Experts by Experience: Profiles of entrepreneurs at different stages on their journeys, identifying and sharing some universal truths along the way.
The chief executive of a charity providing supported housing once told me that we are all just three steps removed from homelessness. Like the domino effect, one setback – long term illness, a relationship breakdown – can lead to another and, surprisingly quickly, things can get out of hand and spiral downwards.
And that’s talking about the risk to the average employed, educated, worldly-wise, home-owning adult. So just think how much easier it is for the 16 – 24 year olds that come through Rebecca White’s door (or, more likely, whom she meets while out and about) to become homeless.
It was her experience as a teacher in London – when she found she was most interested in the classroom trouble-makers – that led her to look beyond the school gates at the causes behind the errant behaviour.
Working with young people in and out of offender institutions, with gangs on the streets of south London, and with those for whom life was simply an uphill struggle, Rebecca discovered the importance of trust and reliability.
“My USP [unique selling point] is how I relate to young people. It shouldn’t be a USP, but I can empathise with them despite my less-troubled upbringing. It’s about being trusted – doing what I say I’m going to do. Reliability is important when other people have let them down. With a relationship you can move forward – but you must build that relationship first.”
Once the relationship has been nurtured, Your Own Place makes a range of what Rebecca calls ‘interventions’; a word that probably sounds more clinical than it’s meant to. For most young people, getting their first place is both exciting and daunting. They need to learn new skills in money management, to find their way around the benefit and housing systems, and to understand the rights and responsibilities of having a tenancy. Add to that the knowhow for managing a home – basic DIY, cooking on a budget – and you can see the part that Your Own Place plays in developing skills that, in Rebecca’s own words, “go towards leading a successful life in your first home”.
Backed by a Board that share her values, and targeting contacts in key roles, Rebecca is positive about local authority commitment to the principle of early intervention to prevent homelessness and limit the associated costs to society, communities and individuals down the line.
She also believes the Third Sector has a massive, often under-estimated, role to play in working with young people. These people may be suspicious of authority having fallen through cracks in the system; Third Sector provision can help break down some of the barriers. But collaborations must be high quality to build trust and confidence – a resource-intensive requirement when budgets are stretched and demand is growing.
The talk turns from building trust, and the importance of being a ‘reliable constant’, to the danger of fostering dependency. There is no guarantee that Rebecca will be around when she’s most needed and the answer, she believes, is in developing peer-to-peer support. “Peer mentoring could be very powerful. Young people with their first tenancies could mentor others – learning and growing together to a stage where they run workshops in small groups – people learn best from their peers.”
All entrepreneurs start out with no guarantee of success for their enterprises. For those with a strong social purpose, there’s the added responsibility of providing support for potentially vulnerable people that may ultimately be too costly to sustain. For Rebecca, it’s this responsibility that, for her, makes access to education and other progression routes as important as the peer mentors and social workers. “It’s about knowing who’s out there to support you when you wobble.”
Rebecca is in the 2013-14 cohort of learners with the School for Social Entrepreneurs on
the Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Programme at the Eastern Enterprise Hub in