Paul Streets: The Living Room continues to thrive during Covid-19, and here's why

A county council recognising the importance of different support systems has enabled two local charities to ensure healthy collaboration rather than competition

Paul Streets
Paul Streets

What a difference a few months make. At the end of last year I visited The Living Room – a bit of a surprise find, in one of the 70s blocks that dominate Stevenage and its many roundabouts.

It's an unusual charity in many ways – not least in that it has forged a very positive relationship with Change Grow Live as a partner in addressing addiction across Hertfordshire. Key to this has been a county council that recognises the distinction between the intensive work needed to “detox” provided by Change Grow Live, and the long-term follow-up support in the community provided by The Living Room.

Separate contracts for each charity ensure healthy collaboration and respectful cross-referral, rather than the dog-eat-dog destructive competition that so much contracting guarantees. The charity is also unusual because it deals with all addictions together and challenges our own orthodoxy – which normally advocates for specialised over-generic services, and fears commissioners who seek to group specialities together at the altar of transactional efficiency (ergo cost reduction).

We met a client group facing the seemingly different challenges of alcohol, drugs, eating disorders and gambling, but working together in a group led by a trained facilitator who had lived with drug addiction herself. This group work is combined with individual counselling and a range of therapies.

Of those it works with, 60 per cent achieve a “planned exit” and the “magic four months”, which means they can genuinely regard themselves as “in recovery”. On average it takes 10 months to get there. Though as a member of the group told us: “I will never be 'cured' – I will die with my addiction”.

The facilitated peer group works because participants share a sense of responsibility with others “who see through me when I lie” and “don’t let me get away with it”. What’s striking is the diversity in the group – young and older men and women (The Living Room clients range from 19 to 74 years old) – and evidently from very different social classes. It also has a great online platform which 34 per cent of self-referrals come through.

From the outside, The Living Room is a flat-roofed 70s brick building, albeit colour coded in subtle purple and green as part of their new branding. But on the inside, it is warm and inviting with therapy rooms and a crèche that ensures young mothers and fathers, a key client group, can attend.

It’s run by the impressive Adrienne Arthurs, who talks enthusiastically about the charity’s work and points to the Theory of Change model framed on its wall, developed following a peer development programme she undertook at the School for Social Entrepreneurs. This focused on their core work, but also how best to generate revenue – with the charity part-funded by its own The Living Room shops, which provide second-hand clothing and household goods at fair prices to local people.

A lot has happened since I visited, and lockdown has been especially tough for those facing addiction. Recognising this, in spite of the huge practical and financial pressures Covid-19 has heaped on them, The Living Room has continued to operate – transferring support work online and providing group counselling via Zoom. It is planning to open up again for face-to-face delivery, but also want to open a fourth Virtual Centre, based on the success of its Covid response.

To its credit, Hertfordshire County Council has continued to back the charity's “converted model” so it has continued taking in new referrals from Change Grow Live and other agencies.

The Living Room is one of thousands of #SmallButVital, local charities showing us a different way to approach deep-seated societal problems and reach people during the Covid-19 crisis when they are needed more than ever.

But it is unusual – from what we see – in being fully supported and endorsed by their local council because, in Adrienne’s words, “they have taken the time to come and see for themselves.”

Let’s hope more councils have seen the same during the Covid crisis and will translate that into a different relationship when we get through this.

Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation

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