I’m a volunteer with Navigate, part of the Glasgow Homelessness Network. I have been in the role since March 2015 and spend maybe ten to sixteen hours a week, but it can frequently be spread over five days. My role isn’t exclusively dealing with my own client base, I’m also involved in research projects with Strathclyde University and NHS Scotland and Health and the Social Care Alliance of Scotland. I’m also part of our presentation team and we also spend a lot of time attending seminars, so we can increase our own skills base.
We work with people who have issues regarding their housing, or accommodation and also with benefits enquiries. We deal in advocacy and we represent people at remedial, tribunal, medical hearings and assessments. We do signposting to other services, trying to point people in the right direction, supplying information. Very frequently we have access to information that someone may not be aware of. They may not feel confident how to access information or using the information they have. They might not understand the information and we can go along and help them make sense of the situation they find themselves in.
We are partly boosting their confidence and also acting as a bridging point between the service we’re approaching and the client and trying to help them access the service.
I experienced homelessness myself about twelve years ago, and at that time I didn’t know where to access information, what support was available and I was just turning round in circles.
And I decided to pay a wee bit of it back.
And now I have access to the information that I could have been doing with all those years ago: assisting folk and helping them deal with their crisis. I have always been a sort of outgoing and empathetic person. Various roles that I’ve done in the past have involved either training and dealing with tricky situations, but skills that I’ve gained within this industry…a lot of it has been quite new to me. I’ve had to understand a new industry effectively. I wouldn’t have got involved in if I didn’t feel I had the people skills to actually do it, but after that it’s just a question of professional knowledge and learning something new almost every day.
I was doing a course with my mentoring skills in Drumchapel – my course tutor approached me and said ‘what do you want to do when you finish the course?’ It’s a 23-week course, and I said I wouldn’t mind actually working with vulnerable groups, particularly the homeless. And about a week later he asked me ‘are you serious about this?’ I said ‘well aye.’ And he says ‘well then the Marie Trust are looking for somebody to run their internet café for their service users.’ I was familiar with the Marie Trust, because I’d been a service user there myself when I was homeless and I understood the work they were doing. And again paying a wee bit of it back to them.
I’m using this work as a stepping stone towards paid employment, within this field. And it’s getting me excellent experience and also because our remit within Navigate is really quite wide. It’s giving me experience in bits that I may not necessarily have to deal with in other organisations. So it’s the very wide background that I have – or that I’m gaining shall we say, hopefully leading towards paid employment.
I’m enjoying doing what I’m doing at the moment and as I say the more I know about it, the more comfortable I will be. My CV is already fairly good and well-tuned for these sort of things, but the more my role with Navigate develops as other skills that I’m achieving, for example facilitating tables, discussion groups, I’m enjoying that side of things to. I get to meet nice folk in other aspects of the industry that we’re involved in.
It’s almost impossible to go for a quiet pint nowadays, because as soon as somebody says ‘Is that what you do? Excellent – my benefits have been stopped.’ And you turn into a bit of jailhouse lawyer. Folk go ‘oh, wish I’d known that, ’cause my landlord’s making moves to throw me out the house.’
It’s actually given me a wee bit more purpose. Instead of just turning into a sort of antiques expert by watching Bargain Hunt, I’m doing something that’s a bit more fruitful and giving me a bit more purpose.
I think it’s an invaluable way of spending my time. I was lacking purpose and I was using this as a springboard to get into this industry. It is unfortunately a growth market.
I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing – but I’ve developed a few callouses now, shall we say. If I do get a nice result and things work out better – result, happy Douglas. I was with one of our new recruits this morning and the client didn’t turn up and just had to explain to her it just happens. And you know maybe I’m slightly more bitter or slightly more cynical now, but still with this wish to try and get a good result.
It’s nice when you get a thank you, or you realise that person’s life has changed for the better. You get thank you cards at Christmas time and things like this, or when one of your clients comes in and your name gets mentioned and you know it is rewarding, and you realise that that person when you first met them was stuffed, for want of a better word. And you realise that they themselves can now actually make a bit of sense of what’s going on. The contrary is also true. One cannot force someone to engage with the service if they’re unforthcoming, then one sees the disappointment – you can feel it, but there’s little you can do to change that. It would depend on the client.
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
When you meet people for the first time, obviously it’s to do with building their trust and the relationship, and they may end up disclosing more as things go on. Particularly given the nature of some of the things that you’re involved in with a client. If you’re filling in somebody’s medical assessment or a PIP assessment, they will tell you bits about their personal life. You’ve got to know before you can represent them and I’ve become a bit more forthcoming at getting this information out of people at the outset. I do explain to the clients, ‘I’m going to ask you some really embarrassing questions here. It won’t be for the first time that you’ll be asked these questions if I’m representing you – this is the nature of the things they’re going to be asking you.’ And it’s a skill that I have sort of developed: being able to realise that this person is not telling the truth, or not the whole truth. And you realise, you’ve maybe encountered something else, without being judgemental or jumping to conclusions. I think it’s come with experience and dealing with other clients. You understand some of the pitfalls that they may have encountered whilst finding themselves in the position they’re in.
The training [at GHN] is very good. It gives you a good framework and the legal aspects of things. But, as everyone’s that’s been involved with Navigate will tell you, it’s impossible to cover every eventuality. It’s only through discussing with your colleagues situations that they’ve found, or encountering new situations. We work as a peer group and if I don’t know the answer to something I will go and speak to one of my fellow advocates or we have link workers. And we also have people who are involved in policy, who will tell us whether or not we should be getting involved. Sometimes a person actually needs a lawyer instead. I enjoy sharing the information with my colleagues and it’s the only way we learn really. The training’s very good, but we would still be in training now if they were trying to explain every eventuality that you’d see.
The state of society and our communities is pretty ropey and when I was going through my initial training and in fact I think it was even prior to interview, I was talking to a colleague, who said there was nothing he’d enjoy more for everybody in the office to get laid off, for our jobs to no longer be necessary, but unfortunately it’s not going to happen. It would be nice if I could wave a magic wand and the problems with social affordable housing would be changed and regulated, and the housing waiting list would be dealt with, but it’s just not going to happen unfortunately. Again I’m being quite realistic about it now. I’ve a private landlord and I realise now that now I understand why I had my name on a waiting list for six and seven years, because I’ve got absolutely no priority in the housing lists. Single male with no dependants, with a roof over his head. I understand about these things now.
Knowledge into practice
I am currently unemployed and signing on. I’m on job seekers allowance. I got two fantastic letters on the 23rd of December, both of them informing me that my money was getting stopped, two days before their offices shut. Now I know the way that a lot of my clients would deal with these letters. They would freak! I kept the head. I went down to the Job Centre and used one of their phones, because I understood enough about the situation, personally and professionally.
I was able to get it sorted and got my money re-instated before end of business that day, as opposed to pulling my hair out and flinging myself of a bridge.
Clients don’t necessarily want to see us wearing a suit and tie or a shirt and tie, because well, we’re not the job centre, we’re not the social work department, we’re not the DWP. We are a bit more relaxed in that. OK, we have to deal with these organisations, but I don’t particularly put a different face on when I’m speaking to the clients. I know in other industries in which I’ve worked it was certainly very more formal, but I quite enjoy the sort of easygoing attitude in the office.
I still quake in my boots slightly, a slight crisis of confidence – when a client has a situation and you go ‘hells teeth, how do you deal with that?’ And then you go and speak to someone that knows or bounce it about the office and somebody will say – it could be one of your colleagues – ‘I’ve got a client – they did that.’ Or you’ll eavesdrop in conversations and you hear stuff in the office.
We are encouraged to find out what our colleague’s strengths are. We have other people that are very good through their own personal experience, or perhaps other work life. They may have a greater expertise for example in medical grounds. My skills base has increased enormously. When I first got into this all I could speak of was my own personal experience of this, for example, signing on or this is what happens when you’re on job seekers allowance.
I now understand the wider net of welfare rights and the welfare system.
Stuff that I didn’t know about and it’s only through informing myself and through dealing with my clients and through dealing with my colleagues.