Psychologically Informed Environments – Tick-box or Culture?

22 March 2017

A few years back, the Government introduced the concept of Psychologically Informed Environments – or PIEs – as a critical factor affecting housing and homelessness in the UK. The concept was simple: how does the psychology of homeless people affect their plight? It acknowledged, perhaps for the first time, that homelessness isn’t simply a ‘state of being’, but perhaps a ‘state of mind’. Homelessness might well be the outcome or behaviour of deeper issues – merely a symptom of an unknown root cause. It also explored an incredibly worrying thought: maybe the resolution is about more than putting a roof over a person’s head?

IntraQuest have felt incredibly validated by this notion. As a team of people who have spent time on both sides of the fence – both homeless and responsible for housing – we’ve known for a long time that homelessness is far more than just a ‘state of being’. Our research and our work with countless professionals has only served to strengthen this resolve. In many cases, homelessness is an extreme symptom of relationship issues, and like most problematic behaviours, the key is to understand the positive function that living without housing serves to individuals. If we can work to the general assumption that any behaviour, problematic or otherwise, serves a purpose to the person, whether we agree with it or not, we are likely to get closer to the truth.

It’s All About Connection!

Consider if you will the challenge of the Housing Officer. Their role, perhaps even their vocation, is to help reduce the plight of the homeless, put a roof over people’s heads and give them the security that we assume they so desperately need. So they work tirelessly with their clients, helping them to find appropriate housing, whether that be a flat, house, shelter or hostel, and help them to manage the responsibility of that roof through work and finances. These teams work so hard, like so many frontline professionals, usually with the aim of helping people make positive improvements to their lives. Imagine how frustrating it is to work so hard to help someone, only to find that they end up back on the streets?

Why does this happen? The answer is simpler that the solution. Isolation, to the human being, is like death. We crave connection to SOMETHING – whether that be other people, environments, relationships, interests, pets…the list goes on, but the aim is the same – connection. Here’s an interesting thought to explore – where does the homeless person feel more ‘connected’? In a flat, on their own, with many new responsibilities that they have never understood or felt the benefit of before? Or on the street, perhaps with other homeless people, amongst many other people (even if it is just their legs walking by), living a life that, although may be tough, they have learned to survive? Even the connection they have with their housing officer has come to an end – it has to – so, what or who are they connected to now?

There was a brief interview on the radio recently, with a homeless man discussing his plight. He was homeless as a result of a breakdown in his relationship with his parents. Listening to him, he expressed a desire to have his own space, a sanctuary that was his and his alone. This particular individual may be relatively easy to deal with, as he ultimately WANTS a home. The point to focus in on here was that he had a home, but the relationship – the ‘connection’ – with his parents was so damaged that he fled the perceived ‘security’ of a roof over his head. The lack of meaningful connection made that roof insecure. This tells us that homelessness is about so much more than simply a roof – it’s the meaningful connection an individual has to everyone and everything that is underneath that roof.

The Psychology of Homelessness

Surprisingly, the psychology of homelessness is no different to the psychology of anyone. If we stick with the assumption that homelessness is an outcome, rather than a root cause, surly there’s more work to do? Seeking to understand WHY that person is homeless is key to proposing the right solutions and ongoing support in the future. It’s also a safe assumption about anyone that past experiences, thoughts and feelings absolutely affect our behaviour. So, if we consider homelessness a ‘behaviour’ rather than a cause, surely we need to do more to understand what led to this outcome? This is where PIEs come in. Understanding the psychology behind each individual’s plights can give clues as to why this outcome has arisen – but most importantly, it can help practitioners propose solutions that are sustainable in the long term.

No-One Left Out Solutions Ltd created a report that breaks a PIE down into 5 key elements. Operating consistently within these elements is key to assisting long-term positive outcomes and behavioural change.

  • Relationships – no surprise here! Connection is the key to sustainability. Understanding the positive function that homelessness serves to an individual will allow us to propose solutions that maintain those same connections, but with a different outcome. Connecting individuals to other services or communities can also assist sustainability if the solution is right for the individual. Managing expectations within relationships is also a critical factor.
  • Staff Training & Support – housing officers and organisations require knowledge and skills to accurately assess the psychology behind their clients plight. This is about building trust and credibility with clients in order to seek the truth behind their homelessness, and the root cause behind the behaviour. Some simple, quick counselling and therapeutic techniques employed by housing officers can make all the difference here, and will allow staff to understand the root cause of the problem, and more accurately propose successful solutions.
  • Physical Environment – understanding the psychology behind the outcome is key to understanding what will and won’t work for your client in terms of physical environment. For example, an individual with a deep-rooted fear of responsibility may benefit more from a hostel or shelter initially, rather than their own place. Whether the physical environment is conducive to their psychological health is also a key factor.
  • Psychological Framework – if we’re going to apply psychology to practise, we need a method! And this method needs to be embedded throughout ALL practise, from early intervention, through to assessment, outcomes and sustainability. The framework becomes a common language amongst associations, and informs all aspects of delivery.
  • Evidence Generating Practise – this is a critical factor. Both the association and the client need to be able to clearly assess and evaluate success, and ‘state of mind’ becomes as important to measure as ‘state of being’ already is.

PIE Culture – Myth or Magic?

There is no ‘quick fix’ PIE injection at present – housing organisations will need to work hard to embed PIEs into their culture. Processes, assessment, support functions, capability and solutions all require the PIE treatment, otherwise the mentality is at risk of not sticking. Fortunately, IntraQuest have a solution that will solve a big part of this problem. Our learning framework, created around the 5 key elements of PIE, will provide staff with the psychological framework, knowledge, skills, tools and techniques required to operate a true PIE service. We can even offer consultancy and support on internal practises, such as assessment forms and processes, to ensure that they align to the PIE service being offered. We have worked with many housing associations in the past who have all testified to the power of our method, and we’re excited about offering our award-winning capability programmes now aligned to creating successful PIE cultures. If you would like to know more, please get in touch with us. IntraQuest have proven the significantly positive impact that the therapeutic approach has as a restorative practise – let us help you create better outcomes and a culture of independence amongst your service users.

If you’re a Housing Trust, non-profit or charity, we may be able to provide you with fully or part-funded learning solutions. Complete our short survey here to find out if we can help you!