Beware the dead hand of professionalisation

The Guardian recently highlighted a new report (Tackling homelessness and exclusion: Understanding complex lives) by the Joseph Rowntree Trust into services for the homeless which says that many housing support staff were effectively filling a gap left by qualified social workers.

It called for more “appropriate training, which better fits the reality of the housing support workers’ current role” and called for a more fundamental debate to consider the need for increased professionalisation for workers.

In my experience the role of the housing support worker is often misunderstood and undervalued. It is often characterised as a less experienced, less well-trained, (lower paid) “imitation” of a social worker, a CPN or a (proper) housing Professional. Housing support workers are often characterised in terms of what they are not – for not being experts in mental health; for not being experts in drug and alcohol recovery; for not being experts in child protection case-law or the intricacies of every type of welfare benefit.

I think it is time we started to celebrate housing support workers for what they are – experts in their own specialism – the provision of housing related support. They are experts at listening to and engaging with customers; experts at helping others articulate their dreams and taking the first crucial steps towards realising them; experts at working collaboratively with a range of professionals; experts at having a thick skin and focussing on the customer (when they encounter professional snobbery, jargon and bureaucracy). They don’t just sign post to other agencies, they help their clients understand, access and get the most from other services that can often seem unapproachable or unintelligible.

Does the system need rethinking? Well there is a lot of ignorance about housing in general and supported housing in particular. But organisations can work together; focus on the needs of their mutual clients; take informed risks and problem solve if things don’t work. Bromford Support has examples of this partnership working in services across Central England and I’ve worked with other organisations like Brighter Futures in Stoke and Rethink in Staffordshire where there is no “backing off” from statutory agencies once someone is housed. Rather there is an understanding that each agency plays its part in helping someone rebuild their life and get on the road to recovery. The housing support worker may well be the “glue” that holds the partnership together but there is strong mutual respect and willingness for each party to step up its involvement when needed.

Are housing support workers sometimes overburdened? For sure. But the solution is not to take them away from working directly with service users to spend more time in a class room or an office. Our experience at Bromford Support is that people get into support work because their existing work is unsatisfying and doesn’t seem to make a difference. We recruit for attitude not technical knowledge or qualifications. Wherever our news starters have come from – a bank, IT, customer service – they’ll join a team where they’ll get great peer support, practical “how to” training and ongoing coaching from an experienced team leader.

Sure many housing support workers move on to become qualified social workers, police officers, nurses. But while they are with us they bring an energy, passion and commitment to helping others change their lives.

The real threat to housing support and the services that provide it comes from a lack of understanding of the vital role it plays – from those now making the decisions about how reduced budgets should be spent. Housing support is both a preventative and an enabling activity – helping people avoid or move on from prison, hospital or care and starting to believe in a future, with possibilities. It doesn’t need the dead hand of professionalization to help it thrive – it needs the confidence and a new generation of advocates to champion its achievements to commentators, politicians and decision makers.

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3 responses to “Beware the dead hand of professionalisation

  1. social workers just happen to work in a social environment support workers support people – key and better difference

    social workers talk holistic support workers put that into practise

    sociaal housing is about bricks and mortar; supported housing is about people.

    Nice pithy sayings? Yes? True? Undoubtedly and expanded upon in my comments on the misframed Guardian discussion.

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  2. A lot of this is true when i started in support work 23 years ago there was not half the paper work you used look after the needs of the customer the only paper work you had beside the information sheet was a incident report so if any thing happened you would fill in a incident report.
    so this enabled you to interact with the customers more which to them showed you cared.
    When i do paper work know the customer ivariably says what is that all about.

    i read a piece in the wetherspoon monthly magazine by their chairperson and it was entitled
    THE FREEDOM TO SPEAK AND THE WISDOM TO LISTEN
    QUOTE-; ONE OF THE VIRTUES OF DEMOCRACY IS THE RIGHT TO SAY WHAT YOU THINK.
    THIS IS A VITAL ENGINE OF IMPROVEMENT FOR INDIVIDUAL BUSINESSES AND SOIETY AS A WHOLE. iF YOU RUN A BUSINESSES AND CAN’T STAND CRITICISM PEOPLE WILL BE DISCOURAGED FROM GIVING YOU THEIR IDEASFOR IMPROVING YOUR BUSINESSES OR REPORTING TO YOU WHEN THINGS HAVE GONE WRONG. iT CAN BE PAINFUL TO LISTEN TO ANECDOTES OF YOUR OWN FAILINGS , BUT, IF YOU DO NOT KNOW YOU CAN’T MAKE THE NECESSARY CORRECTIONS. UNQUOTE.

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  3. I began replying to this, and somehow managed to delete the whole (very long comment!). This issue is something very close to my heart, and I can’t begin to tell you how often support workers describe themselves as “unqualified social workers” or “basically low paid social workers”. I don’t want to tar all professionals with the same brush as some are truly fantastic, and in this instance I refer not only to social workers, but health visitors, mental health professionals etc. Frequently I am shocked by the “pass the buck” attitude of some professionals – inter-agency work seems to be making way for the “I’ve referred this customer to you they are your responsibility and problem now”. In recent months I can barely begin to explain how often I repeat the phrase “our remit is housing and tenancy related support” only to be told a concern raised isn’t within that professionals remit either.
    From my view, support workers are the grafters, the information gathers, the hand holders, the advocates, the go betweens, it is down to us to do the “donkey work”, often to then feed back to professionals who then tell us what support we should then give regardless of remit! In my time in this role I have gone above and beyond what our “standard” job description entails, and I know many of my colleagues do as well, and for what? No promotion, no bonus, but just the simple fact I know that I have done absolutely everything I can to make a customers life a little bit more bearable when they feel no one else is listening.
    Here are some examples – contacting Hep C charities to get additional support and advice for a customer who was due to begin treatment but had received no information from her doctor and was petrified, leading a TAC meeting because no other professionals would put themselves forward, contacting police and ambulance services when the CMHT refused to assist a customer because they made the assumption he was drunk rather than in an extremely low mental state – and followed it through until he was placed in hospital, contacting police when a customer was a victim of financial abuse but the professionals involved did not take it forward.
    About a year ago I referred someone I knew personally to our service, as he had become homeless and was sleeping in his car. The support worker he was allocated worked tirelessly to help him, but the journey was an incredibly difficult one. He approached the council as homeless, but they would not place him in temporary accommodation until a mental health report was completed (despite him having no criminal record, but they deemed him high risk for some reason – possibly due to having facial tattoos?? It certainly isn’t a standard procedure, most people coming to Griffin Place come with no more than their name!). The support worker contacted the MHT as he had been referred to complex needs by his GP, and a member of staff advised she would send a report to the council. The support worker called several times a day for weeks, only to be told the member of staff was out, or in meetings. She again approached the council, who would not help any further without the information from the MHT. I don’t know how on earth it was resolved in the end, all I know is that the individual slept in his car throughout January 2011, until he eventually got nominated to Griffin Place. More than a year on he has his own flat and the story is a much happier one, but it still disgusts me that the professionals the support worker contacted seemed to have no particular inclination to end a miserable and distressing situation that only they had control to change.
    Support workers are counsellors, mentors, peoples voices, the glue that makes what other professionals do possible. I am so so proud of what I do, and feel that other professionals don’t give us nearly enough credit for the hard graft we put in. A health visitor the other day asked for information on my personal background, as I was questioning the support she was giving to a customer she had referred to our service. His wife passed away a year ago, leaving him with twin babies. The health visitor set up a few hours childminding per week, but I had recently been made aware the funding was due to end. Upon asking if I could have her support to get something further in place she seemed to be offended, and said that he hadn’t made use of the time given to him already. I may not be a mental health professional, but even I can see the customer has barely begun to grieve and is still living his life in a state of shock, so I found her response very cutting. Although I will keep pushing to get him everything possible in place, a lot of referrals have to come directly through the health visitor, so if she chooses, she can be the deciding factor in the outcome of my support.
    Some days I could scream and cry, and wonder if what we do will ever truly make a difference. Fortunately though, when I look at the results the team produce, I know we really do make a difference. We have prevented evictions, re-instated benefits, got customers grants, cleared rent arrears and council tax arrears, created safe environments, helped people find new homes, set up utility bills, had disability adaptions installed, put appointees in place, got toys and food parcel to those in need… and that’s just on a Monday morning! Without support workers the workload of other professionals would be impossible to manage, and I think that they sometimes forget to acknowledge this. In this economic climate I count myself extremely lucky to have a job, particularly one as rewarding as this one. I hope that eventually the dust will settle, and our salaries will increase to reflect what I believe support workers are truly worth.

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