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.


Anonymous said...

Within Manchester there is such a shortage of supported lodgings for young people who have recently been released from custodial sentences, it seems very simplistic that by writing a letter accommodation can be secured, as some end up in police cells as no form of lodgings can be found. Was no other form of assessment carried out on the family circumstances? Maybe it's regional variations that account for this exploitation by the parent?

Anonymous said...

A girl I know did exactly the same thing. Her parents "kicked her out" so she was "homeless" and got into sheltered housing. As soon as she got a place her relationship with her family was magically better again and she saw them all the time, stayed there etc. But she kept her housing place and then got top priority for a council flat as she was so "vulnerable to homelessness" and "disabled" (partly by supposed panic attacks she got a mobility allowance for (huh?) - I knew her for years and she never had them, but she developed them as soon as she needed an additional reason to need sheltered housing and a chance to get more benefits).

the fly in the web said...

As so often with the system of safety nets, those who know how to exploit get the goodies and those who need are excluded.

Anonymous said...

I'm new to this blog but its made me realize why benefit claimants never reply to my letters (I work in Housing), there so used to their support worker doing it all for them.

Only when facing eviction do they get off their arse and get in touch.

I've also noticed how people in their twenties keep "forgetting" to sign on, your blog points out that they would rather stay in bed.

Boy on a bike said...

Queue jumpers. Can't stand them.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your blog, thank you for the insight.

Ayak said...

I absolutely agree with you. Years ago I was a support worker for a housing project that accommodated kids coming out of care, and of course there were far too many kids for the number of spaces available.

I am sickened by the attitude of parents today, who think that coping with teenagers should be an easy ride, and if it's not...well just dump them and let someone else take responsibility. As you say, it prevents those youngsters most in need from getting the support they need.

I had an extremely difficult teenage son...but it never occurred to me that his behaviour should be dealt with by someone else. When we have kids...they are for life..not just for Christmas. We put up with the rough as well as the smooth.

RogBoy said...

Strange system we have in this country. I'm amazed you manage to keep doing it.

Those that can work the system find it well worth their while. Emily and her mother do just fine as a result of their collaboration at gaming the state. I'll bet they know exactly what say to the social care bureaucracy to get what they want.

Those with no help languish in substandard accommodation.

Whoever thought that luxury holidays were part of social care? Why should the mother, who apparently is estranged from her child, invited along?

WinstonSmith33 said...

The system is widely open to abuse. If your parent refuses to write you an estrangement letter because God forbid they believe that at 16 you should still be under their care then a Connexions worker can write a letter for you helping you to avail of the necessary benefits to get you in to supported housing.

Each project varies according to the type of support they give to their residents. Some hopuse people with 'low support needs' and others with 'high support needs' and some mix the two (unwise and not fair on the low support residents). Young offenders coming out of custody should have specialist accomodation and support and in my opinion it should be based on the philosophy of the Eastside Young Leader's Academy in London. Unlike most supported housing projects they actually get results. Perhaps the custody units/prisons for young people should also adopt this approach.

oldgit said...

Winston, I find it puzzling that your area of work is referred to as a “project” when it appears it isn’t. A project has a start, a finish and an end thus enabling progress to be measured at various agreed “milestones”. It will also have an authorised overall budget that is measureable and an overall manager who will be responsible for overruns and budget anomalies. Non of this sounds too familiar from your submissions. Sorry if this is a little pedantic but it does give some insight into the minds of the people who initially wrote the rules back in the days when “project” was on par with today’s “empowerment”.
Whilst I’m on I would like to congratulate you on your Orwell award. You have forced me to reconsider the old test of courage; i.e. what action would you take on being confronted with a burning orphanage

Julie said...

I used to work processing Income Support claims and saw several letters from parents who were stating their kids were (or were still) estranged.
It was clear that in some cases the initial estrangement was no longer really applicable as the family rows had died down.
On the other hand it was a bit heartbreaking to read a mother state things along the lines of "I don't want her here anymore because she doesn't get on with my new boyfriend and I want my life too".
Fair enough, a parent does deserve to have a life in addition to being a parent, but is that really an excuse to send your sixteen year old away? Because they don't fit in with your new arrangements?

Anonymous said...

Winston, do you reckon you would be accomodating Emily, if her parents were made to pay for their daughter's accomodation and support, through a lien on their property, or attachment of earnings?
Parental responsibility does not have to stop at the 16th birthday.


Anonymous said...

As a worker in homeless hostels we see this every day, where a duty of care by the local authority is enforced more than the duty a parent has to take responsibility for the behaviours of their children. the lack of social housing means that unless your circumstances are deemed as vulnerability you may wait a considerable time for housing if you are deemed vulnerable (for many different reasons) you will access supported accommodation and be housed approximatley within 18 months. if you are working and staying with mum(socially responsible) this could take 7 years as deemed suitabily housed.
30% of social housing stock is for accommodating homeless people who if between the ages of 16- 21 will fail to sustain their own tenancy as no one is wiping their bums filling out forms or assisting them to sign on. our state is soft in so many areas with no reward for the hard working law abiding socially responsible citizens we have a benefit culture as well as a duty of care culture and do not get me started on young peoples residential Units as as they would say "i know my rights". caring but frustrated

Anonymous said...

Hi - only just started to read your blog two weeks ago so forgive me for being niaeve (spelling?)but your writing is compelling for it's emotional and visceral response to the situation.

It strikes me that this is the first time i recall reading that you like this 'client' (or whatever the name is this week) and this leads me to ask two questions.

1) What is it that makes a difference with Emily?
2) How would you either improve Emily's lot or at least get others to the 'stage' of development you think she is at?

Your blog is filled with waste.
Wasted money, wasted time and wasted lifes. So given that it does not seem to be about resources what next?

Anonymous said...

To be able to drive a car in this country you need to pass a driving test. Perhaps the same should be said about bringing children into the world, before you are allowed to do so you have to take a test. I am astonished it is so easy for parents to sign away their own children to complete strangers because they just can't be arsed to deal with their so called "difficulties". So they argue all the time, what teenagers and parents haven't?

Anonymous said...

Winston Smith:

1. I am not a resident of Airstrip 1, being native to the newer, less progressive parts of Oceania.

2. Having read your blog for the first time tonight, several questions - How do you continue working? Do you not feel that your mere participation in this system is itself a crime? Are there any children who represent successes, as opposed to failures?

3. I imagine you have the proper attitude - that of an infantry sergeant, knowing the battle is lost, yet resolutely carrying out his duties. That is the only way I could imagine coping with your job...

4. At this point, would it not be better to simply not the support the children at all - no benefits, no house, no money, nothing. Should they choose to die, they die. Should they choose to work, they work. If they perceived that hunger and homelessness were an actual consequence, they might become more focused.

5. Across the Ocean, I am impressed by the albeit fictional, but possibly accurate truths, of Britain as depicted in "Foyle's War." Impressed with the common decency, restraint, politeness, sense of public duty, kindness, etc, etc, etc.


If your blog is true, in the Oldspeak since of truth, and true in a general sense, not merely in its examples, then Britain is finished.



WinstonSmith33 said...

Anonymous above from over the water.

Yes, the incidents of which I write are true, but of course the cause and remedies which I suggest are my opinions and not shared by everyone that works in the sector.

1)Yes there are some successes. I have written of these before.

2)In the case of children under the age of 18 who have feral parents these children need to be cared for by the state. Who else will?I take it you are not suggesting that these extreme cases should be left to the vagaries of the free market? However, as I have said before I would remove section 21 of the Childrens Act 1989 that allows parents to voluntarily put their kids in care. This occurs often because there is conflict between the parents new partner and one of their offspring or just because the teenager has become a handful (due to crap parenting) and they off load him/her on to the state. I would also abolish supported housing as it stands for 16-25 year olds and replace it with subsidised accomodation with rules and consequences.

3) Britain does indeed have massive social problems and yes many of these as are as a result of an excessively generous welfare state which breeds indolence, ignorance and dependency. However, inequality too has a large role to play and this has come about as a result of unfettered free market policies. Whilst I am highly critical of the welfare state I do not seek its abolition just its reform so that it's recipients have an active duty to participate in some way before they can draw on it. It needs serious reform in so many areas. However, I wouldnt want to be part of the US system which is the other extreme. At heart I am a Liberal, Social Democrat with a conservative streak on some issues.

Seeking Sir said...

Super blog Winston. You mention, quite rightly, the Eastside Young Leaders Association as a model for success. For anyone interested, founder Ray Lewis has a blog here:

Mary kate said...

As somone who has spent five years as a support worker in social services I could not agree more with Winstons blog. I have seen things done and money spent by social workers that that would drive the readersip of the Daily Mail into revolution on the streets if they only knew about it.

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JS said...

Winston, I know it's an old post but I work in housing law and surely, if the parent is simply seeking to farm out the kid like this and the kid goes along with it, then it could be seen as collusion and that can, validly I hasten to add, be classed as "intentional homelessness." Therefore the Council would then be under no duty to rehouse the teenager in question.

I don't suppose this is in London, your housing project, because in the capital the various Boroughs will do anything, and I mean ANYTHING, including lying, stealing, threats, etc. to avoid having to rehouse homeless folks?

WinstonSmith33 said...

Hi JS,

I think the difference is that Supported Housing is not the same as Housing. Supported Housing is a stepping stone to getting Housing. The majority of people in Supported Housing live there under licence, less rights than a tenancy.

Supported Housing is for young people 'at risk of homelessness' therefore if your parents throw you out you would qualify for supported housing. However, if you mess that up, many do, and get evicted the council then would say "intentionally homeless" and not assist you. The council in my area refer people to our project but we decide whether to take them or not. Its not the council providing the housing its a housing association. That said in most cases the council pay for it through housing benefit.