What do you get out of conferences? Is it meeting people? Networking? Space to think? Hot topics? Or simply time away from your desk? Sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves to network, connect and come away with new ideas. Having consciously removed all that pressure from myself, it felt good to have new insights following a recent conference.
In early March I was lucky enough to attend my first face to face conference in two years. You’ll be relieved to know that trains are as bad as they were two (twenty?) years ago and I arrived at Birmingham New Street two hours late in the drizzle. March 2nd was the date for the Homeless Link spring conference in the very effective Studio space where 100 people turned up to discuss supported accommodation in 2022.
Running a social enterprise, it can be hard to find your niche and purpose at mainstream housing (and most other) events because most attendees are not founder CEOs. That notwithstanding, the opening session, delivered compassionately by Rick Henderson in the week that Russia invaded Ukraine, heralded a fascinating day of space to think.
With over twenty years working in lots of areas related to housing (whilst never working in housing) my knowledge is patchy and holistic in equal measure. Hearing from Sharon Thompson, portfolio holder for Housing and Homelessness among other things at Birmingham City Council, provided a human, compassionate, honest and compelling overview of the housing pressures faced in Birmingham with over 20,000 people on the housing register. Balanced beautifully by Kate Henderson from the National Federation of Housing on the failings of exempt accommodation, the need for prevention and changes to housing policy – all of this was through the prism of 2022 and a cost of living crisis.
It didn’t feel like new news however. Having matured in this sector, you become aware of the recurring themes and the dreadful reality that not only are we still talking about the same things as over 20 years ago (perhaps Network Rail have the same issues…) but for many we support, life has got considerably worse. Why haven’t we, with all our passion, commitment, cash and time made much progress on preventing some of the most intractable societal challenges?
One part of the answer is language. The importance of language is the same for policy makers as for operational practitioners and it feels like it’s not made any progress. Language matters in a crisis more than ever, especially when we are prone to becoming more polarised. Values, vision and mission are more cleanly articulated in today’s organisations. However, these diverge into very different and inconsistent words and behaviours once enacted. It’s not that I don’t think we care – because I think most of us do. I think we fail to a) see leaders that demonstrate best practice in this area b) hold people accountable and have the processes and culture to do so c) articulate what values look like in action and d) acknowledge the impact our language has.
If well-meaning actions and great ideas are executed with damaging, judgemental and prejudiced language, then our outcomes will be inconsistent at best, poor, damaging and a waste of public money, at worst. Indeed, that our language is frequently questionable and even stands in the way of building good relationships, it literally costs us all money. We then add insult to injury by blaming people and calling them ‘hard to reach’ and masters of their own shortcomings after insulting them. However great your policy, procedure, vision, mission, supported housing or Housing First offer is, your relationship with the tenant or resident (or person) is that upon which everything else hangs.
So it was with interest that I was part of discussions at the conference, all of which centred around a lexicon that is common in the sector and for which we assume we know what each other means. During facilitated sessions I witnessed language that still displays an imbalance of power and respect. Below is my shortlist of those terms that come up most frequently when speaking this so-called common language. Included in the list below I detail what these could look like in practice.
- Person-centred – means not telling your story five times, means empowering people to find their voice so it can be heard (and demanding!) and believing and trusting people to know what they need as the experts in their lives
- Responsive – believing and trusting what people say first, responding with no news as well as some news and bad news as you would in your professional relationships and communications
- Restorative – just as the people we work with our experts in their lives (as any of us are) and more likely that many to have been institutionalised, empowering and emboldening through being restorative matters hugely. From filling in forms, to finding places to go for help and exploring move on options – let’s stop doing this FOR the experts
- Independence – Getting away from the obsession with building independence. How can this and its implicit isolation be desirable? Isolation after all, kills people. If we want prevention and early intervention then we need inter-dependent resilience, connections and avoided costly crises. When are we going to start measuring these outcomes?
- Strengths-based – or asset-based at Your Own Place. It doesn’t mean saying everything is great when it isn’t (because empathy and compassion allow space to acknowledge pain), but it does mean drawing on positive solutions in the past to find the confidence in the ability to find positive solutions in the future
- User-led – let’s drop the word ‘user’ for starters. I admit it can be hard to find non-euphemistic alternatives, but when did ‘being hard’ bother our sector? In practice it doesn’t mean co-production or asking people what colour they want in the lounge. It means trusting each other with questions about what our values should be, how recruitment should be designed from start to finish, real opportunities to progress into the organisation and a voice in whether our outcomes, approaches and governance should change
The importance of language and what it expresses about how we value others cannot be overstated at this time. This is not just because I’m a linguist, but because when you look into people’s faces and at their body language, you see and feel their responses. People are in pain. If we’re to build relationships with and understand better, people facing huge systemic and personal barriers, we have to try harder and do better too. We’re constantly talking about the people we support having to change, but what about us? Changing language changes actions and changing actions changes the result. So thank you Homeless Link and your conference for the reminder of why we focus so much on this at Your Own Place now and always.