We can help rewrite stories and create endings of hope - Ewan Aitken
A colleague told me recently about one of the people they were supporting, who tipped from a difficult situation into homelessness because someone had forgotten to send them a letter for a hospital appointment.
Because of that one missing piece, they didn’t get seen, their condition got worse, they couldn’t work, they had no savings, and ultimately the rent debt they ran up saw them get evicted. Of course, it wasn’t the missed appointment itself. It was just the tipping point in a fragile life without any ‘give’ or room for error, which turned into a crisis for someone who didn’t know where to turn for help.
So many times, when my Cyrenians colleagues hear the story of how someone became homeless, it’s not one thing but many, not big things but the culmination of many small moments, getting harder and harder to deal with or to make sense of. And after years of feeling ground down by life, many people struggle to believe in themselves, to trust others, or to dare to hope things might change.
But things can change just as dramatically for the better. One of the most powerful things about the work we do at Cyrenians is seeing people claim their lives back in ways they never thought possible. Walking alongside people, we’re able to help them develop the skills, confidence and tools to not just get back into homes, but to build and maintain stability, safety and joy that for a long time they’ve felt is out of their reach.
We know from experience it’s crucial to recognise and challenge the sense of failure, the loss of self-worth, the feeling of no longer mattering to anyone that so often comes with these kinds of crisis. For the journey towards a more positive future, folk need material support – food, housing, care – but just as importantly folk need to be able to “change the story” about who they are and what they can do. That means listening instead of dictating, giving people the power to make their own choices, and meeting them where they are to support them to where they want to be, however long that takes.
When I asked one young woman about why our support worked for her, she said simply “Cyrenians sees me and not my problems. I feel heard. They give me options, choices, let me decide what I need and don’t make any assumptions.”
We see so often that sometimes, all someone needs to change their story is for someone else to believe they can. Cyrenians believe in people even when it feels like nobody else does, even when they don't believe in themselves. We begin by helping them “change the story” of how they see themselves, which is the first step to believing others will see them differently too.
Huge strides have been made in tackling homelessness in recent years. But we have a long way to go yet. And it's a journey not just of getting people into houses, but of changing the stories people tell about themselves and each other, about who they are and what’s possible for them to achieve. Together, we’re changing the story to one of hope.
Ewan Aitken is the CEO of Cyrenians, a charity tackling the causes and consequences of homelessness