The Power of Influence in Tackling Homelessness
In 2021, the Leadership Centre began a new strand of work with Homeless Link, a national membership charity for organisations working directly with people who become homeless in England. Covid had amplified how so many issues around homelessness and rough sleeping are interconnected with health and wider public services. It was clearer than ever before that the complexity of the system and number of organisations working in the space, were leading to challenges both for those working within it, and for people trying to access support.
The Leadership Centre worked with the Homeless Link Partnerships Team to co-design a programme which would be jointly delivered by the Partnership Managers and the Leadership Centre. The aim was to raise awareness of the power of influence – at all levels and without positional authority – and to build the confidence of front-line staff in bringing new ideas into their organisations, and in shifting thinking, behaviour and action.
The programme was delivered in two parts – initially developing the content of the training and facilitation skills with the Partnership Managers, before delivering systems leadership training for the sector, with frontline workers from across the country. The Leadership Centre also provided informal coaching to the Partnership Managers between sessions to develop a cycle of continuous learning.
Head of National Partnerships at Homeless Link, Natalie Allen, said: “For me, it was very important that the programme was made widely available to ensure it had the biggest impact and greatest reach possible. My hope was that we would be able to help the front-line workforce recognise the opportunities it has and improve their confidence in operating in a way which brings about change, not just within their organisations but within the wider systems and services.
“It made sense for us to invest in our Partnership Managers, helping them become more skilled as systems leadership facilitators and that has proved very beneficial. I have noticed their improved confidence in using a systems leadership approach and I see them making use of the tools and techniques they have learnt in their day-to-day work. It’s also fantastic for them to have systems leadership facilitation as part of their offer moving forward.”
The programme was delivered to three cohorts which came together for four sessions each. The participants were brought together by region, helping to create a common network and purpose and enabling them to peer-coach each other. The design incorporated an element of theoretical input as well as an opportunity for participants to bring real-time live issues into the group, to experiment with applying their learning. 90 places were provided to people from across the country, ranging from people working within homeless sector charities, substance misuse, local authorities and health providers.
Natalie explained the importance of delivering the training directly to front-line staff: “I’ve always found that workers on the ground have access to a lot more up to date, relevant and detailed information about what is really happening in services and systems. They really understand the challenges that we face. Sometimes these are straightforward to fix, but other times people feel stuck. They are coming up against these really big wicked issues repeatedly; issues that are going to require a higher level or system-wide change. Very often when we highlight these challenges at a more senior level, people were unaware of the issue or its consequences.
“Of course, we can’t know about these issues unless people feel comfortable to tell us, so it’s important that front-line staff have the opportunity to share their experiences and make suggestions about new approaches and ideas. A perceived lack of authority can make people feel quite powerless but actually once people understand, through something like the systems leadership approach, that they do have authority and a voice, I think that’s when you see that change. Some of the programme participants reported back that they suddenly felt much more able, confident and willing to go and raise issues within their organisations or within the wider strategic and operational homeless meetings that they attended.”
Catherine Storey, Partnership Manager for East Midlands and the East of England at Homeless Link, was one of those who helped to facilitate the training and she was able to bring her lived experience and knowledge from working in a front-line role: “As a frontline worker I used to become so infuriated with what always seemed like barriers and problems; thinking ‘What can little old me do about this? I’ve no ability to change the system – all I can do is work with that person that is in front of me.’ But the problem with that is that you never stop having the battles, because nothing ever changes. Feeling stuck like that contributes to people leaving the sector because they feel so disillusioned.
“I now have the understanding that I do have the ability to influence change on a much wider scale and, importantly, I have the knowledge of how to do it in a way where I’m not just being the loudest person in the room, getting people’s backs up; I’m using subtle techniques to influence why there should be change, what that change should be and encouraging others to play their part in changing the system. I can see through the complexity more clearly and, instead of becoming overwhelmed by it, can focus on what I have the power to change in a very practical way.”
Catherine described how the training was also helpful in tackling some of the barriers which had developed due to the complexity of the system: “I really believe the work around common purpose was a massive shift for me. The truth is that when you’re working cross-sector you see and feel so many differences. We approach things in different ways with different constraints, influences, targets and KPIs, but if you just take it back to common purpose, that is the same.
“Now I find myself using what I’ve learnt when I’m forming homeless forums. It’s really important that you get buy-in from all of the stakeholders and providers but there’s been a long history of animosity and a lot of finger-pointing. I’ve been able to use common purpose to get everyone around the table and talking to one another. We now have some homeless forums which have been established for a few months with full buy-in from the local community and they are genuinely working together towards an agreed common purpose. They’ve been able to heal a lot of the long-standing issues they had. That’s a really pivotal moment for me.”
“I had 20 years’ experience of using services prior to getting my job in this sector. I accessed drug and alcohol services, mental health and physical health services with periods of homelessness in between and I could see a system that I felt failed by for a long time. I would never want to be part of that system for somebody else – that’s why this work really matters.”
The Leadership Centre will continue to work with the homeless sector to help develop systems leadership and share our resources and learning as openly as possible for the public good. Natalie is keen to ensure that the work is sustainable and continues to have impact long past the end of the programme: “From this point, I would like to see more ongoing opportunities to bring people back together to have systems leadership-focussed conversations and ongoing reflective practice. I think if we do, we will start to see and discuss the real change as it is happening. It is easy to start to feel stuck again – so bringing people back together to build a peer network and have their learning refreshed will be important in ensuring that the work we have done is sustainable in the long-term. We have touched into such a wide group within the sector that I hope it will be.”
Below, Catherine shares more about her experiences working with the Leadership Centre.