From passive to active

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(The Pavement, 30 January 2013)  In the last issue, The Pavement introduced exP2A, a new leisure and fitness-focused charity run by former and current homeless service users. We sat down with two of its founders, Alex Ireland and James McPherson, in a cosy nook of the National Portrait Gallery to find out how the charity came about, how it will work and when the service will be up and running.

“What started the whole thing is that we see a really big gap in what’s really offered,” explains Ireland. “Homeless services are geared up to giving you somewhere to live and then providing support for basic needs but – and there’s a question whether it is their job to do any more than that – that’s as far as it goes. So you can either get into a flap about it or you can do something.”

Widely known in the homeless online community by her Twitter identity @aibaihe, exP2A director Ireland has long been a commentator on, and critic of, homeless services. So what’s it like to be on the other side of the fence? “This came up in our first meeting,” she admits. “How would we feel about being on the other side? We realised that it was important that we’re not.

“Although I’m very pro service-user employment, I’ve been quite critical of people who have gone straight from being homeless to being in a position of authority. That is quite dangerous and can make people feel very uncomfortable. But we’re not holding information or files on people; we’re not taking responsibility for them in that way. People can get involved on their own terms and we’re going to operate everything as a peer network.”

exP2A aims to give associates the chance to try new things and gain real skills. “At the moment is a lot of organisations running groups because they attract funding,” says Ireland. “And while a lot of organisations are coming round to the idea of service-user employment, they’re assuming that service users will become drug counsellors or work in hostels, but no more.” She hopes exP2A’s associates will discover activities and employment opportunities outside the homeless ‘bubble’. “You don’t just have to say, ‘Let’s stick them in a flat and that’s it. That’s all they can expect from life’.” The money the team raises through the fitness groups and other activities will go towards helping associates pay for personal training or group activities, be it learning to drive a forklift truck or going scuba diving. The condition is, they must decide together what to do with the money and learn to balance expensive activities with cheaper activities.

“The money will go into a central pool that they will help spend,” explains Ireland. “Obviously if they got the money [directly], it would to interfere with their benefits.”

Will associates be able to request funding for specific personal goals or needs? “Obviously, decisions have to be made as a group,” says Ireland. “But we might come up with a set of guidelines. Probably, down the line, if fundraising is successful, people could collect points based on attendance which they could put towards a personal goal.”

And exP2A’s empowering slogan, “From Passive to Active”, is not just about career prospects say Ireland. “It’s about showing people that you may be on benefits and if you do get a job, you’re not going to have much spare cash, but there are things you can do for free or you can budget to do some of the things you want – and you can build a community of like-minded people around you.” The exP2A team is starting to build a database of free and cheap things to do in London – from knitting clubs to, well, sitting in the National Portrait Gallery. They’d like to use this information to create an app, where you can enter your budget and discover cheap or free things to do within that.

Ireland is keen to be as frank as possible about launching a charity, and sees great potential in this approach. Asked about how long associates will stay with the charity, the plan is to wait and see. “We thought about that,” said Ireland. “Should it be a definite time thing? Should we be very organic about it? And we realised that until we do it, we don’t know. So keep it open, keep it public, admit to mistakes as we go along, and see where it takes us. But keep control of it, be very analytical and allow people to input. It’s a flat organisation. Obviously you’ve got people taking decisions about some things, but it’s more of a circle – that sounds really right on, but it’s true.”

Not everything’s gone to plan so far. Their Dickens-themed fundraising walk in July had to be cut short after half the team fell to injury (“There’s a rule that no one’s allowed to mention the Dickens’ Walk,” laughs Ireland), though they did raise £246. Then, after the charity’s October launch, the fitness groups were postponed to begin in January. And now, with Ireland heavily pregnant, they have been delayed again. “We’ll start the sessions after the [birth] and my two weeks’ mandatory break,” she says, optimistically. “And when the team’s back to full strength at the beginning of April, we’ll go back to running the three sessions a week at the correct time.”

For now, McPherson is keeping things ticking over and has taken to his position as Marketing & Community Manager like a duck to water. With only some basic experience (“I had some insight while I was at Centrepoint. Their communications department is absolutely fabulous and they allowed me to see into that world while I was there”), he has taken charge of exP2A’s Twitter account, website, marketing and publicity. “He’s the wonderkid,” marvels Ireland. “Basically, whatever you see it has been through him. And at the moment he’s also taking on my jobs. He’s the real thing, and anything that he didn’t know about before he’s learned on the job.”

While ex2PA’s on hold, McPherson’s been using the downtime to plan the charity’s marketing strategy. As well as handing out flyers outside Green Park Station and running the @DeskWorkout Twitter account, one plan is to start a controversial poster campaign. “We’re hoping to do that for the universities,” explains McPherson. “It’s essentially about challenging stereotypes about homeless people. One of the ideas was possibly using Alex and Brad, our other member of the team. He is a lot more masculine than I am [“he has quite an outwardly aggressive appearance,” interjects Alex with a laugh] and we thought if we had a few pictures of him motivating Alex as part of the fitness group, they could be cropped to look like something completely different.” A web address will direct people to the exp2A website, where they will see the full picture, in more ways than one. The results of and responses to the campaign, like all their planned marketing steps, will be reviewed online.

The team has also been testing the fitness plans. So what can participants expect to get for their very affordable £2 sessions (£10 per month for unlimited sessions)? “Initially, when people turn up we just do a meet and greet, get to know each other and answer any questions that they have about exP2A or homelessness in general,” says McPherson. “But really we just crack on with it, like a normal fitness session,” adds Ireland. Then after a warm-up, it’s on with the day’s fitness plan – which could include anything from running and walking to games. “The promise is that no fitness classes will be the same,” says Ireland. “And it’s very inclusive and informal as well. We’re a little bit inspired by British Military Fitness, who actually do classes in hostels, but they’re very hardcore and if you’re not up to that level it’s very difficult to get in.”

The sessions will take place in locations including Green Park, and the team is considering Lincoln’s Inn as another possible site – given its many soup runs and local students (one of exP2A’s future target groups). And although Ireland says she would consider an inside venue if it was offered, she prefers to keep the sessions outdoors. “Sometimes people feel better about being in an open space. If they really don’t like it they can melt away into the trees… Plus everyone can smoke – I don’t think we’d get anyone to come otherwise!” She’s also hoping permission won’t be an issue. “We’re not using it for commercial reasons – because our idea is that we’re just a group of people coming together and people are giving a suggested donation… Some parks are very strict about it but they’re not the parks we’re using anyway.”

Will they be looking for funders? “We may,” she says cautiously. “But we don’t want to fall into that trap of going for funding which then becomes necessary. We wanted it to be something that could be set up on a minimal budget and we want other people to take up the idea. We’re thinking of preparing a pack, like Housing Justice has for winter shelters, so that if someone wants to run a scheme, they’ve got all that information rather than having to go back to square one.”

They’ve had lots of feedback and queries from homeless organisations, hostels and would-be associates or volunteers. “It’s just this massive, unwieldy thing at the moment, so the difficulty has been reining it in,” admits Ireland. “We have massive ideas and bringing them to fruition will take a lot of time and effort, but [we have] to have the courage to say, ’OK, it looks quite simple at the moment but we do have big ideas, so bear with us’. The goal is to concentrate on those small things and get them right in the beginning, then start building.”

http://www.thepavement.org.uk/story.php?story=1568

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