As part of the South London Press and London Weekly News Change Is Possible campaign, reporter Jack Dixon meets the team behind You First, a pioneering project providing tailor-made support for those at risk of slipping through the gaps in the system.
Chris has a stable life. He lives in a council flat in south London, he attends a college course, he has a passion for music and he is looking to set up his own T-shirt printing business.
But life hasn’t always been so straightforward for Chris. He endured a difficult childhood during which he was placed in care. As an adult he became addicted to drugs and alcohol.
He experienced multiple mental health problems and was admitted to hospital on several occasions. He had spent time in prison and was in danger of losing his council tenancy.
Chris had been identified by the police, by his local council, by substance abuse services and by mental health practitioners. But he faced problems that could not be solved by one agency alone.
It was at this point that You First stepped in. Within a year Chris had received a new mental health assessment and was on more effective medication.
He had completed a drugs detox programme, enrolled on a college course and was better equipped to manage his budget, cook his own meals and look after his flat.
The unique service that turned his life around aims to identify individuals who have multiple needs and are at risk of falling through gaps in the system.
You First then provides a programme of personalised support to help them rebuild their lives.
The interventions themselves may be big or small – but the principle is to put the individual at the heart of their own recovery.
“Chris was in danger of losing his tenancy and being thrown out of his flat simply because his dog would not stop barking,” says You First’s Ed Davie.
“But his support worker was able to find a device that sprays citronella in the dog’s face and harmlessly trains it not to bark.
“The dog was much quieter, Chris saved his tenancy and he was able to stabilise his life – and the council didn’t have the cost of rehousing him. It was a tiny intervention that made a huge difference.”
You First is currently providing support for around 35 vulnerable people like Chris across Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham.
The project, which is funded entirely by the Big Lottery Fund, is led by the Resolving Chaos social enterprise with support from the St Giles Trust, Thames Reach and Certitude as well as the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and the three local councils.
It has already proved hugely successful – not only in helping the vulnerable, but in cutting through the lag created by disconnects between various other agencies.
“One of the things that is problematic is that budgets are separate,” explains Ed, who himself recovered from alcoholism before joining the You First team and being elected as a local councillor in Lambeth.
“There’s a perverse incentive in the system that means each budget holder is protecting their bit, even though overall it is costing everybody loads of money.
“The custody sergeant in the police station is there, the doctor is there. But because they’re all separate, the incentive is not to bother with the needs of the individual.
“We’ve found that You First is saving about one in every £5 previously spent on crisis services by supporting the whole person.”
Joining up services to ensure people don’t fall through the gaps is one of You First’s top priorities.
But the team, based in Waterloo, has also set out to promote better training for police officers while working to make housing and public transport more accessible and more affordable.
At the heart of the programme is a desire to help people make their own choices about their recovery, restoring a sense of personal autonomy and control over their lives.
“We’re piloting some work with partners in Lambeth on shared support planning,” adds Tanya Barrow, the head of programme at You First.
“All the agencies, and the recipient of the service, have a shared calendar so they all know where that person is supposed to be on a given day.
“There is lots of duplication and time-wasting in the system, and this is such a simple way of not asking people to be in two places at once and leading them to make difficult choices about which appointment is most important. Because they are all important.”
Each individual identified by You First is paired up with a dedicated support worker – often someone with lived experience of the challenges they are facing.
Dean Jackman, from Peckham, has been involved as an expert adviser with the programme’s expert service user reference group (ESURG) for the last two years.
“I was a service user, an alcoholic and an addict. I was in and out of hospital, prison, mental health services – I was sectioned twice at the Maudsley,” he explains.
“I came out of it at the other end, but not everyone does. I was one of the lucky ones who happened to be picked up by the right people.
“I have got compassion and empathy for others. They are human beings and I want to help them, simple as that.”
Beneficiaries have access to a personal budget, which they can spend on immediate basics, such as food, housing and travel costs, or longer-term hobbies and interests – simple things that can make a big difference to a person’s recovery.
Maria Whitefield, who lives in West Norwood, has been working with You First for just over a year after being referred by the police and other agencies.
She has spent her personal budget on learning to play the guitar, developing her passion for photography and visiting new places on weekend trips.
“I feel I have come such a long way and all the agencies I am involved in are working together as a team rather than separately,” she says.
“It has also given me the confidence to raise awareness about mental health, especially as a service user with personality disorder. I want to make sure people are getting the right help and support.”