“There is no substitute for experience.”
It might be a cliché oft-deployed by football commentators and nagging parents alike, but when it comes to poverty and homelessness, lived experience can be a genuinely transformative tool for setting policy and helping people in need.
Data, surveys and statistics can unquestionably play a massive role when it comes to informing policy. Too often though, people become too fixated on numbers and models, and forget the people whose lives will be directly impacted, for better or worse, by the policies being implemented.
People with lived experience of a topic have a unique insight into the day-to-day impact that policies might have, the difficult decisions that must be made as a result, and a different perspective on potential solutions. To ignore those with lived experience is to ignore those you want to help.
Take the issue of homelessness, for example. A respondent to Crisis’ report on the Lived Experience of Homelessness identified institutional issues within the justice system that meant they left prison already at a disadvantage, living in debt and Furniture Poverty. This person’s experience captured the difficulties that people were facing in setting themselves up for life after prison that might otherwise have been missed until their problems were much more serious further down the line. Identifying and solving this problem at source could potentially mean preventing somebody from a life of debt and homelessness that might leave them trapped in the same cycle.
“I came out of prison with £47 and needed a bond so I started in debt. All the processes for getting bonds - for furniture and housing - were difficult, uncoordinated and you’re not given any advice about them.”
It is welcome, therefore, to see that lived experience is being given a prominent role within the Housing First pilots across Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Liverpool City Region. Homeless Link has produced some guidance on the importance of using lived experience, and highlights how crucial a shared experience with those being supported [is], enabling clients to identify with them.” It is good to see these words tentatively being met with action. In the Liverpool City Region, for example, they have established a ‘Lived Experience Group’ and involved people with lived experience in the recruitment process for the first wave of Housing First workers.
End Furniture Poverty would strongly recommend that any Housing First schemes therefore listen to the lived experience of Housing First service users who have spoken about the difficulties they have faced in accessing furniture. As an 18-year-old respondent to A Home of Your Own, a 2017 book on the Finnish Housing First model described “The first four nights in the new flat were pretty exciting, when I was sleeping in an empty room in a sleeping bag on a mattress. If you don’t have anything of your own in a home, it doesn’t feel like one. But I settled in quickly once I got some furniture and dishes.”
A Housing First Feasibility Study centred on Torbay, conducted by Crisis includes several case studies and interviews with service users who detail the problems and worries that had as a result of difficulties accessing furniture, and the difference it made to their lives once they were able to furnish their home.
People with lived experience can offer us a valuable and unique insight into their situation but it is important to ensure that we properly learn the lessons from their experiences. In the case of Housing First, the importance of furniture in sustaining successful transitions from homelessness must not be ignored.