We’ve been supporting families living in poverty or disadvantage across North East England since 2011. We use community-led approaches to help families tackle the many interconnected issues surrounding poverty, and help children to fulfil their true potential in life.
Who do we help?
The families we work with are often the ones really on the edge – the hidden 2 – 3%. They’re the people most at risk of ill health; the families with such a complex mix of issues that they’ve slipped between the cracks of services, who often avoid engaging with health care and other support services. They don’t trust statutory services and are often worried that if they ask for help, social services will get involved.
This was the case with Kate*. After her husband died suddenly in 2017, she was left on her own with six children. When we first met her, things were in a desperate state – her mental health was dreadful and she was barely able to feed the children. She was somehow living entirely on child allowance and didn’t know she was entitled to other benefits. Family life was suffering and she’d attempted suicide twice because she just couldn’t see an end to it.
On the surface it seemed that she just needed help accessing benefits, but actually she needed support with so much more. Living in the stress of continuing poverty can have long-term effects on a range of other issues, affecting both the mental and physical wellbeing of everyone in the house.
How do we help?
Poverty can restrict people’s ability to plan or make good decisions. Kate* couldn’t always afford to heat the house or feed her children healthy food – and due to the state of her own mental health, the emotional wellbeing of her children also suffered. These issues can quickly spiral, which in turn can make it so much harder to recover from a bad situation.
That’s why when we start working with a family, it’s rarely about tackling just one thing. Often there will be a presenting problem that seems simple: money troubles, a health condition, children with bad school attendance or behaviour problems. But you don’t have to dig too deep to find other things underneath: addiction, domestic violence, poor housing, and neglect.
Family Entrepreneurs – the backbone of our approach
What makes us different at Family Gateway is that we’re able to build a trusting relationship with these families so that they can begin to access the right support.
We do this by employing local parents, people who’ve experienced similar issues to the families we support. We provide eight weeks of intensive training on our ‘Be Your Best’ course – they volunteer with us initially and then we employ them on the living wage as Family Entrepreneurs, also known as Barefoot Professionals.
These are just local people whose children might go to the same school. They know what it’s like to be living in really dire circumstances, they’ve experienced severe debt, homelessness, poor health, or ongoing mental health issues, and they know that it’s possible to move forward. It’s a game changer.
It’s not an easy model to manage by any means, because we are employing people who have been through a really difficult time and asking them to work with families in complex situations. Some of which may bring back painful memories. But it works!
Our Family Entrepreneurs (FEs) are hugely motivated. They’re able to get in the door and engage on a level that other professionals can’t. Parents trust them and reveal things they wouldn’t have told anyone else. And that means we can really work with those families on the priority issues, the things that stop them sleeping at night.
Kevin, our FE who was featured in Professor Green’s BBC documentary, was able to get access to a family that no other professionals were able to, simply by telling them his personal story through the front door – particularly about his time in the Army. The father was able to relate and allowed Kevin access, thus beginning the help process.
A brighter future
That’s how we moved things forward with Kate*. As well as helping with benefits and looking at how the family spent what was coming into the household, we connected her to services to support her mental health. And once we’d started tackling some of those big issues, we looked at how we could help with family life: what the kids were eating, how they were doing at school, and how Kate* could engage and spend quality time with them to meet their emotional needs.
Kate* is now out of that dark place. She received better access to the support she and her family need to cope better. Kate* started working with us and her eldest daughter also volunteered with us!
We have solid evidence now that our approach works. But finding ongoing support is always hard because it’s difficult to know which department should be funding us. Our outcomes traverse health and social care, education and housing, so who should pick up the bill? That’s why we think it’s time for government to be thinking more ambitiously about tackling these issues, being willing to put their money into bottom-up community-led approaches like ours that tackle multiple issues and really show results.
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