I have just returned to work in the Supported Housing project I currently work for after a few days away and have been informed that we need to do more work as a team to ensure that we can evidence that we are complying with the government’s Quality Assessment Framework. This explains the new posters around the building. One of which is trying to promote resident involvement in the running of the project. The poster tries to encourage the young people to become involved by offering such glib pronouncements as ‘All ideas are worthy’. What about those residents whose ideas lead to ingesting large quantities of drugs and/or shoplifting or disturbing other residents and neighbours? Do I have to appreciate their ideas as well?
Anyway, a couple of years back I worked for a day centre (some of my earliest posts are from this time) run by a charity that allowed young people that lived in supported housing to sit around eating free food all day and surfing the internet without trying to guide or direct them in any way. In fact, we were discouraged from doing so as this was considered judgemental. In fact, just like the government regulated sector, this charity was obsessed with client involvement. The following anecdote exemplifies the absurdities that often have to be indulged when working for an organisation that believes young people must be consulted about every minor change that occurs.
Underneath the window, in the corner of the common room of this charity, there was a decaying blue bulky armchair. It had spent over a decade supporting the weight and inertia of a variety of young people. Its torn,worn and tattered complexion resembled that of many of the service users who wallowed away the days ensconced between its arm rests.
The fate of this armchair was one of the items on the monthly resident involvement meeting. As this meeting used to occur in the evening and so clashed with drug taking, anti-social behaviour and crime we rarely had any attendees. However, tonight was a different story as three service users turned up to voice their anger that the charity would be charging each service user one pound a week in order to be able to continue funding unlimited internet and phone calls. The meeting was chaired by Lorraine (a senior project worker and member of the charity’s executive committee) she informed Nigel, Darren and Patsy that the centre had recently been donated several new armchairs, a sofa, and some chairs and that in light of this we could discard the detritus masquerading as furniture in the corner of the room. Lorraine described the new furniture to the service users and asked them what they thought of it and how they felt about it, of course.
One of the things I noticed whilst working for this charity was that the young people objected to almost every new initiative or decision taken by the charity’s committee or management. Even when a new initiative would be of major benefit to them, they still felt the need to be consulted on everything. They were, in the majority, extremely defensive people who took the slightest change as an infringement of their rights. And once aggrieved they were always indulged to some extent.
The underlying value behind involving residents in the running of the charity (or indeed the supported housing sector) is that they become empowered to then make decisions in their own lives. However, what no one seems to consider is what if these decisions are inane, unconstructive or just plain daft? All that seemed to matter in this charity and again in the supported housing sector, is that the service users feel listened to and have a say in the decision making process. Whether this say is constructive or worthwhile seems irrelevant. And so it was that the removal of a decaying piece of furniture and replacing it with a clean and new piece of furniture was never going to be a straightforward matter.
Nigel, 23, was the first to speak out about the removal of the chair in which he had up to that point whittled away several years of his life without anyone trying to help him in case he felt judged.
“I don’t think we should get rid of this chair just straight away. People have spent many days sat in this chair and it has been a part of their lives. It’s been here since the centre opened and we shouldn’t just get rid of it overnight. We need time to get used to the idea.”
The only other two service users that turned up, Darren and Patsy nodded in support of Nigel’s inability to wean himself off a diseased ridden chair.
Lorraine asked what Nigel thought should have been done.
“Well, I mean we do need a new armchair and that’s great, but like I said we need to say goodbye to the one we have had for so long. I suggest we put up several memos around the building informing the other clients the final date that the chair will be here. Then I think we should get to burn it and have a few drinks around it and say goodbye.”
Lorraine met them most of the way but not all.
“I understand that many of you may feel attached to the chair so we will circulate a memo and put up signs informing the others of the final day of the armchair. However, we can’t give you the chair to burn as it will have to be dumped appropriately so that we don’t contravene any health and safety laws by allowing it to be burned in a public place.”
Although Lorraine imposed some kind of conditions on the service users' ludicrous request she still indulged them in the most part.
I sat silently through this portion of the meeting. I knew for a fact that my common sense approach would not be considered. I would have liked to inform Nigel and the rest of his peers that he didn’t need any period of adjustment to sit on a new chair and that the furniture would arrive when convenient for the donor and not the whims of idle youths. In fact, Nigel should spend more time contemplating getting up of his arse rather than where he plonks it.
I would also have liked to inform Lorraine and the rest of the committee that this type of indulgence does nothing to “empower” these young people, on the contrary, it perpetuates and encourages their belief that they are owed something by the rest of society without first having contributed something to it.
It is with this anecdote in mind that I am dreading having to facilitate any kind of client involvement meetings in my current workplace and besides to even hear their daft ideas we will have to bribe them with fizzy drinks and fast food as is the norm in most supported housing projects. We will then document our meetings and take on board the residents' suggestions and place it all in a file as evidence. Then another state bureaucrat will use this evidence as part of his or her evaluation of our wonderful service. Needless to say this is a complete waste of taxpayers' money. If the government need any suggestions on where the axe should fall in the next round of cuts they should look no further than supported housing for young people.