Glen Oaks Service Manager, Veronica Keys reflects on how a trauma informed approach made a positive difference.
COPE Galway’s Cold Weather Response (CWR) 2020-2021 came to an end in April 2021 as we exited the colder weather months. At this point, the service transitioned to becoming a smaller Short-Term Accommodation (STA) service as part of the Covid-19 response locally. With this, we saw a great opportunity to do things differently.
We looked to Trauma Informed Practice, a way of working with people who have experienced trauma that aims to prevent triggering or retraumatising and to instead promote healing through building positive and safe relationships.
We made a concentrated effort to soften the living environment to enhance clients’ comfort, maintain a warmer and calmer environment and create a less institutionalised feeling to the setting. We changed how space within the building was utilised. The input from residents regarding their experiences of the service and their suggestions for improvements helped shape changes that contributed to stabilising the environment and offering a more harmonious setting for residents.
Client participation became an area of focus for the service in line with the Trauma Informed Principles of Voice (meaningfully hearing the clients’ opinions and actively listening to their experiences), Choice (affording choices to clients along every step of their journey) and Collaboration (working in partnership with one another and ensuring the inclusion of clients in anything that might impact upon them).
We sought more active participation from clients in the operation of their service. This included a re-evaluation of practices at the service and a reduction in House Rules, retaining only what was necessary to run a safe and effective service. Clients were very much a part of conversations about how best to address problematic behaviours. This promoted mutual respect, trust and understanding. We created opportunities for residents to have greater autonomy and independence, fostering independence and reducing over-reliance on staff.
Challenges of a Trauma Informed Approach
This mode of working presented an increased challenge for staff. A relational style of working can be more time-consuming. Trauma informed work involves a degree of experience, reflection and self-insight. A less controlled and more inclusive environment means that staff must address more challenging behaviour in the service as opposed to asking people to leave. While sometimes emotionally challenging, this is worthwhile work.
Staff rely on experience and relationships to negotiate and de-escalate, and professional ‘rational detachment’ is essential, particularly where behaviour is personalised. We were conscious that our staff had themselves experienced trauma through working in frontline services during a pandemic and engaged in discussions with our team to ensure that they were fully informed of, and well supported in, making the changes.
The Challenge of Returning to a Cold Weather Response
In November 2021, the service entered another iteration, adapting to the commencement of the Cold Weather Response (CWR) for the 2021/22 winter. Experience had taught us that the CWR, a low threshold service provided to rough sleepers on a night-by-night basis, could be a challenging environment. Clients and staff were apprehensive. The changes in practice and approaches from previous winters left staff feeling particularly vulnerable. Staff had gotten used to working relationally with a familiar group and a community had emerged from the work. The unknown entity introduced night-by-night by new unknown presentations with a potential spectrum of challenges, caused concern for everyone. Clients were afraid that the peaceful respectful environment that they had co-created might now be lost, rendering them vulnerable in their accommodation.
Cold Weather Response 2021/2022
To address concerns without compromising on working to a strengths-based and trauma informed approach, we introduced changes to how things were done in previous CWR projects. These included re-examining the approach to daily intake of people, mindful of how it could potentially negatively impact on others.
One change was having earlier evening intake times. This had been suggested by clients in surveys that explored their experience of a night-by-night service. In acknowledging this feedback and acting upon it, clients felt valued and respected. Their welfare was at the core of the decision. Time spent on the streets of Galway was reduced and they had earlier shelter from the elements. We noticed an added benefit for the community in that loitering in the vicinity was not an issue and our neighbours were supportive of our service. Clients presented to us in a more positive frame of mind. They were discreetly assessed within the premises, resulting in a reduction of incidents on previous years and the peaceful environment we had worked so hard to create with and for clients was maintained, along with a more positive work experience for staff.
We understood that there would be a proportion of clients presenting to us who were experiencing addiction. Their safety and inclusion in the service informed all our work practices. We adopted a harm reduction approach, fostering positive working relationships with clients based on mutual understanding and trust. We were mindful of our clients’ dignity and privacy and the challenges posed to these through living in services and in shared accommodation and we worked to ensure that these were at all times upheld.
A Harmonious Service
Over time, integration between the residents of the service from early in the year and the users of the CWR happened organically and peer influence became a stabilising factor. Established residents often “inducted” new CWR clients by telling them, “That’s not the way we do things here,” or urging someone to speak more respectfully to a staff member who they themselves had a positive working relationship with.
This change in approach contributed to many positive outcomes, including a safer living environment for clients; a notable reduction in recorded incidents; an increase in engagement and in positive move-on accommodation outcomes, supported through collaborative work with Galway City Council; a more positive work environment for staff and a co-created trauma informed environment.
One of COPE Galway’s strategic goals is to work to become a Trauma Informed Organisation. The experiences of the service at Glen Oaks and of our other services, through shared learning and growth, will contribute to this valuable work in 2022 and beyond.