Nathan Williams - Paper - Phoenix House Youth Service - Exiting into homelessness: How one Specialist Homelessness Service made a difference with the relational approach
Nathan Williams delivered the presentation at the 2014 Out of Home Care Summit. The 2014 Out of Home Care Summit featured highly interactive sessions and a series of four half-day targeted streams covering the current, topical issues in Out of Home Care across Australia. Showcasing innovative solutions and viable strategies, the Summit focused on the highly practical nature of affecting change within the sector. For more information about the event, please visit: http://www.informa.com.au/outofhome14
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - Nathan Williams - Paper - Phoenix House Youth Service - Exiting into homelessness: How one Specialist Homelessness Service made a difference with the relational approach
© 2014 Nathan Williams Page 1
Exiting OOHC into homelessness
How one Specialist Homelessness Service made a
difference with the relational approach
© 2014 Nathan Williams
Specialist Homelessness Services have for decades accommodated and supported young
people exiting Out Of Home Care. Experience has led some services to incorporate
psychodynamic, attachment-based and trauma-informed practice. The innovative relational
approach to supporting young people at Phoenix House Youth Services led to an increase in
the relational capacity of young people from Out Of Home Care. This enabled them to redress
their relationships with foster carers, or exit homelessness. The presentation highlights the
developmental processes of staff themselves in providing such care.
© 2014 Nathan Williams Page 2
THE JACARANDAS gift their near-fluorescent mauve to the avenues of Crows Nest
every spring. Adolescent magpies keep to ground, awkward and needy, for what
seems too long to be reasonable to our sensibility. Disregarding the wings beneath
their down, they follow their parents around. They have no aerial bird’s eye view yet
of the village of their namesake, on a slight hill protected from the encroaching
skyscrapers of North Sydney.
Phoenix House Youth Services has been located in Crows Nest for over 30 years.
Servicing the lower North Shore of Sydney, Phoenix House provides semi-
independent medium term supported accommodation for 17-22 year olds, as well as
case management and counselling for 12-24 year olds.
I worked at Phoenix House for almost seven years until late 2013.
Exiting Out Of Home Care into homelessness
Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) have for decades accommodated and
supported young people exiting Out Of Home Care (OOHC). Up to a third of the
young people we accommodated and case managed at Phoenix House were from
They arrived between 16 and 18 years of age with a host of complex behaviours and
high needs. Some had experienced consistent care post removal; many had
experienced inconsistent care; a few had further experienced abuse or neglect.
There was often little evidence of the facilitated development of these young people.
While many had experienced kind foster carers, their narrative did not allude to
attachment with these carers. Some still spoke of a case manager from years before,
and there was significance in that relationship, both idealisation and pining for contact,
which was intermittent. All our young people from OOHC arrived with a string of lost
and remembered case managers behind them, from DoCS, foster care services, and
SHS. Where there was crossover and case coordination between Phoenix House and
the most recent case managers, I was often struck by the juxtaposition of hope
verbalised about the young person, and impotent withdrawal into case management of
Children and young people require basic relational opportunities - a safe home with
emotional attunement and repair, play, guidance and space, basic nurturance and
treats. If consistent, the primary figures’ attunement to and confirmation of the child’s
experience is a developmental resource for the child. It facilitates the development of
© 2014 Nathan Williams Page 3
inner and outer reality, and passes on the ability to self-regulate.
In the disruption or absence of these relational opportunities early on – the
circumstances we call inconsistent care or neglect – young people develop what the
psychodynamic literature refers to as developmental trauma. Such child-rearing fails
to adequately trigger the development of structures in the brain responsible for
attunement to self and others.
In my youth work I have seen the enduring effects upon adolescence of childhood
neglect and inconsistent care. Children grow up struggling to regulate themselves or
have a sense of self or other. This manifests as an attachment template and pervasive
dissociation that restrict their capacity as young people to engage in mutually-
Developmental trauma is obscured and complicated by big-T Trauma. Young people
who exit OOHC into homelessness have experienced one or more of intensive or
prolonged developmental trauma, an ongoing separation or loss of a primary caregiver,
or simultaneous care and intrusion or abuse. All the young people who entered
Phoenix House from OOHC had developed dissociative structures that severely
compromised their relationships, including toxic shame, hyper-vigilance, hypo-
arousal in social situations, distrust, and ambivalence about new attachments. And
associated personality, behavioural and addiction issues. These young people
struggled to even socially engage let alone engage in mutually-beneficial relationships.
Relational capacity and opportunity
Developmental trauma and Trauma significantly reduce young people’s relational
capacity. Without the abilities of self-regulation, social engagement, sense of self and
other, a young person cannot integrate experience or relate to others with contingency.
Essentially, they are unable to attune to both self and other enough to get their needs
met while remaining in relationship.
Some young people exiting OOHC consequently do not have the relational capacity to
make the most of opportunities (however limited) that come their way. Finding relief
in supportive relationships; considering the advice of guardians and mentors; finding
and maintaining housing; entering and staying in education or work– these all involve
relationships. Taking up and making the most of each of these opportunities
necessitate young people regulating themselves, knowing their own reality,
expressing connection, communicating needs, and negotiating with others.
Relational capacity is critical in determining whether young people exit OOHC into
homelessness. Even more so than the level of opportunities provided by society. As
our soon-to-be clients withdrew themselves from care or had it withdrawn from them,
with both limited opportunity but also severely restricted relational capacity, they
© 2014 Nathan Williams Page 4
exited into homelessness.
Developing relational capacity
I went to work excitedly in the years I worked at Phoenix House. Everyone in my life
knew about it. I worked within a buzzing team. We threw our all into our
relationships with young people.
Phoenix House uses the ‘relational approach’ to supporting young people. It is the
relationships formed with young people that are primary in the development of their
Staff bring authenticity to their relationships with a young person, throughout the
length and breadth of service provision, in both structured and casual interactions.
Within the context of the relationship, staff attune to and confirm a young person’s
experience, scaffold play, facilitate mutual influence, share their own experience,
mirror and set boundaries on the young person’s behaviour. Essentially, the youth
worker becomes a developmental resource of the young person’s developmental
Stages of the relational approach
Over my years at Phoenix House I was impressed by the gradual but substantial
transformations in the young people’s lives. At first it was in their relationships with
us. Intensive initial relationship facilitates the development of self-regulation, sense of
self and other, trust and safety. The young person finds the opportunity to reveal their
experience and express their needs, while staying in relationship with us.
The development of young people’s relational capacity enables them to seek and
consider our advice. Our now assimilable guidance supports them to practice this with
others. We make meaning together of their experiences out in the world. The young
person begins to discover many parts of the world are safe. They begin to hold onto
their value regardless of what happens out in the world.
It was a delight for me each time a young person had formed enough trust with me to
try out something new, that they had missed out on due to a lack of sense of safety
from which to explore life. Whether it was something fun, a simple pleasure like
getting in the surf, or sticking up for their self when an adult was rude to them on the
I observed that generally within two years of the beginning of the relationship, young
people at Phoenix House began to engage with external opportunities more
© 2014 Nathan Williams Page 5
autonomously and sustainably. After one or two intensively supported attempts at
housing, education or work, young people had developed sufficient relational capacity
to seek out or respond to new opportunities, making thoughtful and appropriate
choices for themselves. Moreover they were able to take up these opportunities and
sustain them, with less intensive ongoing support, as they negotiated the new
relationships that came with the opportunity.
By taking up new opportunities and more secure relationships that are beneficial for
them, young people essentially adapt their own world. At first unconsciously, and
later even consciously. It is was a proud moment for everyone when young people
made the decision to move on, having wrapped around themselves secure supports
other than us. The common desire of young people at this stage of development to
give back to the service and other young people, and participate in civil institutions,
was testament to the compatibility of the relational approach with empowerment.
Enactment and trauma in the developmentally-facilitative relationship
When young people exiting OOCH approached Phoenix House for housing, it would
be dishonest to say they consented for us to begin supporting them in a way that
facilitated their relational capacity. It would be fair to say they met us defensively.
Both Trauma and developmental trauma restrict young people’s engagement in
relationships that might develop their relational capacity.
Young people’s experience of Trauma remains alive in dissociative vagal states and
hyper-vigilant limbic states, precluding social engagement and learning. Trauma-
informed practice and the therapeutic care model have recently formalised what we
know from experience and neuroscience into priorities in our relationships with young
people. For young people to make use of our support, we need to do more than be
engaging– we need to provide literal safety, and assist them into social engagement
with us so they can experience that safety.
Young people’s experience of inconsistent and insufficient care further complicates
matters. Young people with little relational capacity adapt relational habits. At
Phoenix House, one boy talked so quietly, his face turned away, that we could never
understand what he was saying. Another boy generally led the conversation with a put
Not only do these habits restrict young people’s engagement in the relationships that
may develop their relational capacity– these relational habits try the most competent
© 2014 Nathan Williams Page 6
There is one critical thing a supportive adult must do– act like an adult. Yet under
stress we regress. We have trouble acting the way we would like in a relationship. Our
response may surprise us both, including emotion more familiar to our upbringing
than to this relationship.
At Phoenix House I had the great fortune of being supervised by Steve as I supported
young people. In our fortnightly hour, Steve brought my attention back a little from
young people, and off even from my interventions. He turned my headlights onto my
responses in my relationships with young people. Then switched on high beam.
We took an inventory of what I observed of a difficult interaction with a young person,
their behaviour, as well as my thinking, feeling and actions. For me one experience
reoccurred. At times when young people avoided of me, I made up that this was due
to me not being good enough. I became angry at their avoidance, and pursued them to
inquire into their experience of me. This was a relational habit familiar across my life.
After revisiting my own experience, Steve returned my attention to the young
people’s behaviours and needs. Often my unconscious reaction had complemented
their reaction to me in what was actually a familiar and problematic relational
enactment from their childhood. Steve and I determined what would be a preferred
and professional response.
I returned to interactions with young people with relational competence. With a
means for integrating my own experience as it arose in relationships with young
people, I had greater flexibility to consciously act like an adult. This enabled me to
constructively step out of relational enactments, contributing less to the familiar
dynamic that we both feared.
Developing adults are transformative
The power of our relational competence in psychodynamic work is in giving clients
new relational experience. When we step out of relational enactments, but remain
present in the relationship, new interactions unfold. A charming young person who is
used to charmed adults colluding with her finds that this adult is not interested in
being soothed or humoured, but is attuned to her vulnerability. A prickly young
person who is used to insulted adults colliding with her finds that this adult will not be
treated that way, but is interested in spending time with her.
When we recognise ways we have turned away from young people, and we repair the
rupture in the next moment or the next time together, coming back to their experience,
we are doing something transformative. For young people from OOHC, this
experience can be a life-changing moment. I have often found this new relational
© 2014 Nathan Williams Page 7
experience to be in hindsight the turning point in their development of relational
capacity, whereby good things start to stick.
Bringing about the conditions of growth across the developmental system
At Phoenix House, as young people began to engage in the developmentally-
facilitative relationship, they often made renewed contact with foster carers, and even
family. This often involved conflict or regression, but in general these support
relationships became more collaborative.
I was interested to find that as young people’s constructive choices brought myself
also into more contact with these other support adults, my relational competence was
doubly useful. I found myself attuning to these other adults’ experience; applauding
and learning from their unique relational successes; not colluding in conversations
that projected themselves onto young people; guiding them in awareness of their own
relational habits with young people’s behaviour; negotiating the provision of an
experience of consistency for the young people.
I left Phoenix House with the vision that the development of relational competence by
staff had an outward trajectory. It had been initiated by the necessity of facilitating the
development of relational capacity in traumatised young people. Yet it was useful also
in our attunement and assertiveness with other carers, coworkers and bosses, and
potentially out in the sector and politics. In this way the relational approach promises
to not be reducible to a treatment model, offering also a means toward social change.