One of the longest running Community Gardens in Birmingham, Martineau Gardens, has been recognised for its commitment to the community, receiving the Queens Award for Voluntary Service. The Gardens have been described by visitors as ‘an oasis of calm in the bustling city’ and as ‘Birmingham’s hidden gem’ – all thanks to the dedication of the wonderful volunteers.
Three of our most experienced Pregnancy Outreach Workers (POWs) have been working with Birmingham City Council for the last six months as Support Workers to the Temporary Accommodation team.
We wrote about the background to the service when it launched in November, in our blog post Supporting Birmingham’s B&B Families. While the Housing Officer is finding accommodation for a client, Support Workers Colette, Sarah and Miriam are on hand to give some much-needed practical support.
Here’s the story of just one of the many people that the team has been able to help so far.
Natalia*, who is in her fifties and originally from the Czech Republic, has lived and worked in the UK since November 2011. In 2013 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy and was receiving treatment, but had to give up work. She began living on her savings.
At the beginning of 2014, Natalia’s son Marc*, who’s in his thirties, was in an accident. It left him hospitalised for three months with serious injuries and also unable to work.
Despite her own lack of income, Natalia supported her son and together they lived with friends in rented accommodation.
However, when her friend had to move, Natalia and Marc – unable to pay the rent on their own – were asked to leave.
Natalia and Marc approached Birmingham City Council to make a homelessness application. A Housing Officer from the Temporary Accommodation Team placed them in B&B accommodation and made an application for Employment and Support Allowance for Natalia. Natalia was referred to Support Worker Colette – a seconded Gateway POW – for some extra support.
Colette supported Natalia by:
- making phonecalls to the hospital to arrange appointments
- calling Macmillan Cancer Support to apply for £150 expenses payment to cover travel to and from appointments (the Council had provided bus tickets but this would allow her to get taxis after treatment)
- helping her to make applications for food bank vouchers and taking her to the food bank
- calling to chase up her Employment and Support Allowance application every week
Having worked in the UK for two years, Natalia is entitled to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), but there were some questions about her application, so Colette wrote letters and provided documentation to support her case. Nevertheless, her application was delayed by several months.
The Council made the decision not to support Natalia’s homelessness application. She was told this was because they knew she’d applied for benefits which, once she received them, would resolve her financial hardship. Also, because she’d had a mastectomy, she was thought to have finished her cancer treatment. She was told that she would receive support to rent privately and was given seven days notice to leave B&B accommodation, leaving her with no income at all and no means with which to rent privately. Her request for a review was refused.
At the same time, Natalia’s consultant had told her she could not have chemotherapy, as he felt her accommodation arrangements at the B&B, for example the shared bathroom, would have been unsuitable. She was given a date to start radiotherapy.
Colette supported Natalia by:
- using the evidence of the hospital appointment to request another homelessness application review, showing that Natalia was still being treated for cancer (the review was agreed the next day)
- making phone calls and speaking to different advisors about her benefits (eventually her ESA application was approved and her benefits were backdated from the end of 2013)
She also supported Marc by helping with his application for ESA (he is still waiting for his benefits).
After review, Natalia’s homelessness application was accepted and Birmingham City Council found a Social Letting Agent (SLA) property for Natalia and Marc. Natalia viewed the property and accepted it. Colette took her to the Letting Agent to sign her Tenancy Agreement and then to the Neighbourhood office to get a receipt for her Housing Benefit claim, which was needed in order to get the keys.
The properties that people are given under these circumstances are very basic. There are no carpets or curtains and generally no furniture at all. Natalia’s new house had a cooker and a fridge, and the council supplied beds, bedding and kitchen items, but there was nothing else in the house. Natalia’s ongoing illness and treatments meant that she was unable to do much on her own, so Colette supported Natalia by:
- making a Local Welfare Provision Application (LWP) for a washing machine which was delivered and fitted that week
- taking Natalia to the British Heart Foundation shop for a table and chairs, and curtains
As soon as accommodation is found for a client, the case is closed, so Natalia’s case was closed shortly after she moved in. Colette referred Natalia to Bromford Support for help with maintaining the property and getting benefits for Marc. She also referred Marc to My Time who support with Mental Health Issues.
Natalia and her son are now settled into their accommodation, however there are some ongoing issues with Housing benefit and Council Tax benefit.
Natalia’s story is perhaps shocking, but the Support Workers tell us it’s not extreme. It’s clear there’s a need for support work around homelessness and temporary accommodation and the POW social model seems ideally suited to the role.
Support Worker Sarah says “In most cases, we are helping clients to understand the systems and processes involved, and to make sure they are able to take the right decisions and have their voices heard during one of the most stressful periods of their lives.
“We check that clients are actually bidding on housing, and that they’re applying for all the benefits they’re entitled to. Our POWS work means that we understand the systems very well and we’re used to helping people make applications and ensuring that they make the most of what’s available for them”.
A different way of working
The biggest change in working that the seconded support staff have found is the speed of delivery. POWS are used to up to a year with a client, and a designated handover period. Here they may have as little as two weeks with the client, because each case closes as soon as accommodation is found.
It means that the Support Workers have to move fast to understand the clients’ priorities and get as much done in the time as possible.
“We make phonecalls and help with applications but the relationship is quite different to the POW/client relationship,” says Sarah. “We know from experience that some issues take time to uncover, because a client will only disclose them once a lot of trust has built up.
“We can’t expect to make the same bonds, although we still try, because that’s how we are used to working and we know it has the most impact in the long term. Instead we just do as much as we can, as quickly as we can.”
Ideally, the team would like more time with clients but, as Natalia’s story shows, they’re already making a difference.
*Names have been changed
Colette was supporting a client who was using drugs and alcohol. Her dad had been an alcoholic and her mum left the family when she was very young. She also had a brother who was using drugs.
After her dad died she took over the tenancy of what had been the family home for 30 years. It had never been decorated or had a repair in that time so was in a bit of a state.
Colette visited the client on a weekly basis. She has a lot of issues to deal with so Colette broke them down in to small chunks and dealt with them based on the clients need.
Colette supported her to attend appointments both medical and social, she would meet her at the hospital or at case conferences. When they were at core group meetings the client and her partner would get upset when everyone was talking about their case. They were at risk of Social Services removing the baby at birth.
Colette worked hard to get the housing to fix the repairs such as, fitting a new kitchen, installing a new boiler and getting the steps at the front of the house repaired.
Once the repairs had been done the couple started to redecorate and this is when Colette started to see a change taking place. The client’s partner went into rehab and she stopped using drugs and alcohol. They have kept their baby and would not have achieved this without Colette’s help.
I have worked at Gateway for nearly five years. During that time I have worked on all the services including the Pregnancy Outreach Worker Service.
I remember a number of clients who it turned out had been trafficked into this country to be used as prostitutes. Two people in particular stand out in my mind. One was a young girl who had been trafficked from Africa. She was only 19 years old when we met her. She had left her country when she was 14 years old. Once she reached England she was forced to sleep with men every day. The men never used condoms and when she fell pregnant she found out she was HIV+. It was a really difficult time for her. It was a lot to get her head around.
This young woman had a Pregnancy Outreach Worker who was also African. She didn’t come from the same country but there was some common ground. They worked together and the young woman was given a flat to live in, the Pregnancy Outreach Worker carried on supporting her throughout her pregnancy and after the birth of her child.
Fortunately the baby was not HIV+ and mum and baby have gone on to live a happier life.
The other young woman was from China. She was a young teenager. When she got pregnant she was left at a Social Services office by the woman who was handling her. Because she was pregnant she was no longer any use to the sex traffickers.
She had been trafficked by Chinese mafia. She would not disclose anything about them or how she came to the country because she was concerned about her Grandmother who she had left behind. She was so worried about her Grandmother that she kept in touch with her traffickers by mobile and returned to them after the baby was born. That was the last we heard of her.
There has been an interesting conversation this week about what it is that employers value when recruiting staff With the Birmingham and Solihull LEP meeting at the end of the month to discuss what skills the people of Birmingham need, Nick Booth from Podnosh, has tried to gather the views of people from across the city to see what they feel is currently missing in his blog piece below;
Views are sought from local organisations from across different sectors, each describing their interactions with the percieved skills (or lack of them) in the local area and also commenting on what they think is needed to make sure that Birmingham, and it’s people, is ready for the future.
Karl Binder, from Adhere left his views on the site, amongst others, while Gateway’s Chief Executive, Vicki Fitzgerald also commented on the debate by saying, “As a training provider and accredited delivery agent for qualifications, people often think we value qualifications above all else. This isn’t true, in fact the opposite is the case. We employ over 60 people that we have recruited for their experience, mostly of life, family, barriers, prejudice and often overcoming the most difficult of circumstances. Their experience is nothing without genuine commitment, passion and enthusiasm for what they are doing and it’s these values that we would recruit for.
Often qualifications mean exclusion for many rather than inclusion.I often see them as a hoop people have to jump through in order to do things that really matter. For me, while others were doing their degrees or their masters, I was learning about real life and real people and it taught me a huge amount.
We work mostly with the NHS and professional qualifications are necessary in most cases (my dentist for example!) Unlike many other sectors the qualifications rarely change and this can mean a job for life, but it also can mean that you never get to employ people who see the world from different perspectives – always valuing skills and qualifications over experience and values makes for a very insular organisation
So what do you think?
Are the skills that people are learning useful in today’s world? What skills, and when, should we be looking for when employing staff and does experience and ‘life-skills’ make you stand out more than qualifications?