Family Gateway has been supporting families living in poverty or disadvantage across north east England since 2011. We use community led approaches to help families tackle the many interconnected issues surrounding poverty, and help children to fulfil their true potential in life.

Who do we help?

The families we work with are often the ones really on the edge. I think of them as the hidden 2–3%. They are the people most at risk of ill health – the families with such a complex mix of issues that they've slipped between the cracks of services, and who often avoid engaging with health care and other support services. They don’t trust statutory services and are often worried that if they ask for help, social services will get involved.

This was the case with Emma (name changed to protect identity). Her husband died suddenly a year ago and she was left on her own with six children. When we first met her, things were in a desperate state, her mental health was dreadful and she was barely able to feed her children. She was somehow living entirely on child allowance and didn't know she was entitled to other benefits. Family life was suffering and she'd attempted suicide four times because she just couldn't see an end to it.

On the surface it seemed she just needed help accessing benefits, but actually she needed support with so much more. Living in the stress of continuing poverty can have long-term effects on a range of other issues that affect both mental and physical wellbeing of everyone in the house.

How do we help?

Poverty restricts people’s ability to plan or make good decisions. Emma couldn’t always afford to heat the house, or to feed her children healthy food – and due to the state of her own mental health, the mental and emotional wellbeing of her children also suffered. Those issues can quickly spiral, and that in turn can make it so much harder to recover from a bad situation.

That’s why when we start working with a family, it's rarely about tackling just one thing. Often there will be a presenting problem that seems simple: money troubles, a health condition, children with bad school attendance or behaviour problems. But you don't have to dig too deep to find other things underneath: addiction, domestic violence, poor housing, neglect.

Family Entrepreneurs – the backbone of our approach

What makes us different at Family Gateway is that we’re able to build a trusting relationship with these hidden families so that they can begin to access the right support. We do this through our tried and tested ‘Barefoot Professional’ model, through which we employ local parents – people who’ve experienced similar issues to the families we support. They volunteer with us initially, and we provide them with 8 weeks of intensive training. If they are then ready (ie resilient, capable and committed) and pass our strict interview test, we employ them on the living wage as Family Entrepreneurs.

It's a game changer. These are local people whose children might go to the same school or who are known in their community. They know what it's like to be living in dire circumstances. They've experienced severe debt, homelessness, or ongoing mental health issues. And they know that it's possible to move forward.

It's not an easy model to manage by any means, because we are employing people who have been through a really difficult time and asking them to work with families in complex situations. But it works.

Our Family Entrepreneurs are hugely motivated, and they're able to get in the door and engage on a level that other professionals can't. Parents trust them, and reveal things they wouldn't have told anyone else. And that means we can really work with those families on the priority issues – the things that stop them sleeping at night.

A brighter future

That’s how we moved things forward with Emma. As well as helping with benefits and looking at how the family spent what was coming into the household, we connected her up to services to support her mental health. And once we’d started tackling some of those big presenting issues, we looked at how we could help with family life: what the kids were eating, how they were doing at school, how Emma could engage and spend quality time with them to meet their emotional needs.

Emma is now out of that dark place, and has better access to the support she and the family need to cope better with the stresses they have to deal with. She has completed our volunteer training course, volunteers with us part time, and has just started working with us as a cleaner. Her eldest daughter is also now volunteering with us.  

We have solid evidence now that our approach works. But finding ongoing support to sustain our work is always hard because it's difficult to know which department should be funding us. Our outcomes traverse health and social care, education and housing, so who should pick up the bill? That's why I think it's time for government to be thinking more ambitiously about tackling these issues, and to put money into bottom-up community led approaches like ours that tackle multiple issues and really show results.

Pauline Wonders (@Paulinewonders) is Strategic Director of Family Gateway (@FamilyGatewayUK)

Further reading

Blog

For a healthier nation, we must solve UK poverty

16 February 2018

Campbell Robb, Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, writes about the link between...

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