Friday 28 May 2010

Requiem for an Armchair

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.

Thursday 20 May 2010

Lessons in Punctuality

One day a few months ago I was sitting in the office on the telephone enquiring after the status of one of our resident's housing benefit (they wont do it themselves) when Jerry, 19, decided to turn up ten minutes late for his support work meeting with me. I jestured to Jerry, who was standing at the window looking in to the office, that I would be another three or four minutes. He shook his head in disbelief and outrage and started to pace up and down outside the window. After about a minute, he started to knock frantically on the window and started tapping on his watch. I don't know what his rush was as he is unemployed and has all week to walk around gormlessly. Anyway, he had arrived late for his meeting so he had no right to be indignant as far as I was concerned. However, I decided to end the call with the council and have stern words with Jerry. I called him in to the office and before I could get a word in he was venting his frustrations.

"I shouldn't be kept waiting I have things to do and we had a meeting arranged. Anyway, what's this latest letter threatening me with eviction for? I have a rent repayment plan and have been paying it so you lot need to get off my back!" lectured Jerry.

"First of all Jerry, you were late for your meeting with me so I don't have to justify or apologise to you for having to wait. Now, whilst we are on the subject of tardiness let's talk about the issue of rent, something you are almost always late with and frequently avoid paying all together. Now, the thing with a rent repayment plan Jerry is that in having one you are suppoused to comply with it. You, in fact, have had three over the past four months and have not abided with any of them consistently. Even when you were working (he was recently sacked for constantly arriving late and being absent) you didn't pay all your rent. When I would try to talk to you about it you would become rude, dismiss me with a wave of your hand and would walk off. When I did manage to pin you down you would try to haggle with me on how much rent you felt was reasonable for you to pay (I did try to explain to him that rent was not a haggable commodity but I did admire his persistence in this delusion). This latest warning letter will be your last and the next letter you get will be your notice so we need to sit down and work out how you are going to sort out your rent arrears. At the end of the day I will take no pleasure in seeing you evicted and am disappointed that you recently lost your job. However, the first thing you need to do is apply for Housing Benefit, which you should have done a few weeks ago when you were sacked. We have already had this conversation twice...."

And so ended another frustrating keywork session and like so many others I have worked with Jerry failed to even manage to get his Housing Benefit sorted and we eventually evicted him. He returned to live with his Mother who like Old Mother Hubbard had so many kids she didn't know what to do. I wish that we had effective policies to assist the likes of Jerry to make progress in their lives. Young men like Jerry exist because as a society we have failed to inculcate them with the very basic of lifeskills. Supported Housing is supposed to ameliorate these problems but it so often just entrenches and perpetuates fecklessness and dependency.

On a more positive note, the nice people at the Orwell Prize have awarded me with this year's blog prize. To say I am honoured is an understatement. I started this blog initially as a form of catharsis and never imagined it would receive such prestigious recognition.

Sunday 9 May 2010

The Danger of Imposing Values

A few weeks back I was subjected to a day of training gobbledegook from one of our Senior Managers. I tried to get out of it by protesting to my immediate Manager (there are so many Managers)that as I am already well acquainted with the supported housing sector, having worked for years with other housing associations, that there was no need for me to go on a training day entitled "Introduction to Supported Housing." My interest might have been engaged if it was a course entitled "A Conclusion to Supported Housing." However, this particular housing association need to ensure that their own box is ticked with regards to me receiving the appropriate training even if I have received it before.

During our inculcation, one of the first things that the manager discussed was the importance of our roles "in helping young people to gain life and social skills so as to move on to independent living." Who could argue with that? After all, that is what I try to do when engaging with the residents. However, in supported housing it is possible to implement two diametrically opposite policies at the same time and fail to see the inconsistency and the damage this does to those young people the system claims to want to help. Allow me to explain by way of anecdote.

One of my fellow Support Workers, Stuart, complained that many of the residents kept their rooms in appaling conditions and that he was astonished that management objected to him trying to use punitive measures to ensure the rooms were kept to an acceptable standard.

"Some of the rooms and the shared kitchens are not just untidy, but actually very dirty. There are bags of rubbish in there, dishes lying around that have rotting food on them, carpets that have never been hoovered, again with food all over them and toilets that are never cleaned. Once we had a kitchen that had a fly infestation because none of the residents would empty the bins. Now although these are the extreme examples they are not uncommon and there are those that keep their rooms and kitchens in almost as bad a condition. I won't even repeat some of the things I've seen lying around in some bedrooms. Now, I dont think its fair that any maintenance worker should have to go in there when the rooms are in these states or that I should have to enter for health and safety checks every two weeks if they are this filthy."

"Well, Stuart, I can see how this would be frustrating, but unless there is an obvious health and safety issue such as an exposed electricity socket or a faulty smoke alarm, then we have no right to tell our residents how to keep their rooms. We need to be very careful here as there is a danger of imposing our own value system on to the residents. What you perceive to be tidy and clean is subjective and their living standards, as long as it doensn't impede on anyone else, are also valid," stated the Senior Manager. She's paid a significant salary from the state coffers to peddle the ideology of moral relativism.

I decided to speak up on behalf of common sense as no one else was coming forward to fight its corner.

"With all due respect, I completely disagree. Dirt is dirt and it is not subjective. A plate of rotting food or a floor covered in unwashed clothing is objectively unhygienic and filthy. You said earlier that part of our job is to guide young people to develop life and social skills, but this requires the imposition of values such as personal responsibility, punctuality, self discipline and so on and so forth. So on the one hand we are being encouraged to impose values and on the other we are being told not to. This is highly inconsistent. What's more is that the rooms don't belong to the residents, they rent them from the state which in most cases also pays for them and then these rooms have to be inhabited by other young people after each resident's two year stay and so should be passed on in good condition. Also, if allowed to keep their rooms in such unhygienic and deleterious conditions when living here they will leave the rooms in a similar state when vacating the premises and then the staff will have to clean up their mess. This is something I refuse to do any longer. I've seen enough used condoms and soiled clothing to do me a lifetime thank you very much," I ranted.

"I can see some of your points Winston, but at the same time we have to respect that the rooms are their homes and you wouldn't want anyone coming in to your home and telling you how to live," stated the Senior Manager.

"Yes, but I don't live in Supported Housing which by it's very definition makes a value judgement that the residents are not fully functional individuals and that they need to be guided. How can this be done without the imparting of values?"

After this exchange, there was a few hours of further goobledegook relating to the Quality Assessment Framework (government regulations), in which I contemplated faking an epileptic fit in the hope of being led out of there on a stretcher. Instead, I day dreamed of working in a job that saw results and where my outlook was appreciated.

At the end of the day the Senior Manager, who doesn't actually have to work directly with any of our residents, thanked us all for the work we do.

"I must admit I couldnt do the work you lot do and we really appreciate all of your efforts. I don't think I could last a day in your roles with all you have to deal with. Anyway, I hope you all have a great weekend."

We thanked her. She was a well meaning soul despite being indoctrinated by the waffle of Supporting People and the Quality Assessment Framework. However, most of us wouldn't have the great weekend she wished us as we would be at work and some of us on sleep-in duties which often means interrupted sleep as one wakes to deal with the noise of drunken and drugged youths disturbing the house.

I couldn't help but wonder what it is about the role of Support Workers that she wouldn't be able to abide? Would it be the verbal abuse? The threat of a complaint being made by a resident should you speak in a forthright manner when required, or even the fear of a physical assault? Perhaps, it was none of these things, after all who is to say any of this behaviour is bad. Surely, I should have learned by now that this behaviour is perfectly normal for our residents and to expect any thing is me trying to oppress them with my subjective value system. Of course, I am being facetious, as I said earlier the supported housing sector tends to employ moral relativism and the notion of subjective reality to deal with certain problems and the opposing belief system that there are universally accepted values to deal with others. Somehow, I don't think this helps any of the young people we deal with in that they need firm guidance and direction at all times not the misguided hogwash of moral relativism one day and the attempted imposition of loose boundaries and minor consequences the next. Is it any wonder that so many young people are so lost and dysfunctional when adults are refusing to guide them.