy. An aspirational eight-week programme covering the practicalities of youth work as well as cutting edge engagement techniques will be available to young people working with Alex. They will have opportunities to volunteer and even work on our Tenancy & Independent Living Skills (TILS) delivery and gain fantastic job skills in the process. Young people learning from other young people is how we maximise our social impact.
Since announcing The Training Flat I’ve been stunned and delighted by the offers of help and donations. If you’re not up to speed, we’re renting a flat from Norwich City Council. In it we will be delivering our fantastic Tenancy & Independent Living Skills (TILS) courses. Just like our young people when they get their first home, it will be totally empty. So we’re working with all our stunning friends and partners to kit it out. After the initial offers of hoovers and crockery, we then had financial donations too. Last week Alex convinced a local tattoo parlour to do some artwork in the flat and Nelson’s Journey rewarded us with a TV. On Monday Rachel Blackburn from Us2U Consulting called me with the strangest offer yet! After a party at the weekend, she had some leftover sweets. She dropped off a massive bag at No8 Thorpe Road (I’ll come to them!). Sweets feature in all our courses with young people and adults alike – so we’re hugely grateful. The amazing Sarah at No8 Thorpe Road is looking after all these things until we move into the flat in August. Our friends at Heath Lodge have offered stationary, which is hugely valuable as The Training Flat becomes our first office. We’ve just been offered a TV stand as well as some money for curtain poles etc by Reality Estate Agency. And as I write this we have a tentative commitment from a flooring firm to provide laminate AND KFC have offered us all the furniture from their old restaurant on Prince of Wales Road. Wow – what a list of good will, generosity and commitment to what we do. Still lots more to collect and based on our experience so far, we’re pretty optimistic.
Are you tired of it? Are you drained by it? Are you bored of the politicians forgetting that life goes on for all of us that are trying to make a difference? Then I’m sorry to add to your fatigue. However, I can remain silent no longer. I’d like to make a number of points, as briefly as I can. The first is that as a third sector organisation run by human beings I don’t think I should feel afraid to express political views. All too often the sector is afraid of losing funding and remains quiet. However, we work with many that are voiceless. If we don’t raise our voices, then we do our beneficiaries a dis-service. Secondly, perhaps in the same vein, is the paucity of the debate locally and nationally in the VCSE sector. We are told to be ‘entrepreneurial, to be tolerant, to be loving’. This is business as usually as far as I’m concerned and not active enough. Complaining, being unhappy and being angry are part of the grieving process and legitimate responses that then lead to real action. And finally, and this is a more political point about the lack of social cohesion, xenophobia and other distasteful characteristics that have been highlighted this week. Are we really surprised by this behaviour? It seems to me that democracy and politics in this country, on its five year cycles and constant vying for position, is based on pitching people and communities against each other. After any period of time when some people feel let down and encouraged to turn on those around them (for example to tell on neighbours committing benefit fraud), is it really any wonder that under pressure we continue in the same vein and turn on the underdog as we perceive them? I do believe in opportunities on the horizon. However, I also believe that some responsibility has to be taken by politicians when they get round to being on control again for the behaviour and social inequalities that have lead to the result as well as its aftermath. Are they role-models for behaviour?
This week I caught up with one of our mentors, (Sally) and her mentee (Christina). They’ve been meeting every fortnight for a year and meeting them both is like intruding on old friends. The picture is of a card that Christina bought for Sally to say thank you. What’s so special about the volunteer mentoring relationship is how much they both get out of it. Sally is cautious of not using cliches, but talks of how amazingly rewarding it is to unlock potential and nudge Christina to do things she wouldn’t otherwise get round to. And these aren’t small little things. These are things that if Christina hadn’t been nudged to do them, could have eventually led to homelessness. It’s clear they’re going to miss each other, but Christina also recognises the progress she’s made. I have such respect for Christina because she gave it a go and was open to the possibility of change and challenge. She’s such a convert to mentoring that she’s even agreed to help us gently persuade other young people to get involved. If you’d like to be a volunteer mentor, please get in touch.
On Sunday 5th June we joined colleagues, partners and amazing volunteers at The Norwich Cathedral Volunteers Celebration Picnic. The impact is often calculated in long reports, but anyone who has worked closely with volunteers doesn’t need a report to know the difference they make. And it’s great timing for us, as we are currently evaluating the impact of our volunteer mentors in Norwich. We’re sad that the funding for this project has ended in Norwich and working hard to secure more. It’s very inefficient to recruit and train mentors for a short-term project, only to let them go and start again when a new round of funding appears. For the moment though, let’s dwell on their successes and the difference they make. A young person describing her mentor as ‘crucial’ to her current success and ‘not knowing where I’d be without her’ says it all. We’re training more volunteer mentors for our North Norfolk and Broadland project on 7th and 8th July. If you interested in making a difference click on the link to find out more.
We’ve seen a big increase recently in Tenancy & Independent Living Skills (TILS) courses being delivered 1-2-1 to young people. This is often because the young people are in college or working and can’t attend a group course. We usually travel to wherever they’re living, but are as content delivering in a coffee shop if the young person feels like getting out. What has been interesting this week is to observe three different young people. They are all roughly the same age, all leaving care locally and all moving to independence very soon. And yet their knowledge is a gulf apart. The youngest and least experienced knew most about renting privately and the oldest and most ‘worldly wise’ could barely name a welfare benefit or the circumstances in which she might claim them. Notwithstanding the extraordinary change they are about to experience by moving from their supported environment to living independently, it naturally poses challenges for us, the trainers. We have a set of tools, games and interactive techniques that must adapt to each situation, each learner and each learning style. What isn’t in doubt is just how much they get from these sessions with us. Noticeable of late isn’t that they necessarily come out as perfect budgeters or experts on Universal Credit, but that they are starting to do the thinking that’s required. They’re starting to plan. And with that they’re less anxious and dare to plan more. It’s a virtuous circle.
I’ve been working with young people for nearly twenty years. It’s easier in lots of ways. I’ve got loads of tools and tricks that mean I respond to the situation, come up with new methods of engagement and make the training fun. But I’m not desensitised to their stories, which although this can mean heartache, it also means I’m human and able to react as human and not a robot. But it’s still hard too. Why? No matter how great our courses are, no matter how hard we try, no matter my unshakeable belief in people’s resilience and capacity to change, we are just one piece of their puzzle. Our young people’s lives are so complicated and full of challenges that I still want to do more and ‘solve’ everything. I have neither the skills nor time to do this and nobody needs ‘solving’. Of course it’s a positive because it drives me on to do more and to work more collaboratively with others who share some of the answers. All the young people working with us this week want to stay working with us, and that engagement must be the first step. So let’s keep up the good work. Read a one-page impact report of this week here.
There are times when I’m so exhausted by thinking about what we do that I don’t know what I think any more. These times are helped by coming across someone else having the same thought and being braver than me, by saying it. Approbation of our thought process is sometimes needed to move forward and this has happened twice this week in different ways. My peers at the School for Social Entrepreneurs on Wednesday helped me to see the challenges of scaling up and personnel in a new way. It had been lurking in my thoughts, but when five people are saying the same thing, it gives your thoughts a new validity and unlocks action. I also struggle massively with the negative connotations that surround us about people on benefits, low incomes and the material choices people make. When you’ve been championing a cause for so long and witness so much obstruction, it is natural to question your own belief system and start to wonder if the media, who have a vested interested in getting viewers, are right after all. Lisa Mckenzie wrote a book about life on the Nottingham estate where she grew up entitled ‘Getting By’. In it she brings honesty to the Jeremy Kyle conundrum of why when we’re struggling for money we go and buy something we can’t afford. The first point is that most of us buy things we can’t really afford a lot of the time. This is not a symptom of one group of people. Secondly, if life is really, really tough and you’re living day-to-day financially, is it that wrong to buy a pair of nice shoes? If that’s the first thing that has made you feel good about yourself in months, then isn’t it the purchase of a kind of therapy akin to yoga, a gym membership or a good meal? Of course we can get into the consequences of not paying the rent or the electricity bill, but who am I to stand in judgement of someone who wants a bit of ‘feel good’ when so little does? I’m off for a run in my expensive running shoes…
This week saw three days of Tenancy & Independent Living Skills (TILS) Training in King’s Lynn. Commissioned by Children’s Services, we delivered three packed and innovative days to seven young people leaving local authority care. We were generously hosted by Broadland Housing Association and Alex Hand from Breckland Council also briefly joined us on the second day to share her housing expertise. Three days of content takes careful planning. With two staff we had enough content for five days, allowing us to respond to the mood, energy levels and learning styles of those in the room. Some activities evolved into longer ones, whilst others were cut short when the young people visibly flagged. Seven was a good number for the size of the venue and their learning needs. When undertaking individual work, most required 1-2-1 learning support and blossomed with this additional help and encouragement. Our group started the week apprehensively, anxious of meeting new people and as very reluctant learners. To watch them request games, interact with each other, find new girlfriends (!) and offer to present to each other but the end of the week is the most rewarding and hard-earned part of what Your Own Place does. Well worth an exhausting three days. Read our one-page impact report here.
This week we’re delivering one of our hugely engaging Tenancy & Independent Living Skills (TILS) courses on behalf of Children’s Services in King’s Lynn. For all the amazingness of meeting Lemn Sissay for our research launch last week, nothing really beats what we’re really about – supporting young people in transition. These seven young people, all on the cusp of moving to independence for the first time, are absorbing so much during this course. Again and again we hear the refrain ‘Why am I only learning this now? Why didn’t we do this in school?’. Why indeed.