Wednesday 25 February 2009

Living Arrangements

Now, when most people hear the term Day Centre for young homeless people, they automatically picture a building with lots of dishevelled young people ensconced in tattered and frayed sleeping bags, shivering from exposure to the elements with elderly Christian ladies bringing them cups of tea and sandwiches. In this image, kindly, altruistic people give the poor wretches a minimum and basic level of sustenance before they are flung out into the vagaries of the night. Our day centre is nothing like this.

In fact, since Labour came to power there are very few homeless people sleeping rough each night in England. According to government statistics, in the twelve month period up to June 2007, there were under five hundred people sleeping rough throughout England on any given night. These statistics are roughly reliable in that each local council as well as local homeless charities keep count of the rough sleepers in their districts. So far, of all the young people I’ve been working with, only two are actually without any form of secured accommodation. So, if we are a centre for young homeless people, but there are very few homeless people in the city, then just whom do we work with you may ask?

Our service users living arrangements can be broken down in to several categories. There are those who live in homeless hostels run by the council and in which they have a Project worker or key worker who apparently helps and assists them in improving their lives. I’ve seen little of evidence of that so far.

Then there are those who live in supported housing*, funded by the government and where again they have a keyworker. These keyworkers will assist the young person in filling in his benefit forms and informing him or her of their benefit entitlements. They will also create “action plans” in order to try to motivate the young person in to work or education and in many cases away from crime.

In either a council run hostel or a supported housing unit the young person will have his own room and bathroom and will have to share a kitchen with at the most three or four others. All of the young people tell me that they have spacious, heated rooms and that they think their accommodation is more than comfortable. They basically live in complexes or buildings that consist of many large bed sits. The majority of our young people that live in supported housing or hostels do not work and so the council pay their rent in the form of housing benefit.

Then there are the unfortunates who bed down each night in one of the local night shelters where they get a bed in a dormitory full of many unsavoury and disturbed characters. Very few of our service users fall into this category and those who do usually end up in supported housing before too long.

Next are those who have council flats or are living in B&Bs until the council house them. This category of our service users are all being accommodated by the local council under the Homelessness Act (Priority need order 2002 for England). In order to be considered as a “priority need” by the council, you must be considered vulnerable under the criteria of the aforementioned order. The council will automatically deem you to be vulnerable if you are 16-17 and/or pregnant with no fixed abode. Other groups who may be deemed as vulnerable and given “priority need” status are people with physical or mental health issues and this can include alcoholics and drug addicts.

After ascertaining that the vast majority of our service users are more than satisfactorily accommodated in living quarters by the state, I am somewhat confused as to our ostensible aim of helping and supporting the homeless. Common sense informs me that only those who are crashing in a night shelter or living on the streets should really qualify for our service. I decide to have a chat with my manager about this.

As usual, Agnes is hiding in the small and cramped office where she whittles away the days chain smoking and avoiding any meaningful contact with the service users, members of staff or reality. In fact, when any of the young people ask her questions she tells them that they must ask one of the volunteers or me as it isn’t her job. I enter the office and interrupt her rolling up a cigarette and surfing the Internet.

“Agnes, I was just wondering are you aware that most of our service users are, in fact, not homeless?”

She frowns at me with a mixture of curiosity and confusion. So, I explain to her all the different types of accommodation in which our service users now reside.

“Basically, only those in the night shelter or the two rough sleepers who come here could be considered homeless.”

“ Well Winston, technically they are all homeless in that none of them are in permanent accommodation (see government report 2003, More Than A Roof to see where this idea emanates from) And also the majority of them have to endure supported housing and so they will have to abide by rules and their freedoms will be curtailed, so technically that’s nothing like your own home.”

“Hmmm, I actually completely disagree Agnes with your definition of homelessness. So what if they don’t own their accommodation. Plenty of people rent property, they aren’t homeless. Actually, you rent, are you homeless? Agnes everyone has to abide by rules and everyone’s freedoms are curtailed to some extent. Supported housing is free and they have to have rules in those places as they accommodate lots of young people. The fact of the matter as far as I can see is that we are allowing able bodied young people who have somewhere to live paid for by the state to sit around all day and not be expected to do something to get off benefits. What we are doing is enabling them to stay stuck in the situations they are in by giving them somewhere to hide from reality. Anyway, some of them even have their own council flats surely you can’t argue they are homeless?”

“ Well, those who have their own flats use here as they have a tenancy support worker or keyworker** as they may be vulnerable to not being able to maintain their tenancy. Now Winston, you need to remember that we offer a compassionate, non judgemental and client centred service. All this anger is about you and your value systems not being able to cope with their dysfunctional lifestyles. It might help if you realise that these are very sick people who have had hard lives. Most important of all, you need to remember that people change only when they are ready and not when you think they should. They are all on their own journeys.”

Huh? I don’t know what the hell she’s on about so I let her have the last word. Who am I to argue with the wisdom of Agnes this modern day Confucius? After all she has honed this philosophy about our service users from years of experience of avoiding contact with them. The truth of the matter is that without this centre existing for all these young people her £25,000 a year job would be gone. If she agreed with me her own job would become obsolete, as we would be sitting in a centre with more staff than service users. It’s in her own interest to view people who have free bed-sits and flats as homeless deprived victims.

*Supported Housing: a bedsit or flat in a complex where all your bills and rent are paid from Housing Benefit and a small supplement from your other benefits. A place where you have a personal assistant to sort out your benefits for you. A condition of living there (one that’s not enforced) is that you make an effort to seek work or train. Placing a dosshouse, I mean charity, five minutes from the local Supported Housing project undermines their goal of getting young people in to work/college/training.

**Tenancy support workers/Keyworkers/Project Workers are employed by the local councils, housing associations, charities and branches of government. I will soon be working as one in the public sector. They assist people to maintain their tenancies. They do this in a variety of ways. They introduce young people to the concept of paying for something i.e. rent. They then inform them that the council will pay this if they have no job. None of our regulars do. In many cases the tenancy support worker will have to fill in the housing benefit forms for the young person as otherwise they wont bother or they will just forget to submit it. Why would they take responsibility for themselves when there is some other mug to do it? A tenancy support worker’s role is very similar to that of a housing officer or a keyworker in a housing association. Many of these jobs are interchangeable and they are helping to perpetuate the dependency culture that is pervasive in modern Britain, as this blog will reveal.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Children in Care

Well, I’ve spent the weekend working in two different care homes for teenagers being accommodated and cared for by the state. To be honest, as far as I could see, they weren’t really being cared for but rather catered to. Here’s what I observed.

The first place I went to was a large five bedroom house where three young girls lived. Two of them were fourteen and one of them was fifteen. The two younger girls were extremely wild and are in the habit of constantly absconding from the home for days on end and getting in all kinds of trouble. The older one was clinically obese, which probably thwarted her efforts to abscond with the other two. She sat in front of a TV the entire day, hopping the several hundred channels at her disposal and gorging on junk food and intermittently telling me I was a 'c**t'. To allow her to live and behave in this way is neglect.

Both the younger girls were tagged and monitored by the youth justice system for various offences. They may well end up in a juvenile detention centre should they abscond from the home again, but then again seeing as the youth justice system fails to deal effectively with more serious youth crime, I’d say the tag is as bad as it will get for these two girls. That is a shame, as they need protecting from themselves. They openly talk about taking drugs and one of them has already had an abortion.

What really baffled me was the ease and regularity of their absconding. After all there are always three members of staff and sometimes four in the house twenty four seven, so I wondered why they didn’t put a stop to this. I asked Sarah, the senior support worker, how was it they could run away from the home with no one stopping them.

“Sarah, I’m just curious, do the staff fail to notice that these young girls are leaving the home?"

“Well, sometimes they just run off without telling us but often they tell us they are going out and don’t know when they will be back” answered Sarah.

“Why don’t you stop them? After all they are supposedly in care and they are only fourteen and very vulnerable. God knows what could happen to either of them and what they could get up to. It’s simply not right to allow them to wander around for days on end with no clue as to where they are.”

“Look I agree the whole system is mad but the simple fact is that we are not allowed to touch them so we cannot grab them and pull them into the house. That could be construed as assault and we could get in trouble. We do try to encourage them not to abscond.”

“Does that ever work” I ask?

“Sometimes, but rarely. If they want to go there’s nothing we can do to stop them.”

What kind of a care system is this that believes it is better to allow fourteen year old girls wander about for days on end without supervision rather than grab them by the scruff of the neck and command them back in their home where they are properly supervised?

“Do they usually stay away for long?” I asked.

“Sometimes just overnight but often for a couple of nights at a time sometimes longer though. Once they were away for four nights. What happens is that they get fed up and run out of money or places to stay and will telephone us and ask for a lift back to the home. This can often be at three or four in the morning and we have to get up out of bed and drive and collect them as we have a duty of care towards them.”

Is this care or rather a government funded taxi service for juvenile delinquents?

Another Support Worker, Steve, who was working with us that day, usually works at another home nearby owned by the same organisation. He revealed that absconding in his home was even worse.

“At least these girls are only gone for a few days and then come back. There are three lads all aged fifteen in our home who all absconded a month ago and we have no idea where they are or what they are up to. The other Support Workers and myself still have to go to work and the home has to be monitored twenty four seven in case one of them or all of them return, as technically they are all still in care and the care has to be there for them should they come back” disclosed Steve.

If this is care I would hate to see what negligence looks like.

“God, you must be really bored sitting there all day with no residents and nothing to do” I commented.

“No, not really, the Support Workers have a laugh with each other. We spend an awful lot of time playing on the residents’ xbox so that passes the time.”

The following day I was sent to a completely different care home that housed only two residents and had two members of staff on at all times. There was only one resident present as the other one had absconded and no one knew where she had gone.

The sole resident was a fifteen year old hideous yobette devoid of manners or respect for others. What’s worse is she was indulged in this behaviour by the care system.

She was tagged and on a curfew set by the youth justice system, as she had taken a knife to a foreign student, a few years older than herself, and mugged her for a mobile phone and money. She did this whilst having absconded from the home. I wasn’t made aware if she had indeed inflicted any injury on the foreign student in question. At least the foreign student can go home knowing that she experienced a genuine slice, pun intended, of modern British culture.

Anyway, as the shift progressed, I watched as the other staff member smoked cigarettes and gossiped with this young girl who was allowed to smoke. I was given the charge of cooking a roast dinner for the young madam. She wasn’t expected to lift a hand to help, not even wash the dishes.

Later on, after I had finished acting as her butler, waiter and chef for her evening meal I sat and had an interesting conversation with her. That is after she finished insulting me. She shared with me her future ambitions and aspirations. Although completely ignorant in almost every sphere of life, there was one area where she displayed a degree of knowledge and that was how to traverse the benefit system.

“Did you know you are going bald? You wear funny clothes” she said this pointing and laughing at my chinos and hush puppy shoes. Obviously any clothing on a male that isn’t a tracksuit is seen as hilarious. I ignored her comments. She was looking for a reaction but she was’t going to get one. A few minutes later she gave up trying to taunt me. I enquired after her plans for the future.

“I am going to get a flat when I am eighteen and do whatever I want. They have to give me one as I’ve been in care, it’s the law.”

She is right, it is the law. The Homelessness Order 2002 will give her a priority status in obtaining social housing above that of other individuals due to her having been in care. Granted, as there is a shortage of social housing she will not be guaranteed a place immediately, but she will be given a flat long before decent hardworking people on low incomes. If she coupled her care leaver status with being an expectant single mother, she would have double priority status. No doubt she is probably aware of this.

At sixteen she is becoming fluent in her ‘entitlements’ and what she is owed by society. I can picture her in a few years with several unruly urchins demanding her ‘right’ to an even bigger flat. By providing this young girl with these type of entitlements, we are guaranteeing the perpetuation of the underclass for at least another generation.

Thursday 12 February 2009

So far I'm not impressed

Anyway, perhaps I should tell you a little bit about the Refuge and my own responsibilities. The centre was initially set up in the late nineties after a retired military officer decided he wanted to do something to help rough sleepers in the city. However, it is becoming clear to me that the Captain’s vision has morphed into something he never envisaged. He will be visiting me in a few weeks to enquire how I find the charity and I’m afraid he wont like to hear what I’ve got to say judging by what I’ve seen in my first few days.

Anyway my main duties are:

1. To interview new service users
2. To signpost service users to various agencies and organisations that can help them deal with their housing and/or other issues e.g. the council and/or local housing trust/association/benefit office (if you cant even find the place that will give you free money without help what hope is there for you in life)
3. To implement the centres behavioural policies and issue warnings and enforce the barring procedures when applicable
4. Update records of service users
5. Write a monthly report and present it to the Charity’s executive committee.
6. Standing around bored and interacting with stoned service users and cleaning up after them. (This makes up quite a bit of the day; the bulk actually)

The most shocking thing that I learned this week is that almost none of our service users are actually homeless. At least in the sense that you might understand homelessness, our charity views them so due to how the term is defined within the industry. In fact the majority of them are living extremely comfortably for people who contribute nothing to society.

During my first week, the only real bit of work I have done is one interview with a new service user. After which I realise that I only have his word for it that he meets our loose criteria of homelessness. In order to use here you have to be street homeless (I’ve met only two in this cohort), in supported housing (the majority) or living in a hostel.

In my naivety, I think no one would fake being homeless just to get access to free food, free Internet, free phone calls and somewhere to hang out for the day. However, yesterday, I discovered several cases of just that amongst several long term service users, who have their own flats, courtesy of the taxpayer of course.

For most of this week I’ve just bantered with the service users and the volunteers. Anytime I ask Agnes, the manager, what should I do she tells me just to mingle. She tells me this as she surfs the Internet and chain smokes in her office.

I notice that many of our residents come in shortly after we open at 11.00am, and spend the first few hours gorging themselves on free food donations from M&S, Pret a Manger sandwiches and donations from the local bakery as well as drinking vast quantities of tea. There is usually an hour or so after the first feeding frenzy of the day when they head out to smoke dope in the park outside and then come back in to lay about around the centre and eat some more.

None of them are prompted or actively encouraged by the manager or the volunteer staff to do anything to change their dissolute lifestyles. When I suggested that perhaps we need to find ways to help them change I was told that I was being "judgemental." So much for the brochure claiming to want to "empower" these young people. Before they can be empowered surely they first have to see the error of their ways. And how will they come to do this without a degree of judgment between what is the right and wrong course of action?

I got a call from that Social Care Agency today. They have some work for me with teenage children in care for the weekend. It should be interesting. I hope its more effective than the 'work' that this charity do. Let's wait and see.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

My New Meaningful Job

I’ve just arrived for my first day’s work as a Project Worker at the Refuge Day Centre for young homeless people aged 16-25. If you are looking for a similar type of job just buy the Guardian on a Wednesday. It's full of 'meaningful' jobs.

I am really looking forward to working here. I mean I’m going to get an opportunity to assist some of the most disadvantaged people in society to help themselves. According to my job description I’m going to “empower” these young people to make healthy choices in their lives. I’ve always wanted a job with meaning where I could make a difference and now I’ve got one. I hope it lives up to my expectations.

Granted it’s only part-time and the money isn’t great but then again money isn’t everything. I have also registered with a local Social Care agency and will soon get some work with teenagers in care and in supported housing. I will let you all know what that is like.

As I enter the common room a thick yellow cloud of nicotine lingers in the air. There are perhaps nine to ten service users strewn about the furniture with cigarettes dangling from their lips. Several of them look quite stoned and it’s still only half eleven in the morning. But then again if I were homeless I would probably turn to chemical consolation I tell myself.

Another thing that strikes me is that not one of them looks dishevelled, as I thought they would be, if they were sleeping on the street or even in one of those awful hostels.

The majority of the young people are dressed in chav chic, tracksuits, hooded tops, brand name trainers and baseball caps. I will later meet many more like them but also plenty that dress according to their own individual tastes and are not easily pigeonholed by their attire.

I head in to the office to talk with Agnes, the manager, and to find out what my duties and tasks should be for the first day. Instead of instructing me on my duties Agnes instead outlines her own job description. She stresses that I have been hired to deal with the 'clients' (are they paying for this service? No) and that she wants little contact with them as "they do my head in". She reiterates this point several times.

After talking to Agnes I ask myself why she still works with people she has so much disdain for? I become alarmed by the thought that perhaps she started off here like me, enthusiastic and idealistic, but time and experience have worn her down. I'm determined that this will not happen to me or am I just being too naive? Only time will tell.