Former rough sleeper Charlie Wood is a volunteer peer mentor with Outcome Home and works with Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council and housing associations including Homes for Cathy member Sovereign to support people who have also experienced homelessness
As a young man Charlie had all the trappings of success. Despite having lost his parents as a child and gone through foster care, he passed the 11 Plus and went on to study at a top university. Graduating with a degree in geology, he became a high flying sales executive at a well-known blue chip company, earning a six figure salary. However, for Charlie, unresolved mental health issues and a corporate culture of alcohol and recreational drug use meant his outwardly enviable life soon came crashing down. He lost his job and his home and before long he was sleeping on the streets.
Luckily, with support from Sovereign Housing Association, Charlie was able to escape life on the streets, first being housed in temporary supported accommodation and eventually moving to his own general needs property.
A crucial part of Charlie’s journey to a more secure and stable future has been his involvement in a ground-breaking peer mentorship scheme for homeless people. Five years ago he was invited by Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council to sit on their Social Inclusion Partnership (SIP) board. The area was facing a significant rough sleeping problem at the time, with 26 rough sleepers in the borough, and the SIP was keen for Charlie to bring his experience and recommendations as an ex-rough sleeper himself. Through the partnership, Charlie met psychologist Dr Stephanie Barker from the University of Southampton. Researching for a PhD on peer mentorship, Stephanie was setting up a peer mentoring project as part of the team at Outcome Home and enlisted Charlie as a volunteer.
“We started off working in stage one hostels, mentoring the service users to keep their tenancies and supporting them with things like claiming benefits, using our own lived experience to guide them through what is a very difficult homeless situation for them. Over time, the project has just got bigger and bigger; we started off with three peer mentors and we now have nine.
“The people we work with respond well to us because we have that shared hardship experience and because we’ve lived it, they listen to us, rather than someone in a suit who has no understanding. We’re able to be non-judgemental and accepting, because we’ve made the same mistakes. It is making a difference and we’ve had some great outcomes.”
Now the lead peer mentor with Outcome Home, Charlie provides a crucial element of support for the residents of Sovereign Housing’s new move on shared accommodation scheme in Basingstoke.
“Our ultimate mission is tenancy support and sustainment, to avoid that repeat cycle of homelessness. We help with practical things like budget planning, benefit applications and making sure rent is paid on time.
“We also try to encourage acceptable behaviour – sometimes in a brand new tenancy, where a person has been homeless and gone through a hostel situation, there’s a tendency for them to ‘over enjoy’ themselves, because it’s all new to them, and they can then be in danger of getting a behavioural order. If people do have challenging behaviour, we use a psychologically informed approach to find out not what they did but why. With the Sovereign scheme, this psychologically informed approach means we involve residents in how they want their house to be run and help co-produce things like cleaning rotas – ultimately it’s their house, their rules.
“We’re also there as a befriender, someone they can talk to as a guy who’s on their side. The majority of people we support have mental health and substance abuse problems, so we encourage them to engage with community mental health teams and drug and alcohol agencies, going with them to appointments and keeping them company.”
With the peer mentorship programme going from strength to strength, Charlie’s life has a renewed sense of purpose.
He concludes: “Basingstoke is now one of the few places in Britain where the rough sleeper count is zero, which is proof that the model is working. It’s great to be part of that.”