By Charmaine Jones, Project Officer, StreetCare
When I was younger, I viewed the old adage ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ with suspicion. I thought it meant no matter how hard I worked or trained at something, I wouldn’t be able to break through the ‘old boys club’.
But over time, I understood the adage through a social justice and community lens and learnt how true it is. We can’t do the work we do without building solid relationships and partnerships. It is about who you know and how well you know them. And PIAC’s StreetCare project is a great example of this.
I appreciate working in an organisation like PIAC that practices what it preaches, that values the relationship it has with its partners and in my role, working with some of its closest partners, the members of the StreetCare team. In fact, PIAC was on board with supporting the voice of lived experience, ‘amplifying the voices of the marginalised and the excluded’ long before it was widely accepted as best practice.
StreetCare currently consists of nine members, all with diverse backgrounds and life experiences, but with that one unifying factor – they all have a lived experience of homelessness. They are the Lived Experience Advisory Committee to PIAC’s Homeless Persons’ Legal Service (HPLS), providing advice and feedback to PIAC, Government departments, research Institutes, and service providers.
Supporting our work with StreetCare and any ‘lived experience’ group is a balancing act. The work requires time and patience. I am pleased PIAC advocated for the funding to have a dedicated worker in the role of supporting StreetCare. Too often, I’ve seen organisations tag ‘community participation’, ‘lived expertise’ work on the back of another role. It’s just another by-line in a job description. This approach is often doomed to failure. To do justice to the role, we need to be accessible and accountable. I need to be at the end of the phone when a StreetCare member calls me. I need to adapt my approach to everyone’s way of doing business. Nine different people, nine different ways of communicating. So, between the members of StreetCare, fellow PIAC staff, consultancy firms, government agencies, I can feel like one of those jugglers twirling a bunch of different plates on sticks.
But the hard work pays dividends. So far this year, just some of the work StreetCare has contributed to includes Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ)’s COVID response, Together Home consultations, a DCJ District Homelessness Strategy, Department of Customer Service Financial Hardship review, NSW priority Populations Oral Health framework – where else would one find such a breadth of knowledge?
Working with lived experience advocates requires a manner of working that is thoughtful, considered and conscious of the language we use. One of the latest trends in the ‘lived experience’ space is to refer to advocates as having ‘lived expertise’. I liked it. I thought it sounded more prestigious, I thought they would jump at it, but when I put it to StreetCare ‘Would you prefer being referred to as ‘Lived Experts’?’ they recoiled. ‘No!’ they responded, ‘that would make us sound like we were experts at being homeless.’ My presumption was wrong. So, before we act, we must always ask questions first.
We need our work with ‘lived experience’ advocates to be an equal partnership. There must be mutual respect. Easier said than done. That is because there is a huge power imbalance between government, professional workers and lived experience advocates. There can be a qualification imbalance, a perceived knowledge imbalance, a disparity brought about by structural and systemic disadvantage.
To ensure that mutual respect is there requires effort and at times a fair bit of pushing back. Pushing back against tick-a-box consultations, pushing back against government assumptions, my own assumptions, pushing back against unrealistic expectations, pushing back against what I refer to as ‘middle-class do-goodism’ – that unconscious sense of superiority which leads to the paternalistic thinking that one knows what’s best for people, more so than the people know themselves.
So, we must ensure our relationships, not only with StreetCare, but with people in government and other places are strong. Robust enough to withstand some of that push back. While I walk alongside StreetCare, I have to let bureaucrats know that I understand what it is to be in their shoes. Too often, those working in the ‘lived experience’ space take an adversarial approach. I get it, working with government can be frustrating at times, but this is not how you win friends and influence people. It is not how you build relationships and create successful dialogue.
That said, it’s critical to ensure that consultations with StreetCare are taken seriously, and not merely to get a tick on a form. It’s too easy for StreetCare to be invited to participate and then find their participation is not consistent or is diminished. For me to be accountable to StreetCare, I need to keep HPLS and PIAC accountable and I need to keep those consulting with StreetCare accountable. When I see that the questions haven’t been asked, when I see the approach is disingenuous, I need to call it out. We all need to call it out.
We must also remember when working with ‘lived experience’ we are effectively asking people to re-live all the bad ‘stuff’, often at a time of crisis in their lives, so we can affect policy and legislative change, but we must remain cognisant of what we are asking of our lived experience advocates – it’s a lot. We need to be patient and we need to ensure there is the opportunity to debrief. We need to make sure we are contributing to their healing, not further harming them. We need to show them how important they are to us as an organisation, how we value their time, their knowledge, and their skills.
When presented with a consultant who asks to consult, but really just wants endorsement of work already undertaken, or a bureaucrat who is in the room, because they were told to be, we need to show them that a confident, capable group of people with a diverse lived experience is a valuable commodity. A commodity not to be exploited, but like any valuable resource, used sensibly and effectively. We need to show the contribution to policy and service design made by those with lived experience is immeasurable. Their work builds understanding, reduces stigma and discrimination, and improves the quality and relevance of policy design.
Why expend all this energy juggling plates. Because if you get it right, there is a great pay-off. Everybody wins. Our work will exhibit integrity and authenticity. Government wins, they get to develop policy and design services that are grounded, and hopefully also judicious and equitable. The StreetCare members win, gaining confidence, skills and better outcomes for themselves and other service users.
We have a great opportunity at PIAC to educate government and other organisations of the benefits of lived experience participation – when done well. I currently have four other organisations reaching out to myself and the StreetCare team as they develop their own ‘lived experience’ frameworks. We have established ourselves as forerunners in the field and I believe that as this participatory work becomes more accepted and widespread, it will become business as usual. PIAC is in a position to guide some of this.
We are also hoping to develop the media skills of our StreetCare team. The aim is to make the team media savvy and to make the media aware of them. We have an opportunity to make StreetCare one of the first ports of call for any queries about homelessness.
In the end – the work must be done with a sense of humility, sense of history and a sense of humour.
Read more about PIAC’s Homeless Persons’ Legal Service and StreetCare.
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