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Just Because Nobody's Done It Before, Doesn't Mean That Somebody Shouldn't

I’m the Project Manager for Oxfordshire Homeless Movement (OHM). When we started the Movement, one of the things we wanted to do was to embed the voice of lived experience throughout everything that we did.

You can't live in Oxford as long as I have without understanding that we have a real housing crisis. I had to learn about why people become homeless. But actually, you can't go through homelessness strategy, building plans about how things should look and how it should work if you've never asked people who have experienced it.

It wasn't going to be enough to just have one person sitting on our steering group. It always felt like people with lived experience would be asked their opinion, but it would always be one person. It felt like for some, people were ticking a box to say, well, we checked with people with lived experience, that is fine. But that's not a wide enough way to ask the question. So that's where the idea was born, to have this group of people with lived experience where they were getting what they needed out of being in that group but also that we could get them involved in decision making. We wanted it to be with people involved for their own reasons, not just because we needed some help. People with lived experience of homelessness should be getting more out of it than anybody else.

In terms of the actual involvement of OHM, I didn't need, or feel it was right to be involved in how the group developed or what it looked like. I didn’t have the right to do that. What I did have the ability to do was bring in funding to make sure that whatever that group decides it wants to do, the money will be there to help them do it. Ultimately, it's run by and for people with lived experience of homelessness. I just am there on the side lines but am always there to provide the funding, pass comments, support the group or offer help whenever needed.

I think the reason I was brought in to my role was because I come from a background that isn't homelessness, so I can see things with a different perspective, a different set of eyes. But this is people's lives. This isn't a game. And so I think I would say that my nervousness with launching something was that I didn't want to get it wrong, because it was so important to get it right. But there comes a point at which you have to say, look, nobody else knows how to do this. I did lots of investigations into how other people had done it and actually worked out that nobody was really doing it very well. So we've got to work it out ourselves.

There’s nothing wrong with inviting people to talk to you about their experiences. It's exactly the right thing to do. Sometimes it might be a bit uncomfortable. But we just have to get over it. What LEAF taught me was sometimes you have just got to do it. Yes, it's frightening, because nobody's done it before. But actually, just because nobody's done it before, doesn't mean that somebody shouldn't. Things might go wrong, that doesn't mean it's the wrong thing to do. It just means that you might need to do something a bit differently.

I'm not saying you can recruit people with lived experience for everything. But there's a significant proportion of people that are more than capable of doing jobs in homelessness, and there's no reason why they shouldn't. And actually, their background means that they have a much deeper understanding than, for example, I possibly ever could. I think sometimes people have a certain view about what homelessness is, and they might see somebody sleeping rough, and therefore make assumptions about them and what they are or aren't capable of. Things may have happened differently for me that meant I ended up homeless. If I had ended up homeless, would that have made me less intelligent, less hardworking, or less of the things that made me me? Of course it wouldn't. So I think that it's really important to remember that people who experience any sort of homelessness are just like us - their lives just took a different turn.

When the Crisis Feasibility Study on Housing First came out, that was led by Imogen Blood Associates, because of the important we place on lived experience, I checked how many times the words ‘lived experience’ came up and it was over 40 times. That felt like a massive achievement to me. Ultimately, it's about the people that we're trying to help. It brought me to tears when I was reading the report. We played a key role in ensuring that Imogen and her team were talking to all the right people to make sure that the answer was as wide as possible. To also have the LEAF group established and able to fully engage with the study was brilliant. It almost felt like the change had started. And then almost like a snowball effect it's kept going and going.

I'm incredibly proud of what LEAF has achieved. I'm proud that in Oxfordshire, we've got a group of people who care enough to want to get together to try and offer advice, help each other, make a difference. And I know that it's the start of something even bigger and OHM are going to continue to support that. Nobody needs to even ask us whether we will be funding it next year and the year after because the answer will be yes.

I genuinely believe now that people will no longer ignore people with lived experience of homelessness, because I think they realise they can't, and they shouldn't. Now, it feels like people almost instantaneously think of LEAF. It's just this constant thing. It's always in people's minds.

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