An interview with Gary Staniforth of Hidden Voices.
Hidden Voices are champions of positive change in the lives of vulnerable people. They provide training, activities and workshops to improve mental health, raise self-esteem and build confidence. Gary Staniforth began his journey in 2008 and is now the CEO of the Hidden Voices social enterprise.
“I lost just about everything. I needed to have a really good look at myself, which is what I did.”
How did you get involved with the homeless sector?
When I became homeless in 2008 the legislation stated there was no duty of care for me, so I decided to sit on the City Hall steps and protest with cardboard placards. I sat there from morning until night for about six weeks, and then I wrote a speech for the council chambers and told them what I thought of the system. This was received really well by over seventy councillors. From there, I got involved in the housing strategic bodies and promoted positive change within the homeless sector. I stayed involved and learnt a lot about the system, and I also learnt a lot about myself.
So tell us about how found yourself homeless.
Well, I’ll give you the short story. I was sexually abused as a child at 10, labelled as maladjusted at 13, and then put into care. I settled down when I came out and I did really well for thirteen years. I was a Car Sales Executive and I was doing fine. Then within six years my life just fell apart due to drugs and stupid decisions. My relationship broke down and I had a short spell in jail. In 2008 everything came to a head. I lost my family, my job, my driving license. Everything really, I lost just about everything. I needed to have a really good look at myself, which is what I did.
“We let them know that they’re not on their own.”
What inspired you to found Hidden Voices?
I was affected a lot by my childhood; I had massive trust issues, anger management problems, abandonment issues, massive insecurities. The list goes on and on to be quite honest. As I worked through all of my issues, I realised change needed to happen, and my journey became my passion for change. I had a light bulb moment – I woke up and realised that I was causing myself a lot of pain, and I wanted to show that there was a better way of doing things. So that’s when Hidden Voices came along.
What services are offered by Hidden Voices?
We now deliver at four different venues, at Keighley Healthy Living, Bevan Healthcare, Millside, and at Horton Training Centre. In the morning we deliver SMART and life coaching, and then there’s a Cook and Eat at about twelve o’clock, so people can come together and get involved. In the afternoon we do something creative.
Why do you think it’s important that people are able to express their creativity?
It’s all come from my own journey and I noticed a lot of talent but an inability to express that. I met a lot of writers and painters and musicians at the Salvation Army. For me being so talented and not being able to express that is just a lack of fulfilment, and fulfilment is a basic human need. I think writing your own personal story can have a massive cathartic effect. It can really help to see yourself, and it can break stigma as well when we share them in the magazine. It shows that there’s more to a person than a label.
“I noticed a lot of talent but an inability to express that.”
So how have the services offered by Hidden Voices developed?
At first we set up a magazine to give other people a voice, and that started working really well. In 2012 we were recognised on Secret Millionaire, who gave us some funding and we used that to develop further. Then a friend of mine who was a life coach got in touch so she was able to deliver tools and techniques to other people. We came up with a six week course, which ran so well that we applied for three years of funding from The Big Lottery. With the funding, I’ve also been able to deliver SMART recovery, which focuses on addictive behaviours. It’s all about changing your mindset – we are all about positive change.
Why are you called Hidden Voices?
Originally we were called the Hidden Homeless, because when you’re in the Salvation Army you’re hidden away so that’s what we were – the Hidden Homeless. We’ve only just changed to Hidden Voices because the homeless tag was a barrier – some people didn’t think they could connect with our service as they thought it was just for homeless people. We had people ringing us up and asking for housing advice which wasn’t something we did. We’re more about helping those who want and need help.
“A lot of people are treating the symptoms, and I think you need to treat the cause.”
What do you think is the importance of Hidden Voices?
I saw a gap in the services: a lot of people are treating the symptoms, and I think you need to treat the cause. But for me the cause is us, as people, we are affected by our thinking. At Hidden Voices we like to change the way that people think, because the more positive you feel the more willing you are to engage. And it’s also about looking at yourself, looking at what the issues are and why. Once you understand yourself you can implement so many different changes.
What are the main challenges faced by Hidden Voices?
The difficult part is just getting people to walk through the door. If you’re feeling insecure and struggling with low confidence or poor self esteem then walking into a room full of people you’ve never met before is a scary concept. It’s scary for anyone. It’s about understanding that, and I think we manage to do that because all the facilitators have been service users – we all have a history. We’ve all overcome our own issues, and we share this with our clients. We let them know that they’re not on their own.
“At Hidden Voices we like to change the way that people think, because the more positive you feel the more willing you are to engage. Once you understand yourself you can implement so many different changes”
And are there any plans to expand the work done by Hidden Voices?
Plans and aspirations, absolutely. My vision is to have our own building with a really smooth service where people come in crisis and leave feeling positive, looking forward to the future. I don’t want people to dwell and have no aspirations, I want them to have goals and see a positive future. We’ve only got 12 months of funding left, in January 2019 we’ll have five years of evidence that the service works, but it could work a lot smoother given the funding. We’ve got the clients, the clients are coming out of our ears. It’s just about making a better service.
What do you find most rewarding about the work you do?
There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing somebody change. Our SMART facilitator, Cathy, came through our SMART programme when I was facilitating. She was a heroin addict for 17 years, and now she’s completely clean. She’s employed and running our SMART workshops. She’s completely cleaned her life up, and that’s just a shining light really.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing somebody change.”
For more information about Hidden Voices and the work they do in the community in Bradford, visit their base at the Carlisle Centre or their website at hidden-voices.org.uk