Tuesday 24 August 2010

An Open Door and A Bleeding Heart

One of the issues that I have had intense debate with other colleagues over is the issue of an open office door policy where a teenage resident can just walk in to the staff office uninvited to seek support, guidance or more often than not complain or make an unreasonable demand or hurl abuse at you if the mood takes them. The other day one of my colleagues, Nicola, decided to rebuke me for the fact that the office door was closed upon her arrival as this was injurious to her working philosophy of the bleeding heart. She also complained because I demand that the young people knock and wait to be invited in to the office. A diplomatic yet heated debate ensued.

"Winston, why do you close the office door and ask the young people to knock? We have an open door policy here so that the young people can feel they can talk to us about anything at anytime and we don't believe in barriers here."

"Well Nicola, I've talked to Jim, the manager and he said its up to the discretion of the staff and when Im lone working it will be closed. The reason that I am opposed to an open door policy is that it doesn't actually help the young person in that in the real world you have to queue for assistance in banks, shops, benefit offices, job interviews and so on. It also teaches the young person to practice patience which is a virtue in itself and it also teaches them that they are not the centre of the universe, just a part of it. Above all though, it fosters respect in the young person for other people who are taking time and effort to assist them. So, what you on the surface describe as me putting up a barrier is in fact imbued with values that I believe help develop functional young adults with respect, not deference, for their fellow citizens."

"Well, I think its authoritarian and this project is their home and they should be able to go in to whatever room they like and at the end of the day you are here to assist them not hide away in the office."

"Authoritarian? Are you equating my belief that people should knock on a door and wait to be invited in with the Third Reich or Franco's Spain? Perhaps you are right and trying to cultivate good manners is the thin end of a wedge that could lead to a modern day Auschwitz or Guernika. Sarcasm aside, I have spoken to all of our residents and informed them that when I am on shift that they can come and see me at anytime with any problem or with relation to any advice they need related to benefits or education. As they are used to being able to just walk in I have explained why I close the door, but that I am still available should they need me. Only two or three out of the fifteen of them seem to have a problem with this. The rest are fine with it. It seems to be you Nicola that are most opposed to my working practice and not the residents. We will just have to agree to disagree on this."

I saw no further point in talking to Nicola on this topic as I think her mind was well and truly made up. So, just what have been the fruits of the open door policy as practised by Nicola who also espouses a working philosophy of anti-authoritarianism, non-judgmentalism and an opossition to so called barriers? Well, upon coming to work one morning lately there was nowhere to sit for me as the office was full of teenage girls dressed in skimpy and revealing nightwear. Nicola saw nothing wrong with this until I objected and asked the girls to leave. When she is working the office is full of residents and ex residents and other waifs and strays from the neighbourhood, many of them stoned out of their mind and stinking of skunk weed. She allows them to take office materials such as pens, paper, sellotape, envelopes and to use the phone for personal calls. Instead of supporting our young people to do things for themselves, like fill in benefit forms or make their own enquiries to benefit or employment agencies, she will do it for them thus robbing them of the opportunity to learn to become independent. She never makes them wait for anything, including her time, and constantly reinforces in them what their benefit and state entitlements are. She rarely says no and has helped foster a belligerent, demanding, state dependent, instant gratification mindset in several current residents and many more of our ex-residents who still turn up looking for her 'help'. The likes of Nicola are very common across the state dependency sector. With so called support like this is it any wonder that so many youngsters leave supported housing even more entrenched in the value system of an excessive welfare state? The ironic thing is that we exist to help break this cycle and whilst we do have some success, in the majority of instances we are just making matters worse and perpetuating the existence of an underclass.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Family Breakdown on the High Seas

One of the residents at the project I am currenty working at has just returned from a cruise around the Mediterranean with her family. Emily, 16, lives in Supported Housing and is therefore deemed to be both socially excluded and vulnerable to homelessness. Oh how times have changed, less than thirty years ago the socially excluded slept under newspapers in parks and lived off the generosity of passing strangers and elderly ladies banging tambourines. Today you can find yourself categorised as poor or socially excluded but enjoy a lifestyle that would be the envy of Medieval monarchs. Apart from cruises in the Mediterranean, Emily also possesses all the accoutrements of the modern poor: laptop, large TV in room and video game box. Although Emily's family background is working/lower middle class she is now classified as poor due to living in Supported Housing. However, whether she should be able to access Supported Housing is an entirely different manner.

I actually like Emily she is a nice kid overall, mostly polite and is doing her best at the local college. Like all teenagers she can be a bit boisterous at times and when she gets a few drinks in her she can be a bit noisy like anyone I guess. In the cold light of day you can talk to her about it though and she will take on board what you are saying. This makes a welcome change from those young people I have worked with who become verbally abusive and threatening when reminded to comply with the terms of their tenancy agreement. In fact the project where Emily lives is mostly inhabited by likeable teenagers, even the odd rogue we get here tends to be of the loveable as oppossed to the menacing variety.

However, as fond as I am of Emily I object to Emily being a resident at our project. Emily obtained accommodation at our project by applying to the local council as being in danger of becoming homeless. In order for the state to accommodate under eighteen year olds who are living at home the parents have to prove that the family relationship has broken down in the form of an estrangement letter. Therefore Emily's Mum wrote a letter saying that her relationship with her daughter had broken down and she was no longer able to accommodate her. I wonder did she add as a footnote that although unable to live with Emily she would be open to cruises and safaris in the Zambezi as long as she could hand Emily back to the state once she started to have one of her awkward teenage strops. Besides foreign excursions Emily's Mum also visits Emily several times a week and even does her shopping for her and Emily also visits and stays in the family home.I asked Emily why she and her Mum wanted her to come and live in Supported Housing. Emily stated it was because they used to row a lot about her going out too much. In other words fairly bog standard teenage issues and no reason for the state to intervene to give parents an opt out clause from parenting their own offspring.

Whilst Emily is well behaved in many ways there are those kids who when the parents avail of the opportunity to discard them on to the state go completely off the rails. If they wouldn't behave for their parents why would they listen to a mung bean munching vegetarian like me? For the majority of under eighteen year olds in Supported Housing it is a licence to do what you want without the interference of exasperated parents. Then there is the issue that for all those parents like Emily's who pretend that they no longer have a relationship with their kids in order to mask their inability to cope with the normal ups and downs of living with a teenager, there are those kids who are really estranged from their parents because the parents are drug addicts, alcoholics or violent brutes and bullies. There are also those young people coming out of care who have no family and supported housing is the first option available to them. For all these genuine cases their right to basic and minimal accommodation is delayed by the fact that there is a limited number of beds available in Supported Housing projects. This trend will continue as long as the system is so easily exploited and the mere writing of a letter allows parents to forfeit accommodating their own teenagers through the usual ups and downs of adolescence. Tonight there will be thousands of teenagers (the majority not feral brutes like Liam who I have wrote about) just out of care who will be accommodated in B&Bs often for months on end waiting for a room in a Supported Housing project.