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Mat's Column: Real experts

January 05 2018
It is important that society encourages programmes that recognise the potential of those at the broken edge of our society

I can't express how important it is that as a society we encourage programmes such as From the Ground Up that recognise the potential of those at the broken edge of our society.

The government never misses a chance to remind us that there is only so much fruit to be picked from the money tree, while their programme of quantitative easing rewards the very institutions that brought our economy to the brink of collapse less than 10 years ago.

Without getting into an argument about the pros and cons of Keynesian economics, let's just say that saving money by cutting frontline services is myopic at best. It's been proven time and again that spending money in the right way has all sorts of benefits above and beyond the bottom line.

Despite the plethora of TV programmes, led by stalwarts of the curtain-twitching moral majority, such as Jeremy Kyle, that portray the poorest in our society as 'benefit vampires' 'living large on the hard work of the diligent tax paying masses', many people are making their own minds up to demonstrate a greater understanding of the social issues behind homelessness.

With organisations like Groundswell leading the way, there has been a development of a more holistic approach to dealing with the problem of homelessness and the underlying issues of mental health and addiction that go hand-in-hand with it.

In the past, care was based on the idea that you could solve the problem of homelessness by simply putting a roof over someone's head. But the weakness of this way of thinking is its failure to address the underlying issues that exist for so many of the people who find themselves omeless.

In a 2016 Joseph Rowntree Foundation report it was shockingly revealed that, for the first time in recorded history, a majority of those becoming homeless did not have mental health or addiction issues prior to becoming homeless. But for a majority of the long-term homeless, there are underlying issues that need to be addressed in order to halt the cycle of sofa-surfing, street homelessness, shooting gallery, hostel, flat, eviction and repeat.

And for many of the people in this position, their problems will be like a straitjacket with buckles and straps made of the shame and stigma of being homeless. Tackling these underlying issues is impossible without bringing people in from the cold, and this takes more than somewhere to live.

Shame breeds in isolation and a programme like From the Ground Up not only gets people together but also shows people what they're worth. It teaches communication skills that bolster self-esteem and encourages people to share their stories for the benefit of others.

At the heart of good writing is the ability to convey experience with honesty.

In isolation it is easy to feel ashamed of your failure to live up to the expectations of your parents, your friends and society as a whole. By telling your story, and helping others share theirs, it helps to unbuckle the straps of that straitjacket and believe in yourself once again.

So it's fitting that this year's From the Ground Up peer journalists chose shame as their theme. One group is looking at the impact of shame and how we can deal with the stigma of being homeless, while another is dealing with the difficult, but too often avoided, subject of suicide.

We were lucky enough to get Veronique Mistiaen to oversee the project. As a multi-award winning freelance journalist, her experience has been invaluable in teaching us the technicalities of journalism as well as the empathy and creativity behind the art of storytelling.

It was a project similar to From the Ground Up that initially put me on the Pavement's radar and helped me to put an end to a lifelong addiction to class A drugs and, let's face it, a pretty self-destructive attitude to life.

Veronique says that: “When journalists report on homelessness or migration, they cite studies and quote officials or NGOs, but rarely take the time to go out and listen to the people they report on. The media often presents them as victims or problems, but like everyone else, they are more than their circumstances – and they are also experts. They are the ones with first-hand experience of homelessness. This gives them a unique perspective, knowledge and ideas, which politicians, policymakers, service providers and members of the public need to listen to.”

This first issue of 2018 lets you see the results for yourself and there will be more of our peer journalist's efforts in future issues. Until then keep believing in yourself.