Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Street homeless numbers are going up but Mayor Boris is doing his bit

Reports in last Monday's London Evening Standard and on the BBC's London evening news bulletin both spoke of the rise in street homelessness. I must say this didn't surprise me in the least, I see it as an inevitable consequence of the government's policies.

Chancellor George Osborne announced his Comprehensive Spending Review in October last year and in April this year local councils set new budgets, all involving cuts. These things always take time for the effects to filter through. As I'm sure we're all aware, people are consistently being put out of work due to the current economic climate. It is often said by those who work in the homelessness "industry" that we are all only two or three pay cheques away from homelessness.

So according to these reports, in just 12 months street homelessness in London has risen by 8%. Now these numbers aren't too dramatic, and in London the figure for 2011 so far stands at 3975. The worrying aspect of this was that 60% of these people were new to the street. This is according to Howard Sinclair who is CEO of Broadway, who are one of the organisations involved in what is esssentially an initiative led by the Mayor of London; No Second Night Out. Boris Johnson announced the scheme to loud fanfare in December 2010 claiming he was aiming to end street homelessness by December 2012.

So, in ten weeks, No Second Night Out has taken 135 people off the streets of London and this undoubtably has to be applauded. What concerns me is the fact that there is a need for such things in the first place. Street homelessness, to me, should be something that shames us a nation. I realise that there are a multitude of reasons as to why such things happen, I also realise that there are people who prefer to be on the streets for their own reasons, reasons I wouldn't pretend to understand. These people are in a minority but they prefer to live at the margins of society.

The people I'm most concerned about are those finding themselves homeless due to the cuts happening in the UK right now. I can only presume that over the coming months these numbers are going to grow. Street homelessness increasing by 8% doesn't sound like much but what are the statistics going to say in six months? Twelve months?

What I found most surprising about the publicity surrounding Boris' No Second Night Out campaign was a woman whose plight was being highlighted. She struck me as delightfully normal. A regular woman, pretty, with a regular job, well turned out, and now I'm going to sound like a bigot, but she really didn't look like the type who'd end up homeless. She lost her job selling for a medical supplies company, couldn't pay her rent and ended up sleeping outside a Sainsburys coffee shop! The woman concerned, Ms Karin Botha, who's 36 said: " It was the most scared I've ever been."

Right now she seems to be the poster girl for the No Second Night Out campaign. Which I think can only be a good thing because so many people think it'll never happen to them. Ms Botha seems a perfect example of how it just might. We are living in difficult times and we are going to be hearing more and more stories of people ending up without a roof over their heads.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Readying myself to get back to work

I’ve been on a Job Centre-prescribed training scheme to help me acquire some work experience and hopefully get me back into work. It’s four weeks into the programme and it’s giving me plenty of opportunity to observe myself, to see where I’m really at with regard to my employability. And not least of all, to get real information and genuine feedback from trainers, employers and job agencies.

Some of my findings have been shocking: first of all, I didn’t know so much of my confidence has been eroded over the four year I’ve been unemployed. In my first week at this training scheme, we played a variation of Dragon’s Den in which I was a job applicant and fellow trainees role-played the parts of prospective employers and interviewers at job agencies. At the first mock interview with my fellow trainees – I was shocked to see how nervous I was. I was all over the place, inarticulate like a child and clutching at anything like the proverbial drowning man! I couldn’t believe I was the same person who had been on interview panels to select employees for my organisation in the past. Little did I know that my experience had faded away and that I now need to retrain myself on how to handle job interviews.

The second thing that shocked me was getting how my daily disciplines and routines have been impacted by the long period of unemployment. I know folks who don’t like to get out of bed before midday … but that’s not me. I don’t have my son’s teenage thing of sleeping most of the day and being up most of the night. Actually, I like to get up at dawn and catch the dew on early morning walks or runs.

I realise I’ve now gone beyond the 9 to 5 and similar just show-up routines of certain organisations. I’ll do 12 hours of work straight when I have to get on with a project; I’ ll work weekends when I have to; I work long hours into the night when I have to deliver results by a deadline. But when I have to go and sit in an office for 6 hours and do what can be done in an hour or two in the name of a training scheme, something in me screams against the “system”. My challenge then is finding a work role that will focus on producing results, rather than conforming to old-style workplace routines that I hear are still rife in some places.

Now to my third insight: I’m finding it’s not easy to draw the line between being principled and being practical. From the do-goodie perspective, a training scheme to help me back into work may be just what I need … but it irks me to think there are people … officialdom, really … who want to move me from one set of statistics to another set of statistics without addressing my real needs and concerns. Even though I’m still unemployed, government statistics got improved by one person last month - by moving me from being in receipt of Job Seekers Allowance to being a Job Trainee receiving a training allowance.

I know I’m not one of the “I’ll do anything” brigade: I’m looking for a position where I can make a contribution and, at the same time, feel fulfilled to be using and developing my skills. I have no problem with motivation – it’s no big deal to show up on time and do above average work when I go to various volunteer jobs I do. But when somebody tries to fit me into a cookie-cutter pattern, something is provoked … a part of me just doesn’t want to do it! I question my own motivation though: am I being rebellious for the sake of rebellion or do I just shut up and be grateful for whatever comes my way?

I’ve been getting ready to move on for a long time. But now that I’m on the road, if feels like I’ve got concrete shoes on my feet and there are only muddy paths ahead of me. No one told me of these angles of being unemployed.

(Ready Ready, a guest contributor to this blog, is well educated with years of experience in the workplace. After four years of unemployment he's ready to move on, but how?)

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Government's latest wheeze

So, late last week the Government announced its Work Programme. The Government is hoping that one million people who are currently receiving one of the out-of-work benefits will be moved from what is commonly referred to as welfare dependency (an ugly phrase, if broadly accurate) into work, within two years.

The Government is calling its Work Programme "revolutionary". Chris Gayling, the Employment Minister said it was: "revolutionary in the way it tailors support to jobseekers' individual needs and pays organisations primarily for getting people into sustained employment."

This doesn't sound revolutionary to me in the slightest, it sounds like the same old bullshit we've all heard before.

Another element of this Work Programme that the Government were boasting about when they announced it, was their hands-off approach to the companies they were asking to put it into practice. The Government calls it "a black-box approach". This apparently translates into; do whatever it takes and we're not going to interfere.

This is MY big worry, these contractors are being given carte blanche to get people into work. As every person who signs on knows, when you are offered work you are obliged to take it (however unsuitable it may be or however unsuited you may be in terms of being able to carry out the work.)

Mark Easton, the BBC's Home Affairs editor remarked: "concerns are that contractors might pressurise vulnerable people into taking unsuitable jobs." Surely we're not just talking about vulnerable people taking unsuitable jobs.

On the day the Government announced their Work Programme, Elizabeth Smythe of Randstad, who are a huge international staffing and recruitment consultancy wrote: "Payment by results has led some commentators to speculate that it might pressurise the approved providers to force claimants into unsuitable jobs."

Now, bear in mind the incentive for getting people into work for these contractors is £4k up to nearly £14k depending on who the jobseeker is.

So let's imagine you are coerced into taking a job you aren't suitable for, you stuff it up and they sack you and that's it. You can kiss your benefit goodbye for up to 26 weeks - that's six months! There is no way in the world they will let you sign back on. No JSA...no housing benefit. No landlord is going to give you six months grace until you can sign back on.

So you take a job you can't really do, lose it, lose any chance of signing back on, lose your housing benefit and you end up homeless. Now, I can see that happening. How many times it will happen who can tell?