Housing Digital has teamed up with the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) for a series of monthly #housingdiversitystories with sector leaders from a range of backgrounds.
In the first instalment of 2021, we talk with Andrew King, head of Supported Living at Stonewater, about his path into housing, changing attitudes toward gender and sex, and the need to keep an open mind and engage with others to help build a more tolerant society.
How did you get started in housing?
I’ve been in housing for over 10 years now. Like many in the sector, I kind of fell into it. I didn’t go to university thinking, I’m going to look for a degree in social housing and that’s going to be my career goals. I was actually studying musical theatre at university. I decided to just do something that I felt I enjoyed and felt passionate about.
But while I was at university, I needed a part-time job and applied for a job in a contact centre. And if I’m being really completely honest now, I didn’t know at the time what I’d applied for. I didn’t really know what the job was.
So, I started this part-time job and discovered that actually I had quite a passion for what they were doing. I knew about social housing but didn’t know a lot about it, and I started to learn very quickly about the sector and all the great work that was going on about the barriers that people face.
Have you always worked within an inclusive environment?
I would say, within social housing, yes. I took a huge career break from social housing and went into the private sector and had varying experiences there. I am a gay man myself, and that has never, in the workplace, I’d never experienced that being a barrier or an issue, which I guess makes me quite lucky because some of the stories I’ve heard don’t reflect that.
So I hadn’t, but then I went into the private sector and just found it very interesting – well, interesting is probably the wrong word – the different culture over there. Not just in terms of either homophobia or, to be honest, just lack of education around it, but also sexism in that sector as well really sort of threw me off, because again I just hadn’t experienced it in the places I had worked – or I certainly hadn’t witnessed it.
So that was quite a culture shock, but I do feel very lucky that I haven’t within the social housing sector experienced that.
Why is there a difference in attitudes toward gender and sex between the private and public sectors?
I don’t know what the definitive answer to that is, but I feel that the culture of inclusivity has to be pushed down from the top. And I think if the customers and the staff working for the organisation aren’t the number-one priority, then there’s less of an agenda there for the leaders at the top of that organisation to push it; because I think that an organisation like Stonewater, like many social housing providers, recognise that they don’t have a business without their customers and their staff being happy and comfortable and working toward the same goal.
“Stonewater, like many social housing providers, recognise they don’t have a business without their customers and their staff being happy and comfortable and working toward the same goal”
I think, particularly for me in supported housing, we’ve always said – me and my colleagues – that supported housing is a lifestyle, it’s not just a job. So you’ve got to be passionate and you’ve got to love your employer to want to continue doing it.
I think Stonewater recognise that, and they really drive equality, diversity, and inclusion down from the top, which wasn’t what I experienced in the private sector company I worked for. I’m sure there are, of course, organisations out there who do. But that wasn’t my experience.
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced in your career?
I think my biggest challenge was probably working in the private sector, but also learning to manage people in a leadership way. I went into my first management role without a lot of support or coaching at that point in time, so I was kind of finding my way around it. I think I had my ideals which I still stand by of how you should manage a team, but it wasn’t supported within the culture of that organisation either.
I actually joined Stonewater as a regional manager in supported living and have since moved up to the head-of role. But I have an incredible manager here at Stonewater who just led by such great example that made it really easy for me. I sort of thought, you manage and lead in a way I think it should be done, and now I feel like I’ve got permission to go and do it that way as well, which I didn’t have before.
Who has been your biggest inspiration?
I’ve got great admiration for people like Brené Brown, who I really enjoy reading and watching. In terms of my actual career, and I’m not just saying this for brownie points, it would be my current manager, Helena. She is an incredible lady. Lots of experience in housing and supported housing in particular, and homelessness and domestic abuse.
She’s been an incredible inspiration. A, because she’s been a font of knowledge for me, but also because she’s demonstrated a great leadership quality that I feel like I have at least attempted to replicate for my team.
How have the events of the past 12 months or so affected your views on equality and inclusivity?
It’s been a really pivotal year for equality and diversity. I think that I would have liked to have thought that I was an extremely equal and diverse person; and it’s not until Black Lives Matter and what happened in America and consequently over here that made me step back and think.
And I think that was a key message, really, that you all just need to check yourselves. And really step away and look. It’s not about judging yourself or punishing yourself, but considering, am I supporting this in my actions? Am I just standing by, watching? Am I being proactive? And they are really hard questions I think for all of us, that we had to step away and ask ourselves.
Can you tell us a bit about the LGBTQ+ group Spectrum?
So Spectrum, the working group, is about a year old now. My colleague Denise is the chair. We’ve got an EDI lead here at Stonewater who knew that she wanted both groups set up. So there’s kind of a bit of a working group, approaching colleagues they thought might be up for setting up and running that. So I can’t take any of the credit. Denise did a lot of work in setting up and asking me to be her co-chair, which was great, and I do my best do be a good co-chair for her.
As a group, we’ve done a lot of work around raising awareness around the organisation. We had a member of our group do a fantastic presentation on intersectionality, and we converted that information into an awareness training module as part of our Inclusion Week that all staff can complete. Just to get them to think about a person’s journey and all the things that make that person up.
And that’s been a really journey of education for me, and I really hope that people around the organisation are engaging with that and starting to think about things that maybe they wouldn’t have thought about before.
Can you tell us a bit about Stonewater’s Safe Space?
Safe Space is a support scheme. It went live in August 2019, so that’s just over a year old now. And what it is is a provision for members of the LGBTQ+ community who for a number of reasons can no longer live where they currently are. The primary reason people come to live with us is because they have experienced domestic abuse. But also it could be family breakdown or it could be hate crime. A reason that means they are no longer safe where they are.
We have supported projects where they can come and live and receive specific person-centred support from our dedicated coaches who work there, who help them with things like wellbeing, learning about healthy relationships, even down to education and employment. It could be mental health support. Some people come to us needing drug and alcohol support.
(L) Andrew at Swindon PRIDE 2019 (R) Out of the Can launch in Swindon 2018
It really depends on the experiences they’ve had up until that point, with the aim for us that they leave being able to live independently, hopefully financially stable, and with tools to build healthy relationships and go and leave a happy and fulfilling life. The ultimate dream for people who live with us there.
How did Safe Space come about?
We set that up because we knew that the provision for the LGBTQ+ community, specifically in regard to having experienced domestic abuse, was limited across the country. There’s some great organisations out there who do provide support and facilities, such as the LGBT Foundation, and Galop in London provide the national domestic abuse helpline for the LGBTQ+ community.
But what’s interesting and sad is that none of that is statutory or commissioned service. So there’s to my knowledge little to no commissioning elements for the LGBTQ+ community in terms of domestic abuse refuge provision.
Has there been an increase in the number of people coming to you for help since the pandemic?
We weren’t initially finding that we had lots of referrals coming in who we couldn’t support. But what we were finding was that when we were putting up an empty space and a vacancy for someone, instead of two or three referrals, we were getting 10 to 15 for one room. Which is heartbreaking for the staff dealing with that, looking at this list of people who need help and support, who we couldn’t support.
What we did decide to do in response to that – I’m still a little bit shocked that we managed it so quickly – was in the space of a week we mobilised a new initiative. It was dubbed the Extended Domestic Abuse Service, a bit of a mouthful but it does what it says on the tin. So what that is, it’s us looking at where we’ve got vacant properties…where we could offer that space out to someone in need because they’ve experienced domestic abuse and offer them virtual support while they live there.
“What we were finding was that instead of two or three referrals we were getting 10 to 15 for one room – which is heartbreaking for the staff dealing with that”
We had to think really carefully about the customers we could support in that way, looking at their needs and would that work for them. And obviously having a conversation with them about would it work for them.
But what it means is we weren’t then stuck by location of our refuge. We could actually say, do you know what, we’ve got a property here, is that somewhere you’d be prepared to go? We were successful in getting MHCLG funding to support that.
It sounds like it was fairly easy for you to get funding, would that be fair to say?
When we set up the initiative, we didn’t know there would be funding. So, we didn’t set it up on that basis. As an organisation, we said we’ll find a way, we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to support people where we can and try and help meet the rising demand. I think it was maybe a month after we launched the service, the MHCLG funding for domestic abuse was announced.
Was it easy to get? I guess it was just in terms of we put together a bid, which was something we were used to doing, and we were successful, so in that respect it was great.
But short-term funding usually means short-term results. I’m lucky because Stonewater is extremely committed to what we do in supported living. And I’m sure that if this initiative is a success, there are options there for me to maybe talk to the powers that be and find out a solution to see if we can continue that work.
But that’s not the case for all organisations, and I think there needs to be a longer-term focus on more provision on better commissioning models, particularly ones that pick up on hard-to-reach groups.
Do you think that sometimes people need to be more proactive when it comes to issues such as racism and gender equality?
Yes I do. I think there are people who either through ignorance, lack of education, or even just privilege and lack of experience, say or do things or don’t say or do things that perpetuate discrimination without them even knowing.
Don’t get me wrong, of course we know there are people who also do that deliberately. But that’s a whole different kettle of fish.
One of the things we’ve really pushed through the awareness that we’ve done through Spectrum and around the organisation is we talk about language. For example, we did a piece around gender identity and using people’s preferred pronouns and adding that to your email signature and not assuming someone’s pronoun or gender identity. But also questioning yourself as to why it’s important to you that you know.
What questions should we all be asking ourselves about what we can do individually to facilitate a more inclusive society?
I think the main thing is taking a kind of bird’s-eye view of your approach. Educate yourself, read, watch documentaries. I did it when Black Lives Matter came to the forefront of what was happening earlier this year, and I realised that there was a lack of knowledge and education around racism on my part. I probably thought I knew a lot but realised I didn’t.
And I think again most of us saw on social media people with very strong views at both ends of the spectrum, and I realised that, actually, I don’t even want to take part in this discussion yet because I need to know more. And it’s about then taking the time and doing yourself the justice of learning.
Engaging with the networking group within the organisation for BAME colleagues as well really, really helped. Just opening up those conversations. I know a colleague on my team, who thought they had very little understanding of it, actually had a conversation with a colleague who is black and ask them about it and when it meant to them and what their experiences have been, which led to this huge eye-opening conversation.
And I think that’s all we can do. We need to talk, and we need to communicate, and we need to educate.
Main image: Andrew at the Young Families Service at the Stonewater’s Poole Quay Foyer
More from the Housing Diversity Stories series:
- Housing Diversity Stories / Steven McIntyre / Stonewall Housing
- Housing Diversity Stories / Denise Fowler / Women’s Pioneer Housing
- Housing Diversity Stories / Mushtaq Khan / HDN
- Housing Diversity Stories / Rebecca Clarke / CIH
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