Faces of Cambridge: Meet the Co-production Group, supporting the most vulnerable in the community

The Tab talks to Tom Tallon and Anne Taylor, founders of ‘the Co-production Group’, about the impact their project has on homelessness in Cambridge

This series of articles seeks to break the ignorance bubble surrounding homelessness and encourage people to reconsider how they think about and behave towards the homeless. We want to transform people’s perception of the homeless into individuals with their own pasts, hopes and dreams, defined by more than their situation.

Faces of Cambridge is back after something of a hiatus during the pandemic. Not being able to continue this work was frustrating because COVID-19 has forced the Government into action on tackling homelessness. Now, more than ever, is the time for dialogue between the student body in Cambridge, the local authorities and the most vulnerable members of our community. 

Keen to speak to the Cambridge Council on the issue, one particularly helpful councillor put me in touch with Tom Tallon, founder of the Co-production Group for Cambridgeshire, and its current Chair, Anne Taylor. ‘Co-production’ is an approach to tackling social issues which involves people coming together to find a shared solution – those who use services are consulted and included from the start to the end of any project that affects them. This organisation seeks to humanise and hear the voices of the most vulnerable members of our society. I spoke to Tom and Anne to find out a bit more about the Co-production Group’s objectives and the important work they do.

“To change the systems for the better, to see where the flaws were when they went through those services”

I began by asking Tom and Anne to explain a bit about what the Co-production Group is. Anne explains that it was set up to support service users of housing, mental health and drug/alcohol abuse support services, as well as those who have been through the criminal justice system. Through the group, Anne says that these individuals have the opportunity “to change the systems for the better, to see where the flaws were when they went through those services, and to be able to improve them for the benefit of other users.”

Tom explains that they use the Making Every Adult Matter (MEAM) approach. “One of the key facets of this work is that people with lived experience should be involved in designing services that they use … a lot of the work I’m trying to do is about building the number of people who can contribute.” His role is not to do the Co-production work itself because he doesn’t have “the same lived experience.”

“It’s not just about bringing together a group – it’s also about reaching out to people”

I ask how many participants the group has. Anne says:  “We have a distribution list – probably around ten to fifteen people with lived experience. But there are also a number of people who work for services who try to reach out. One of the problems with having a monthly meeting is not everyone feels able to come, and might not be in the right space at that time so it’s not just about bringing together a group – it’s also about reaching out to people.”

Anne explains that some people contribute “even if they don’t attend the meetings, and that’s something we value.”

She goes on to tell me about the importance of trauma -informed care as an example of when change has been implemented following work by the Group. “It should be adopted by all frontline services in the county –  it should be a national thing.” She says it’s all about seeing a person “as a human being rather than a problem to be solved. And asking the question, ‘what has happened to you?’ rather than ‘what is wrong with you?”

Anne went on to talk about a personal example to illustrate why trauma-informed care is so crucial. “I was having a panic attack on the High Street and a member of the general public, who didn’t really understand what was happening to me, rang the Police, who arrested me and treated me like I was a criminal; they didn’t treat me like a person with a mental health problem.”

“We want to train the leaders so they can understand what it is and then disseminate that”

Tom says they invited the Police & Crime Commissioner to the group to hear about this issue, who then promised to look into it. “The next target of the group is to identify key senior leaders and invite them to be trained in trauma-informed care themselves and then ask that they roll it out within their organisations. We want to train the leaders so they can understand what it is and then disseminate that.”

Anne gives another example of how service users have instigated change, this one relating to housing. A service user suggested that “a trusted person be allowed to help a service user to make an application for housing in a safe place. It doesn’t have to be a member of the housing department and it could be in a coffee shop or a park.” She says this was “taken on board.”

Anne (right) and her colleague, Marie (Image credit: ptfilm.co.uk)

I ask whether the pandemic has presented many challenges, and Tom says it is “a massive problem.” He says one of the reasons why the group ended up being suspended for 6 months was that “very few of the people who come have the necessary technology to connect remotely.” However, he also says there are “a lot of positives which have come out of COVID and we need to make sure these are continued and we don’t go back to the way we were”, pointing to the increased provision of housing and support for the homeless and other vulnerable adults as part of the drive to protect people from coronavirus.

He says, “We’ve started the group again with social distancing, hand-cleansing and face masks because we consider it an essential piece of work and we can’t do it remotely.”

To find out more about the work of the Co-production Group, check out the It Takes a City website – they are listed as one of the action groups on there.

Feature image credit: Background photo by Jean-Luc Benazet on Unsplash + It Takes a City logo from Anne Taylor