LEAF: changing the narrative on homelessness in Oxfordshire, one conversation at a time

By Nikki Aitchison, Head of Employment Development Projects at Aspire Oxford and co-founder of LEAF

After noticing a gap in service provision for people to be consulted, listened to and really included as part of the solution to social issues such as homelessness in Oxfordshire, a small collective of people in Oxford created the independent Lived Experience Advisory Forum (LEAF).

Launching in 2019, LEAF was developed for - and is led by - Oxfordshire residents with lived experience of homelessness, inspired by other Best Practice models involving the co-production of services. LEAF champions the value and importance of amplifying the voices of real people receiving support, to find solutions to the employment, housing and wellbeing barriers faced by others - and has come far on its short journey to date.

"I see people as part of the solution, not the problem. Each person is a unique individual with their own story, goals and interests. We need to truly listen and work together to do better as a collective"  – Nikki Aitchison, Aspire Oxford

Bridging the gap

LEAF sits as part of the Oxfordshire Homeless Movement steering group, supported by Aspire and the Oxford Gatehouse, and its primary function is to embed co-production within Oxfordshire's homeless sector. Co-production to address homelessness must involve the people who have direct experience first-hand, at all stages. True involvement takes time, requiring honesty, the use of more inclusive language, less jargon and a willingness to listen, learn and change.

"Why has it taken this long for us to be asked for our opinion on these matters? It’s great LEAF is here, but this should have happened a long time ago"  – Jonathan, LEAF member

LEAF’s purpose is to create a more inclusive and collaborative approach to support and service reform, recognising that expertise comes not just from academic and professional experiences, but from real life, resilience, context and the opinions of people who have lived in the systems we are trying to change. LEAF was developed to fill the gap in provision between local residents accessing homelessness services and decision makers, councils, commissioners and strategic leaders, creating an independent group run by local people with direct experience and knowledge of what currently works in the design and delivery of homelessness sector support, and what needs to change.

"I think staff should sit down and build relationships with people, instead of sitting behind a form and asking questions that I don’t really want to speak about when I first meet someone. It's things like that that need changing” - LEAF member discussing a new Housing Project proposal

The impact of LEAF to date

The momentum to disrupt and create positive change within Oxfordshire's homelessness sector has now been fully recognised and tangible steps to take action are now evident. Since its initial launch, LEAF has gone on to complete a peer-led research study, working alongside Imogen Blood & Associates and Crisis to develop a feasibility study into a housing-led approach for Oxfordshire. LEAF members interviewed over 30 local residents experiencing homelessness, providing real insight, depth and learning for the sector, which contributed towards the recommissioning of the homeless pathway.

LEAF also offers consultancy and works with local councils, researchers and charities around new projects and initiatives, advocating for the voices of those with lived experience to be heard and considered at all levels throughout Oxfordshire. LEAF's monthly themed forums offer conversation, an equal space, support, and opportunities to be involved in sector changes.

"It’s better than I had expected - everyone made me feel really welcome, and it allowed us the space to have conversations that I wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to have. I enjoyed it!" – Ryan, LEAF Member

The next steps for LEAF

Today, LEAF is working with local councils on the recommissioning of the adult homeless pathway, to ensure local people with lived experience are fully involved, part of the process, and able to contribute to the new homelessness strategy. LEAF is now developing alternative methods of capturing and measuring the impact of services, aiming to improve communications and ensure the views of people with real, direct experience are the real gauge as to how effective services actually are.

This is not people talking about their issues, this is dignity, empowerment and changing the narrative to ensure we are really listening.

LEAF is also working alongside local partner Oxford Hub to develop a Trustee Programme for people with frontline or direct experience, to bring fresh perspectives to charity boards in Oxford, maximise charity social impact, and be more reflective of the communities they support.

The future for LEAF is one of diversification, evaluation and continuing to listen - ensuring charity boards are as reflective as possible, continuing to undertake peer-led research, and embedding platforms that allow historically marginalised voices to be heard, including a new storytelling methodology in collaboration with Arts at the Old Fire station.

As we know, homelessness is a complex and multi-faceted social problem that requires address through collaboration, inclusion, data and challenging the obstructive stereotypes, language and public perceptions around homelessness. Involving people with lived experience to co-produce not only brings people together, but provides a true understanding of what really works, developing a more diverse range of expertise that is more inclusive, more focused on strengths, and, most importantly, people.