Sunday, 30 April 2017

Now that’s street cred

Who better to tackle the problems of homelessness than people who have been homeless? Camille Ward reports

As far as George Greenlow-Williams is concerned, the Brent Homeless User Group saved his life.

When he became homeless following the break-up of his marriage, he was, he confesses, in a very low place. He felt lost and depressed, his confidence shattered.

But things began to look up when Mr Greenlow-Williams met Dwayne Foster, an employment adviser at B.HUG’s pre-employment drop-in service, A Chance 2 Work.

‘Without that help I’d be useless,’ Mr Greenlow-Williams says.

Since starting to use B.HUG’s services he has found a fl at and has started looking for work. He has also, he says, regained his confidence and a sense of direction. ‘Now I can actually see what’s ahead.’

He lays the credit for this personal change largely with the staff , who have ‘open arms to anyone’. ‘I don’t feel lonely anymore,’ Mr Greenlow- Williams adds. ‘Whenever I need them, they are here for me.’

Voice of experience

Empowering their clients and building this kind of confidence is central to B.HUG’s mission, according to Johanna Weaver, project manager at A Chance 2 Work.

The service has a distinguishing feature that sets it apart from many other similar organisations – it was set up in 2001 by a group of local homeless people who decided to work together to address homelessness in the north west London borough. Today most of the members of the organisation’s board have experienced homelessness, as have several of its volunteers and employees. This year its work was recognised with an award from Brent Council.

Many of its clients, Ms Weaver explains, have ‘huge motivation issues’ often because they are dealing with serious personal problems such as drug addiction or a marriage break-up – problems which may have contributed to their homelessness in the first place. These factors often make it particularly challenging for homeless clients to seek and find work.

Mr Foster, himself a former service user, points out that when he was living out of a suitcase and sleeping on the street, finding a career wasn’t the first thing on his mind.

It wasn’t until after being put up in temporary accommodation and coming to B.HUG that he began to consider what kind of work he wanted to do. ‘When you haven’t got a place to stay, there’s no sense of stability,’ he explains. ‘It’s almost like an anchor, your home. If don’t have that anchor, you’re always drifting.’

Understanding their clients’ situation is essential to what B.HUG calls its ‘user focus’ – and that understanding often comes first-hand.

One of its key user-involvement projects is a research, training and consultancy service on homelessness and social inclusion run by users. Having experienced homelessness themselves, the users are uniquely qualified for this kind of work.

Despite recognition within the sector – last year the project won an Andy Ludlow homelessness award – Ms Weaver says it is occasionally hard to appreciate their success by looking solely at the numbers.

Of the 120 or so clients that use A Chance 2 Work each year, generally about two dozen find jobs. Ms Weaver admits these numbers may not seem high – but what is more important is to take into account the less tangible results of their work. ‘I think the real victories are the soft outcomes,’ she says.

Building a client’s confidence, or motivating them to take the next step towards looking for work, whether it results in a placement or not, is, she says, ‘sometimes more rewarding’.

But dealing with people’s lack of confidence and motivation can also be difficult. The hardest part of her job, Ms Weaver says, is the emotional toll it takes, particularly when she comes across clients who are ‘really, really desperate and have hit a massive low’.

‘In the beginning I used to spend hours – if someone came and needed a place, I’d drop everything, but it never really came to much,’ she said. She has since had to scale back her own expectations of what she can do for her clients. ‘You probably have to get burnt once or twice and then learn,’ Ms Weaver advises.

The best way to deal with the emotional hardship is, she says, to maintain some distance between herself and the clients, but ‘without making the clients feel like you are’.

Any such gap is certainly well-hidden. The rapport between clients and staff at B.HUG is relaxed and genial. The clients wander casually from the drop-in centre back to the staff offices and address staff by their first names. The staff , in turn, seem to know each of their clients.

Mr Foster remembers a certain ‘coldness’ at places like the Jobcentre when he was seeking work that is absent here. New B.HUG client Egbert Jones agrees. He says he actually enjoys coming to A Chance 2 Work because it offers more of the help he needs than other pre-employment services.

Atara Fridler, B.HUG’s chief executive, points out that the organisation’s size – it employs just seven people – allows it to offer service users something different. As she puts it: ‘We are small and beautiful.’

Clients such as Mr Greenlow-Williams and a young service user named Aisha are among those who speak highly of Mr Foster, Ms Weaver and the other members of staff . Aisha, who has been coming to A Chance 2 Work for a year, says she would not keep returning if it were not for the people there.

‘They’re very committed to their jobs,’ she says. ‘They see something that’s not right and they make it right.’

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