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Momentum Energy Passion Desire

I had a few ex-colleagues who’d done similar work to what we now do at LEAF. One of them was in London, at Revolving Doors, and I’d attended one of their forums – this was around March 2019, and I'd seen the stuff that they’d been doing, involving people with lived experience and co-production. It gave me ideas. I was thinking about what was happening here in Oxford, and there wasn't really anything specifically for homelessness and Oxford. So I remember sitting down with my line manager and making it part of my appraisal objectives, saying that I’d like to build a set-up – a lived experience advisory forum in Oxford. I sort of set it as one of my goals.  

I’d been speaking to other organisations, experts, citizens, to get an idea of how we could make it happen, but I wasn’t sure in what format or what it was going to look like. There were quite a few meetings, we had to do a consultation before. We were sort of looking for the perfect answer as to how we could set up, but it got to the point where it was like, just get on with it. So in September 2019, we ran our very first forum. We just wanted to see how it would go. There was quite good attendance. It was a really nice day. We had quite a lot of people coming along who were keen to find out more, who wanted to get involved. At that time it wasn't even called LEAF. Folk were just calling it that because it was the acronym for Lived Experience Advisory Forum, and later everybody voted for sticking with LEAF as the name. 

So it's launching, building up a bit of momentum, we'd been involved in this feasibility study, to see what the new homelessness system could look like. And then as that came in, boom, it was late March, lockdown, everything got moved online. Everything was Zoom. The group that we'd been working with before then, we were meeting them face to face, and it all just changed. It became a huge barrier for engagement – people couldn’t log on, they hadn’t got a laptop, it was a huge struggle. It was good for professionals, but I think that proved a really big struggle for us as well, as we tried to continue. But we did.  

There was a lot of good will, a lot a good intentions, and a lot of new ways of working coming into that as well. The tricky one was in how you actually make sure that everybody from CEOs to commissioners, to managers, to people who have been in that situation – how can we all get together to see what actually is best? If somebody makes a decision about what you think's best for somebody else, it might not be right. What we've come up against along the way is that when you're doing something new, you've got to change cultures, like some of the language, for example. If you have two or three people that have never been in a board meeting, or a strategic meeting, and you bring them into that situation, people are speaking about all these acronyms, and at a certain pace. Some people might be absolutely fine with that, but if you've never done that before the experience isn't going to be positive. So then are you actually getting the best out of people, and is it fair? So then you're asking boards or leaders, ‘How can you make that more inclusive?’ Or, ‘What changes are you willing to make to see people contributing in a way that's meaningful?’ It’s unearthed a lot of things. 

You want to ensure that people are consulted and they’re a part of it. You could say ‘embed co-production’, but what that actually looks like and the amount of change that needs to happen for it to be meaningful, is very difficult. That’s what's been highlighted for me: the change was important, because it's important to listen to people, and people should be consulted, and people should be seen as equals. Lived experience should be as valued as professional experience, especially in this line of work. If you've stayed in a hostel for eight years, the insights that you've got, the failures that you've learned from, the insights around what actually has made you trust somebody, or want to work with somebody – all the insights are so valuable, but they’re not always consulted, or made part of new projects and new commissioning, all that sort of stuff. 

I don’t think we’ve found the perfect way of doing it yet. But we get inspiration from a lot of other places, and we listen to their ideas. On a practical level, trying to really embed it is quite complicated. But I think everybody knows that it needs to happen. I just hope that this is the start. I've seen a bit of a domino effect from LEAF’s early work, the impact driving co-production and working with partners. Like, it's mostly common within strategies now, and there's been more recruitment asking how you would embed or work closer with people within your service. People realise that they need to just ask. And it's not rocket science. 

I think the only way you can really understand if a project is successful is if you've had people that went through the project tell you that it's been successful. Sometimes things operate in a way where people that are higher up decide on what outcome should be used to measure the impact of a project. But I think if you bring in people that have had that specific experience – like experiencing homelessness – if you've spent years in that situation, you've got so many insights, you’ve probably got ideas about what works. You get ideas around what you could do to improve it, just by involving people as much as you can in that process around consulting, asking, and working together. That was the whole idea. 

What’s been massive for me is just to see something that started as an idea, to then go on, really believing in it, banging on the doors, and having other people come in, and recognising that within the wider sector, a lot more people really wanted to do this type of work. Seeing that it was 

creating momentum and energy and passion and desire for a project which didn't exist, and seeing it sort of materialise and develop and grow into what it is today, from something that's really grassroots… It started right there, didn't have any funding. And look at where it’s at now, working with loads of partners. It’s working with the Homeless Alliance, it’s working with the councils, it's working with researchers, all these different organisations and charities. It’s been really nice to see that if there is a gap in provision or if there's a lack of something, if you've got the right people around you and the right amount of energy, then you can set up things that go on to influence change and make an impact. If there is a group that has a need or there’s a lack within the system, instead of trying to make things fit, sometimes you can just bring in a new idea. And it can make a positive change. It's just amazing.  

It's come with a huge amount of challenges, but I think the group, seeing their commitment, the energy that they've got and what everybody contributes, the ideas – that's what it's all about. It’s then created a forum or a platform, opportunities for people to just be involved with something and have your say through this process as well. Sometimes you don't even notice it, because you've met people that have been in LEAF right from the start. But then when you hear their stories what the change has meant to them, it's like actually, that's what it's all about. We’re looking at trying to embed co-production within the sector and saying, ‘You need to listen to people with lived experience’, and working with commissioners and all that, but when you’ve got people that feel part of something, and they've got development and growth through it, and it's built confidence and self-esteem, and it’s given them purpose, a structure – all that stuff’s what’s most important. It’s amazing, some of the people that have been involved, people have gone on to find jobs, to do other bits of training, people have suddenly become mentors, or gone onto other advisory boards and things like that as well. So I think it's capitalising on people's strengths and goals and what they want to achieve. Just slowly, like. It’s slowly evolving and it's its own wee thing. It exists. 

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