I never thought when I accepted a job at Changing Lives (then the Tyneside Cyrenians) 25 years ago, that I would be writing this today as Chief Executive. When I joined the organisation, there was a small team managing 5 or 6 houses across Newcastle and Gateshead. Our office was based in Elliott House and we were focused on tackling rough sleeping, working largely with people who had long-term experience of homelessness.
Tackling rough sleeping and homelessness is still at the heart of what we do today, but the lessons we have learnt along the way have allowed us to adapt our support to what people need most. Our focus is on helping people get back on their feet and go on to live happy independent lives, free from services. Whether people need their own front door, a recovery community, a safe refuge or training and employment, we’re able to help.
I believe that we, along with some fantastic partners, have played a key role over the years, fundamentally changing the rough sleeping and housing landscape nationally. When I think back to when I started at Changing Lives, we were lucky if we could add a pool table to a hostel. Now we are able to provide gyms, recording studios, cookery classes and other experiences that give people a sense of optimism and a sense of belonging.
There has been a huge amount of change over the last 25 years – both within Changing Lives and in environment in which we work. When I joined the organisation as Finance Officer, we didn’t use computers. This year we’ve seen the entire organisation switch to remote working and digital delivery as a result of the Covid crisis.
I couldn’t have imagined some of the changes that have taken place, but what has been constant throughout is the will and determination of everyone working at Changing Lives to make things better for the people we support. It hasn’t always been easy; there have been a lot of challenges over the years. Regardless of the issues – reduced public spending, increased need, changing political agendas, global pandemics – the team has continued to go above and beyond for the people we are here to support. I couldn’t be more proud of what we have achieved together.
I’m often asked what my proudest achievement has been in my 25 years at Changing Lives. For me, it has to be our commitment to providing employment opportunities to people with lived experience. Early on during my time here, we realised that providing accommodation alone wasn’t enough to help people make long-term positive change; we needed to provide training and employment opportunities alongside housing. This was the start of what is now our holistic, person-centric approach to support, allowing us provide people with the right support at the right time.
Ever since then, we have walked the walk – today almost 20% of our staff at Changing Lives have come to us because of their lived experience. They have used our services, or services like ours, and this understanding of what support is needed is one of the reasons I believe we are able to support thousands of people each year to make positive changes in their lives.
Looking towards the future, there are some practical things I hope to see. I’d like to see longer-term sustainable contracts in public services for example, and for us to grow our services in the areas in which we work.
But more importantly, I want to make sure that we never forget why Changing Lives started. It started because a small group of people had empathy for others, for those that were rough sleeping. It was this empathy, and the belief in people and their ability to change, that became the foundations of the organisation we work for today. We still believe in people, we still have empathy and we must never forget why we are here. We’re here because our support helps people to change their lives.