David Brandon – homelessness, advocacy and mental health, and zen in the art of helping

Picture by Ry. Reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence.

David Brandon – homelessness, advocacy and mental health, and zen in the art of helping. In this article we examine David Brandon’s seminal contribution to our understanding of the experience of homelessness and mental health problems, and his insights into the nature of advocacy and the helping process. We draw out some lessons for informal educators and others.

contents: introduction · david brandon – life · rough sleeping and the experience of homelessness · advocacy and mental health · david brandon, zen in the art of helping hindering compassion nownesstaoistic change · conclusion · further reading and bibliography · how to cite this article.

David Brandon (1941-2001) made a major contribution to our appreciation of the experience of rough sleeping and the needs of homeless people; to the way we can approach helping others; and to deepening practice with those suffering mental health problems and advocating on their behalf.

Brandon’s exposure of the conditions that homeless people had to endure within reception centres; his work as a research adviser on Cathy Come Home (1966), the deeply influential television drama written by Jeremy Sandford and directed by Ken Loach; and his subsequent research, writing, teaching and campaigning mark David Brandon out as one of the most significant actors in the field during the second half of the twentieth century. His work with Mind and commitment around mental health resulted in a number of important interventions and fed into publications especially with regard to advocacy. Furthermore, he made a profound contribution to our understanding of the helping process and to the orientation and commitment of helpers. Indeed, his book Zen in the Art of Helping (1976; 1990), has been described by Phil Barker as ‘the the most remarkable book of my generation’ (The Guardian December 13, 2001).

David Brandon – life

David Brandon was born in Sunderland and educated there at Bede Grammar School. He had a difficult home life – experiencing violence from, and a troubled relationship with, his father (who suffered both from mental illness and a lack of care from the local hospital) (Brandon 2003). From around the age of 13 David Brandon began to run away from home. He first slept rough around Tyneside and then in London, where, according to Ken Leech (2001) he spent time in Rowton House (later Tower House) in Whitechapel. However, he managed to continue with his studies and went to the University of Hull (taking a course in social studies).

After university David Brandon worked for the London County Council and eventually became deputy director of the LCC’s welfare centre for the homeless on the Embankment. However, in 1965 he had become so incensed about conditions in the Camberwell reception centre that he used confidential data to help the makers of Cathy Come Home (1966) and was fired. He then went to Brighton as a mental health social worker (1966-70) and studied at London School of Economics (1968-9) qualifying as a psychiatric social worker. In 1970 he returned to London, where through Christian Action, he set up Britain’s first homeless women’s shelters, in Lambeth and then in Greek Street, Soho (at Maude Stanley’s old Soho Club for Girls) The work at Greek Street featured in his 1974 book Homeless. He also became the first social work consultant to the newly formed charity Centrepoint – set up by Ken Leech and others at St Anne’s, Soho. Centrepoint aimed to provide shelter for, and to work with, young people sleeping rough on the streets of the West End. His approach to social work was unconventional and special. As his son Toby Brandon has commented:

By trying to live in the moment and really be in that moment with others gave him the capability of a smart bomb homing in on peoples’ troubles no matter how deep their bunkers. To be the target of this could be both uncomfortable and funny. Dad found humour a great tool with which to teach and to learn, seeing life as so serious it should not be taken too seriously. (2003)

In the mid 1970s David Brandon directed an important Department of Health -funded research project on homelessness (1972-78) reported in the influential book Survivors (Brandon et. al. 1980). He had moved into higher education teaching on social work programmes at Hatfield Polytechnic, North London Polytechnic and Preston Polytechnic. Following on from his work on Survivors he became the north west director of Mind (The National Association for Mental Health (1978-86). Whilst with Mind he became involved in several important campaigns. One of these was to bear significant fruit in 1996 when through significant effort on the part of David Brandon’s and others the English government’s decision to extend the direct payment option under the Community Care Direct Payments Act to people with mental health problems and learning difficulties. In 1992 David Brandon went to Anglia Polytechnic University at Cambridge (APU) becoming a Professor in Community Care in 1996, and was appointed Emeritus Professor in 2000. He became a visiting Professor at Nottingham Trent University, External examiner at Sunderland University, visiting lecturer at Teesside and Hull Universities, where he later became an honorary research associate. He also became a visiting Professor at the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside. At the beginning of 2001 he was preparing for a BBC World Service series entitled ‘Tao of Survival’ and editing a series of books on theories of social work for Venture Press. He also chaired the British Association of Social Workers in 1996.

The picture of David Brandon is used here with permission. All rights reserved.David Brandon met his wife Althea at Hull University and they were married in 1963. A year later Stewart was born and in 1967 their second son Toby. By the early 1980s the whole family had become involved in David’s work. They had bought a large Victorian house in Preston Lancashire which had been converted into two flats. This became an ideal place for people to stay who were in difficulties, or who needed a way to move back into the community. David was at the time interested in the resettlement of people from large long-stay hospitals for people with learning difficulties. He with Althea, Tom Mclean, Jean Ball and others set up the first dispersed supporting housing project in Britain called ‘Integrate’. He was also particularly active during this period for the rights of people with learning difficulties and mental health needs. Later Stewart Brandon wrote The Invisible Wall, an account of a family’s fight for the rights of their disabled child’s inclusion into mainstream school. David and Althea Brandon set up a training and consultancy organisation called Tao in 1986, and in 1987 David Brandon founded and edited Community Living a learning difficulties journal. During the 1990s he also helped to found and edit the quarterly journal CarePlan, and Breakthrough an international mental health journal. He wrote hundreds of articles for the mainstream journals and the media, appearing occasionally on TV. A by-product of Tao was a number of handbooks for training staff which had a wide influence on evolving services.

After David Brandon gained his diploma in mental health at the LSE, he went on to train in 1971 at Quaesitor, the Psychotherapy Institute in London. His work as a psychotherapist mostly occurred during the period he lived in Preston. As would be expected his approach was unique, eclectic, blending his own knowledge and experience with a Buddhist direction (see below). Althea Brandon recalls a ‘mute’ client, given up by the services; spoke to him in the first ten minutes of the session. He contributed to various journals and wrote chapters in Beyond Therapy (Claxton 1986) and Awakening the Heart (Welwood 1983). Both books looked at the East/West approaches to psychotherapy. His last contribution to a book was a chapter entitled ‘Chocolate Cakes’ in Spirituality and Mental Health: Breakthrough (Barker and Barker 2004). David Brandon always retained a healthy suspicion of psychotherapy and was deeply aware of its inherent power imbalances. His style of writing varied considerably between the strict academic structure of for example Innovation without Change (Brandon 1991) and the lyricism of Tao of Survival (Brandon 2000). He wrote prolifically in all the areas of his interest, homelessness, learning difficulties, mental health and spirituality.

David Brandon was also involved in international work. He worked with Professor Shula Ramon in Ljubljana (Slovenia) in 1991, Kiev (Ukraine) in 1995, and in Sarajevo (Bosnia) in 1999. The projects were all funded by the Tempus programme of the Economic Union, in Slovenia and Bosnia developing training in community mental health, and in the Ukraine to establish social work education. This was the period in which Communism ended as a political regime, and readiness to listen to new ideas at universities, public sector professions, and in society in general existed for a while. David Brandon was at his most charismatic in Ljubljana, where the school of social work was in the forefront of the attempt to change the lives of those institutionalised. He gave all that he had to introduce them to the possibility of a life without institutions for disabled people with any type of disability, to demonstrate to them that this new life is not only more just, but is also more enjoyable and useful. To this day the school, now a faculty, continues in the tradition of active engagement in deinstitutionalisation, teaching care management in the way David (with Althea) had perceived it and practiced it in Cambridge.

Brandon was a gifted teacher – and a passionate advocate of the needs of those experiencing mental health problems and homelessness. Ken Leech (2001) comments that he was fearless, and committed to direct confrontation. ‘He could divide a room more quickly than anyone I knew. In debate he was aggressive and devastating’. Phil Barker (2001) has similarly reported that David Brandon, ‘To the surprise of the pompous, … never forecast his challenges. Sidling up to us, he whipped out his remarkable wit and intelligence, like a Socratic razor, which often cut him as much as any foe’. At the same time, there was ‘a gentleness, warmth and immense concern with the pain of all human beings’ (Leech 2001). He was a member for some time of the Society of Friends – but was drawn to Buddhism and was eventually ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk in 1982. He had no particular desire to be a guru – but people were drawn to him. The garage on the family home in Preston was converted to a Zendo (Zen Buddhist temple) and it attracted a growing number of people until David and Althea had to move to a small flat in Cambridge (when David Brandon became a professor at APU) (Brandon 2003).

Phil Barker has described David Brandon’s spirituality as ‘earthy, vital and human’. Toby Brandon (2003) has underlined this point, ‘Spirituality to him was not about fuss but was a practical thing, it was about a disciplined commitment to helping yourself to help others’. He hated the emergence of ‘pseudo-spirituality’ :

My father was strongly against spiritual materialism, that pick ‘n’ mix culture where people construct their spiritual being by taking a bit of Taoism, a dash of Buddhism and a little bit of whatever else they fancied. He saw this ‘faddy’ approach as lazy and not mindful, mindfulness not being about the pursuit of any intellectualism but just retaining the self discipline to question. I believe this Zen self discipline in many ways kept him alive through his troubled periods. (Brandon 2001)

David Brandon died in November 2001. His wife Althea had nursed him at home for the last 5 months of his life.

Rough sleeping and the experience of homelessness

David Brandon made defining contributions to the field in at least four key areas. First, as we have already seen, he was part of the team that put together Cathy Come Home (1966)and brought issues around homelessness into greater public awareness.Written by Jeremy Sandford (1976), produced by Tony Garnett and directed by Ken Loach, this ‘docu-drama’ has achieved iconic status (In a British Film Institute poll of media professionals to determine the 100 greatest British television programmes it was voted into second place – behind Fawlty Towers – BFI TV 100). John Corner (undated) has commented that:

Part of the status accorded to Cathy is undoubtedly due to its particular qualities of scripting, direction and acting, but part follows from the way in which has been seen to focus and exemplify questions about the mixing of dramatic with documentary material and, more generally, about the public power of television in highlighting social problems.

The programme met with a positive critical response and generated a significant amount of political heat and activity. It focused attention on the ways in which local authorities were handling different aspects of homelessness and of the experiences of those who were rough sleeping or were finding themselves homeless. Cathy was an important contributor to the establishment of the housing, and then campaigning, charity – Shelter (Wilson 1970). The quality of the research around the problem of homelessness undertaken by David Brandon and others for the script contributed significantly to it’s influence -as did the amount of time Jeremy Sanford’s script gives to depicting aspects of this problem ‘as it advances the storyline concerning Cathy and her family’ (Corner undated, see, also, Corner 1996; Caughie 2000).

Second, David Brandon also played an important role in developing influential work in the early 1970s. In this area his contribution is wrapped up, in a significant way, with the activities of Kenneth Leech. With Christian Action he set up Britain’s first homeless women’s shelters, in Lambeth and then in Greek Street, Soho; and as a consultant to Centrepoint he helped to train and support the workers and volunteers involved. Centrepoint was set up by Kenneth Leech and others in 1969 to provide emergency shelter for the growing number of homeless young people arriving in London. It was initially based in a basement in St Anne’s Church, Soho where Leech was curate. One important product of this period was his 1974 book – Homelessness. One of its contributions was to allow the voice of those experiencing rough-sleeping and homelessness to be heard. As Peter Beresford (2001) has commented, David Brandon ‘talked about vagrancy being used as a blackboard by some to impose their ideas and egos, rather than make a difference for those on the receiving end’. He continued:

This was at a time when dominant discussion about single homelessness was still mainly framed in terms of Victorian charity and provision, emphasising the “psychopathy” and “social inadequacy” of homeless people, and dominated by missionaries, self-appointed leaders and charismatics, who included more than their fair share of crooks, abusers and charlatans.

David Brandon was one of the few people at that point ‘advancing humanistic and socially based approaches to the problem of “single homeless people”‘ (op. cit.).

Third, alongside this work, Brandon made a lasting contribution to the literature of, and research in, the field. Here a special mention needs to be made of the work he did with Kim Wells, Caroline Francis and Eaun Ramsey and reported in The Survivors (Brandon et. al. 1980). This study was based on detailed interviews with over a hundred young people connected with two London night-shelters (Centrepoint and North, Highgate) and the West End Reception Centre. The research was funded by the Department of Health and Social Security. Significantly, the researchers were able to follow up a large number of those interviewed a year or more later (between 40 and 50 per cent). While there were various limitations to the research, for example with regard to how representative those studied were, these were recognized by Brandon et. al. (1980: 30-51). Overall, they had produced the most substantial and thorough study of young homeless people at that time (and for some years to come). As they comment in their introduction, ‘the term homeless reflects mainly the views of those who have responsibility for, or influenced the making of social policy over the centuries. The voice of the defined has rarely been heard’ (1980: 5). One of the conclusions the researchers reach is that much more could be done once agencies recognized that those they were working with had a considerable capacity for self-help and for getting by – surviving. Many of the people interviewed ‘showed considerable courage and resourcefulness, in contrast to the sickly and helpless portraits frequently sketched by project reports’ (Brandon et. al. 1980: 193).

Last, David Brandon’s reflections on practice, and his developed practice wisdom fed into the development of some important models for thinking about support work within agencies working in the field.His contribution in this area was important both for the way in which has added generally to a greater sophistication of practice and in the specific models he offered. A good example of this is his 1998 four magnet model to illuminate care planning. David Brandon was highly critical of much that passed for assessment within social and housing support work. He particularly hated deficit models – approaches that focus on what people cannot do rather than what they can (Seal 2005: 100). Instead he argued for trying to locate needs in an appreciation of the full social and political context. His approach begins from the recognition that everyone has needs and that often those with what are seen as more complex or ‘challenging’ needs are viewed as ‘problems’. David Brandon, instead, developed the idea of magnets, ‘to one of which all the elements in the life history of the client will be attracted’. As Mike Seal (2005: 100) puts it ‘our behaviour and ways of thinking will be directed towards fulfilling this need’. In Brandon’s view these needs are universal and applicable to everyone. They are not indicators of failure, ‘but a way of getting people to start understanding themselves’ (Seal op. cit.). The magnets are as follows. The need:

  • For a sense of control;
  • To use and develop skills;
  • To understand and cognicize the pain we experience; and
  • To have human contact (and to be on our own).

As Mike Seal has shown, this model retains its force and illuminates the sorts of transitions that resettlement workers and others need to be exploring (Seal 2005: 103)

Advocacy and mental health

David Brandon (with Brandon and Brandon 1995: 1) saw advocacy as a means or device by which people, individually or in a group, or their representatives press their case with influential others ‘about situations which either affect them directly or, more usually, trying to prevent proposed changes which will leave them worse off’. It is a process that needs employing where individuals and groups do not have the means to have their voice routinely heard. It may be that those in power define or label them as not having anything significant to say, or that they do not have access to the right sorts of spaces and channels. In some cases it might be because they cannot, for some reason, speak for themselves {Bateman 2000; Brandon. 2000).

Brandon used John Southgate’s model of the advocacy process in order to emphasize some different aspects, Southgate argued that there were five key tasks:

  • nurturing, giving emotional and practical help in ways which are needed.
  • bearing witness to the suffering or maltreatment of those they support.
  • protesting about what is being done to the person or group; about the devaluing and rejection.
  • translating and interpreting the words and feelings of the individual or group to others as well as backing them directly.
  • supporting the inneradvocacy and creativity of the individual. (see Brandon et. al. 1995: 9-11).

David Brandon was to place a particular emphasis upon the latter. He, along with Anthea and Toby, saw an immense danger in that possibility that advocates change from being ‘indirect clients to being rescuers’ (1995: 137). They continued:

In advocacy the rescuer mode presents a deep temptation; rescuers need desperately to find victims. That has great costs for the victims… In our advocacy, we must struggle hard to promote the autonomy of the customers rather than our own self-centred wishes and the colonialist ambitions of our professions; to avoid reductionist concepts like ‘victims’.

As a result Brandon argued strongly for approaches and ways of working that sought to raise consciousness and to develop skills and structures so that those who have been marginalized or ignored can speak and be heard.

Some commentators, such as Peter Beresford (2001), have argued David Brandon’s greatest contributions were around advocacy, self-advocacy and people with learning difficulties. However, as Beresford recognized, David Brandon ‘was many things’; ‘he contributed tirelessly and significantly in many areas’ and others might highlight other aspects of his work. One of the interesting aspects of his contribution in this area is that it was often made in partnership with others – particularly his wife Althea and his son Toby (Brandon, Brandon and Brandon 1995; Brandon and Brandon 2001a, 2001b).

Advocacy was understood as being central to social work and social care processes, yet many practitioners either do not appreciate this or shy away from it. As Toby Brandon and David Brandon (2001b) commented:

It is hard to be optimistic about the role of advocacy in social care. Organisations – whether private, voluntary, or statutory – find increasingly effective ways of defending themselves against both insiders and outsiders, who are being perceived as the enemy. They use gagging clauses in employment contracts; improve skills in public relations; and develop managerial cultures based on loyalty to the organisation, rather than duties to clients and relatives. The whistleblower is presented with an outer face that professes to value his or her activities, but also by an inner face that is increasingly hostile and getting considerably cleverer at dealing with dissidents.

The current trend seems to be to focus on the advocate rather than on advocacy. However, we would like to see that trend reversed. The number of independent advocates is still relatively small, but the number of people involved in one way or another in the whole advocacy process is immense. This includes those with a disabled family member; disabled people themselves; concerned citizens; and service professionals, such as the readers of Community Care.

There is a great danger of building up a few hundred independent advocacy services at the expense of undermining the huge and vigorous advocacy process. (Brandon and Brandon 2001)

David Brandon looked to a more political and connected activity with respect to those with disabilities. The fundamental advocacy, he wrote ‘is that by people with disabilities themselves’ (Brandon et. al. 1995: 12).

David Brandon – Zen in the art of helping

Zen in the art of helping (Brandon 1976, 1990) was a landmark book. It was based in a strong appreciation of the relationship between personal troubles and public issues (Mills 1959) and of the contribution that insights from Zen Buddhism could make to helping. It also drew upon Brandon’s experiences in social work and upon thinkers like Fromm, Illich and Freire. In many respects it, and his later work Tao Of Survival (Brandon 2001)are part of a tradition of thinking and practice that embraces earlier writers like Martin Buber and later writers such as Parker J. Palmer. He stresses harmony, encounter and sociality:

Zen in the art of helping is nothing magical. It is that harmony which is common in social work, teaching and the informal contact between human beings. That contact melts away the gaps between the self and the other by being more fully human rather than through striving for the stars. It means taking down those barriers of knowledge, social position and education. It involves communicating and reaching out from our hearts aside from social conventions and expectations. It ploughs directly towards love through the minefields of ‘oughts’ and ‘should bes’…. It comes from our way of living… Helping and Zen are not separate processes. They come from the same human drive to reach out to others, to make meanings and patterns out of our experiences. (Brandon 1990: 14)

David Brandon highlights some of the problems that arise in the process of professionalization – and to explore how the way of Zen enables us to appreciate helping as ‘a way of living rather than as a particular job or career’ (Brandon 1990: 5). He chooses key areas where he believes the helping process can be illuminated by Zen. These include: hindering, compassion, nowness and taoistic change. We will look briefly at each of these in turn.


David Brandon was acutely aware of the various ways in which the actions of helpers can hinder the development and flourishing of those they seek to help. He had seen, time and again, the ways in which social workers and others took on institutional and bureaucratic ways of defining the situations and experiences of people; and also how naming oneself as a ‘professional’ can feed into an unthinking assumption that we know best. ‘Sometimes “helping” is simply a thin veneer over the top of robust hindering. Protecting the sick can be a way of holding them in their place and keeping them away from us’ (Brandon 1982: 6)

In our hearts we know we frequently offer little assistance to people… We demand that our clients suit our ideas of them rather than pursue their own pathways of personal growth – interfering rather than intervening. Helpers turn their clients into dependants; change them into passive consumers… Our craving for status, security and power conflicts directly with the provision of a truly helping service. (Brandon 1990: 6)

He saw that Ivan Illich’s (1975; 1977) analysis of professionalization – especially with regard to medicine and the extent which diseases originate from medical intervention – had much to teach others in the ‘caring professions’. However, David Brandon (1990: 32) had also identified that Illich’s analysis neglected in some important ways, the extent to which we hinder ourselves. ‘Helping and caring’, he commented, ‘can be a very effective way of concealing desperate personal needs’ (ibid.: 33). It can obscure a need to control and even punish others (op. cit.). Brandon found that the way of Zen was of some assistance in wrestling with our personal desire to have things our way (ibid.: 46). He argued that we need to learn, ‘a genuine respect based on compassion rather than pity, for our clients no matter how dirty, disorganized, aggressive or rejecting they may seem’. ‘Out of this respect’, he continued, ‘can flow good helping: help for us as well as them’ (op. cit.).


‘The real kernel of all our help’, David Brandon (1990: 6) argued, ‘that which renders it effective, is compassion’. Just like later writers such as Nel Noddings, he put caring and concern to alleviate suffering at the core of practice. However, he went to some lengths to distinguish between such caring and pity. The latter, he believed inevitably embodied a tendency to superiority, to looking down on the other. ‘Real compassion is often uncomfortable and disturbing’, he wrote. ‘It enlightens rather than lubricates. It has few intentions and works in an unflaunting way and unselfconscious way’ (1990: 58). It is ‘the complete reflection of overall harmony’ (1990: 59) and contains as Fromm (1995) has argued with respect to love, care, responsibility, respect and knowledge. As such it is close to what in Zen is known as Satori or enlightenment (Brandon 1990: 6).

Compassion is being in tune with oneself, the other person(s) and the whole world. It is goodness at its most intuitive and unreflecting. It is a harmony which opens itself and permits the flowing out of love toward others without any reward. It avoids using people as tools. It sees them as complete and without a need to be changed. (Brandon 1990: 60)

In practical terms compassion means:

… giving people room; opening doors rather than closing them; asking questions rather than giving answers. It means becoming sensitively aware of another person’s situation and feelings. It means listening with your whole being and giving, if you can, what is relevant and appropriate to the relationship without self-consciously measuring what it is.

Compassion is the process of deep contact with the primordial source of love. It is the direct communication from the innermost recesses of one’s existence. (Brandon 1990: 49)

David Brandon recognized how unfashionable ideas such as these had become. They stand outside the contemporary language of professionalism (and the subsequent drift into managerialism). They do not fit the dominant, bureaucratic versions of helping that are current within social work and other forms of work with people that have become largely state-sponsored. However, as he points out, without it, ‘relationships between people are like dry leaves in the wind’ (1990: 48).


As David Brandon commented, ‘nowness’ permeates the followers of Zen (ibid.: 6). He continued, ‘About the past I can do little; about the future hardly anything; and only now can I make decisions’ (ibid.: 7). Toby Brandon has observed of his father that:

Mostly he saw the ability to stay in the present moment as a major component of mental wellness. ‘Now’ being the only time when we can actually do anything. To what extent can we bring our perception and energies into what is happening all around us? How much energy seeps away into anxiety, apprehension and guilt? We can sometimes hardly see or hear others in the ‘noise’ created by this muddle. This is both relevant to our own personal experience and vital to any kind of help we may give to others.

The problem is that while nowness is with us, it is elusive. Bringing ourselves into the ‘here and now’ is difficult (Brandon 1990: 62). It entails looking to the past and future but recognizing that it is the present moment; the current encounter in which we act and connect. To become and be like this entails embracing and cultivating certain disciplines and habits, and orienting ourselves to experience and hear what others (and situations) are saying (see Palmer 1993; Smith and Smith 2007 Ch 6). We have to both listen to and contain the feelings that others may evoke in us, and any echoes from the past. Brandon comments:

Helpful listening is simply listening It is a form of meditation wherein the speaker becomes the object of the concentration rather than the breathing or mantra. The focus of the helper’s concentration is the sound of the speaker’s voice and the possible meaning of his words. (Brandon 1990: 67)

Taoistic change

Taoistic change begins from being ‘rather than from becoming’ (Brandon 1990: 7). It is change ‘which is as much concerned with our own hearts as with the situation of others and the wider social structures and institutions (op. cit.). Tao is the ‘total spontaneity of all things’ (ibid.: 83).

In this unity everything breaks through the shell of itself and interfuses with every other thing. Each identifies with every other. The one is many and the many is one. In this realm all selves dissolve into one, and all our selves are selves only to the extent that they disappear into all other selves. Each individual merges into every other individual. (Chang Chung-yuan quoted by Brandon 1990: 83)

Such a notion of selfhood stands in stark contrast for the highly individualistic and possessive understandings that are dominant within western societies (see, for example, Sampson 1993) – as does such an understanding of change. David Brandon hated the movement in social work, and education and welfare generally, towards managerialism and technocratism. It flows too strongly from a desire to act upon others, to treat them as objects (Freire 1972). Tao offers another way – the way. It means ‘listening carefully, trying to understand. This listening has an open heart; it is not poisoned by the strong potions of jealousy, greed, envy and aggression’ (Brandon 1990: 88). More important than looking for more sophisticated techniques and strategies for change, is ‘an examination of why we desire it at all’ (ibid.: 96). As Phil Spencer (2001) has commented David Brandon ‘had long known that change happens in the heart, not out there, vaguely, in the distance’.


David Brandon made significant contributions in a number of areas. He was a pivotal figure in the development of practice around those with people who were homeless and in need of support; along with others he campaigned and advocated for those with mental health difficulties; and he offered an alternative way of being to social workers and helpers. As Peter Beresford (2001) noted, he never became one of the ‘great and good’ of social work, social policy and welfare’. Beresford continues, ‘There were few mainstream accolades for David, little discussion of him and his work in the peer review journals. This says more perhaps about them, than it does about him – and it may also offer a powerful warning for the future’. David Brandon did not fit. His understanding of social work and helping was miles away from the managerialism, technicism and bureaucratic professionalism that was dominant in welfare from the late 1980s onward. Yet, it is a pretty safe bet that his vision of social work and helping will be rediscovered, for, as David Brandon recognized, helping is based in relationship and the integrity and authenticity of the helper.

The foundation of genuine helping lies in being ordinary. Nothing special. We can only offer ourselves, neither more nor less, to others – we have in fact nothing else to give. Anything more is conceit; anything less is robbing those in distress. Helping demands wholeheartedness, but people find it hard to give of themselves to others. Why? In essence we are afraid to offer ourselves for fear we will prove insufficient, and if all that we have and are is not enough, what then? We are afraid to risk using simply our own warmth and caring, and as a result the thousands of therapy techniques which are becoming increasingly popular are intended to conceal rather than reveal. (Brandon 1982: 8-9)

The thing about this, and about David Brandon, is that while helping may be ordinary, it actually takes a special person to offer themselves to others in ways that allows them to flourish. His gift to social work and to informal education was far from ordinary – and it deserves to be engaged with.

Further reading and bibliography

Barker, Phil (2001) ‘David Brandon – an additional comment’, The Guardian, December 13.

Bateman, Neil (2000) Advocacy Skills for Health and Social Care Professionals, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Barker, Philip and Buchanan-Barker, Poppy (eds.) (2003) Spirituality and Mental Health: Breakthrough, Chichester: Whurr/Wiley.

Beresford, Peter (2001) ‘A singular voice’, Community Care, December 13. Accessed October 20, 2006. www.communitycare.co.uk/Articles/2001/12/13/34422/A+singular+voice.html? key=BRANDON

Brandon, David (1973) Not proven : some questions about homelessness and young immigrants, London: Runnymede Trust.

Brandon, David (1974) Homeless, London: Sheldon Press.

Brandon, David (1976, 1990) Zen in the Art Of Helping, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Brandon, David (1979) ‘Zen practice in social work’ in David Brandon and Bill Jordan (eds.) (1979) Creative Social Work, Oxford: Blackwell.

Brandon, David (1982) The trick of being ordinary : notes for volunteers & students, London: Mind.

Brandon, David (ed.) (1989) Mutual respect: therapeutic approaches to working with people who have learning difficulties, New Malden: Hexagon.

Brandon, David (1991) Innovation without Change? Consumer power in psychiatric services, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Brandon, David (1998) ‘Care planning’ in P. Bevan (ed.) The Resettlement Handbook, London: National Homelessness Alliance.

Brandon, David (2000) “Advocacy” in Davies, M (ed.) The Blackwell encyclopedia of Social Work, Oxford: Blackwell.

Brandon, David (2001) Tao Of Survival. Spirituality in social care and counselling, Birmingham: Venture Press.

Brandon, David and Atherton, K. (1996) Handbook of Care Planning, London: Routledge.

Brandon, David; Brandon, Althea; and Brandon, Toby (1995) Advocacy: Power to people with disabilities, Birmingham: Venture.

Brandon, David and Brandon, Toby (2001a) Advocacy in Social Work, Birmingham: Venture Press.

Brandon, Toby and Brandon, David (2001b) ‘Stand by me’, Community Care, September 13, 2001. Accessed October 20, 2006. http://www.communitycare.co.uk/Articles/2001/09/13/33160/Stand+by+me.html

Brandon, David and Jordan, Bill (eds.) (1979) Creative Social Work, Oxford: Blackwell.

Brandon, David, Kim Wells, Caroline Francis and Eaun Ramsey (1980), The survivors : a study of homeless young newcomers to London and the responses made to them, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Brandon, Toby (2003) ‘Foreword’ to Philip Barker and Poppy Buchanan-Barker (eds.) (2003) Spirituality and Mental Health: Breakthrough, Chichester: Whurr/Wiley.

British Film Institute (undated) The BFI TV 100, http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/tv/100/index.html. Accessed October 14, 2006.

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Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Althea Brandon and Toby Brandon for all their help with preparing this piece. Also to Ken Leech for providing additional information.

Picture by Ry. Reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence. http://www.flickr.com/photos/drl/4008199/. The picture of David Brandon is used here with permission. All rights reserved.

How to cite this article: Smith, Mark K. (2006) ‘David Brandon: homelessness, advocacy and Zen in the art of helping’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education, https://infed.org/mobi/david-brandon-homelessness-advocacy-and-mental-health-and-zen-in-the-art-of-helping/. [Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 2006

Last Updated on June 20, 2019 by infed.org