Giving good guidance
How housing association staff are mentoring troubled teenage tenants. Emily Rogers reports
When Sue Honey started as a community development coordinator on the Butts Farm estate in Hounslow in 2008, she knew things had to change.
The south west London estate is in one of the most deprived local authority wards in England according to the Communities and Local Government department’s index of multiple deprivation 2010 and was blighted by anti-social behaviour, making some residents afraid to leave their homes.
‘I set up some youth clubs, but I thought it would be good to try to engage with these kids on a one-to-one basis, to try to get them in the right direction, away from getting into trouble,’ she recalls.
Ms Honey, whose previous roles involved working with young prisoners with mental health and behavioural problems, was no stranger to the power of mentoring.
She heard about Paulette Morris, a mediator and trainer who is known for specialising in working with young people, their peers, siblings and parents who are experiencing difficulties in their relationships.
Enlisting the support of her employer Richmond Housing Partnership, which owns half the estate’s 1,600 homes, she met Ms Morris to discuss her vision: housing association staff volunteering as mentors for some of the most challenging young tenants.
This was the first time Ms Morris had been asked to train housing association staff as mentors. So she designed a four-day course, covering areas including building trust and effective communication.
After Ms Honey signed up the young people on the estate she felt could benefit most, the first set of eight mentors found themselves embarking on a rocky road. Many of the mentees, most of whom were aged between 14 and 16, had problems with motivation, time keeping and organisation, which made holding the fortnightly, one-hour mentoring sessions a challenge.
Once in the sessions, the mentees had more problems to throw at their Richmond Housing Partnership mentors, such as school absenteeism, anger management or relationship difficulties - some were even teetering on the brink of a life of crime.
The mentors were trained to provide a confidential and non-judgemental ear and to guide the mentees into making decisions for themselves.
Ms Honey acknowledges that the successes resulting from this type of work are difficult to measure. But out of 12 young people who completed a mentoring course in the scheme’s first two years, at least eight have made concrete improvements to their lives, such as getting back into education or getting involved in community activities.
The cost of the training was £300 a head for the 23 mentors who took part in the first three training sessions, an investment which Ms Honey says has helped to transform Butts Farm.
At a community day in July, around two thirds of the 93 people responding on feedback forms commented on the strong community spirit on the estate. ‘That would never have happened two years ago,’ says Ms Honey. ‘It’s a much friendlier place now, with lots more residents involved in it. Anti-social behaviour has reduced drastically. It’s become a different estate.’
Trainer Ms Morris says there is ‘great potential’ for other social landlords to use the training course she devised. This could be a timely tool as housing associations work out how to trouble-proof their estates in the aftermath of the summer’s riots.
Inside Housing is working with the Chartered Institute of Housing and the National Housing Federation to look at ways the sector can prevent similar riots occurring as part of their Riot Report, to be published in December.
Butts Farm was unaffected by the August unrest and this was no surprise to Ms Honey. ‘The police did come here and say we should lock up early. I said: “I’m absolutely sure nothing will happen on this estate.” And nothing did. Three years ago, I think it might have.’
Making a difference
Fifteen-year-old Caroline Wilmott has been mentored by Richmond Housing Partnership’s 43-year-old head of communications Eddie Kelly for nearly three years.
Mr Kelly has grown into a vital confidante for Ms Wilmott. He’s taught her anger management techniques, such as ‘counting to 10 when she felt she was going to unleash fury’, as well as helped her to see both sides of an argument.
Ms Wilmott, who has ambitions to join the army, has since started helping out with youth activities on Butts Farm estate and chairs its youth forum.
‘I knew I was bad at school and had a bit of a temper and I thought it [the mentoring] might calm me down,’ she says. ‘Talking to Eddie is very much like talking to my some of my mates, but one with a brain. He understands me better than anybody else and he’s not boring, or strict, or horrible, he has a laugh.
‘He knows both sides. He steps into my shoes and works it out in his own head. He advises me on how to deal with stuff and he sets me lots of goals and targets.’
Such goals have included going for an agreed period without receiving any school slips for bad behaviour.
Mr Kelly admits that he also ‘went off the rails’ as a 16-year-old and like Ms Wilmott, got into a few fights. He says he has combined the strategies he learned from the training devised by Paulette Morris with his own life experience to help the teenager.
RHP has now extended the mentoring scheme to people outside its organisation. One of these is copywriter Paul Randall, 35, who has been a mentor to 15-year-old Sean Plank for three months.
‘The sessions are about giving Sean the freedom to be himself, without a sense of feeling that he’s answerable to me,’ Mr Randall says. ‘I’d never say to him: you shouldn’t do that, I just make him aware of the consequences of what he does, so that he can make a better-informed choice.’
Mr Plank says of his mentor: ‘He has given me the confidence to explain what I’m not good at. My brother and sister are always around me and I never get any time by myself. But Paul took me out to a café and helped me with homework and stuff.
‘I think the sessions with him have increased my motivation. They’ve given me more sense of direction. I’d say this has definitely changed my life a bit.’
Inside Housing, the Chartered Institute of Housing and the National Housing Federation have launched a study into the riots. Find out more about The Riot Report or contribute to the debate on our Linkedin Riot Report group.
Inside Housing is also running a free webinar ‘How to build stronger communities’ which will discuss ways of preventing a repeat of this summer’s riots.