Wednesday 24 August 2011

Supporting People : NOT - Guest Blog From @connorkinsella

 Originally posted here

Many local authorities are now slashing and burning their way through vital community services, leaving highly vulnerable people without essential support. Thanks to Keith Cooper and the Guardian Housing Network for inspiring yet another sleepless polemic, mostly aimed at 'Dave' 

It’s not often I start a post with a big, fat, steaming turd of a lie, but let’s do it anyway. I offer my apologies to all turds for the comparison. They really don’t deserve it:

"And I want to say to British people clearly and frankly this; if you are elderly, if you are frail, if you are poor, if you are needy, a Conservative government will always look after you"

David Cameron: 4.5.2010

Courtesy of The Guardian
I remember watching with awe and amazement Cameron spouting this mantra over and over again on the pre-election campaign trail. He said it on the live TV debates. He said it on visits to Day Centres, usually with sleeves rolled up and gurning over a girl in a wheelchair. He said it bloody everywhere to anyone who would listen, and I remember thinking how remarkable it was that the leader of the Conservative Party was starting to sound like the hybrid spawn of Ghandi, Mother Theresa and that nice lady in Borehamwood who devotes her life to saving hedgehogs.

But ‘spending’ and ‘cuts’ were never far from the spiel either, Cameron’s point being that whatever they had to do to reverse the public sector overspend of the previous mob, it’s okay. Vulnerable people wouldn’t suffer. "A Conservative government will always look after you."

The awful truth of what is happening to community care has been slapping me in the face like a wet fish ever since the grinning Dave and Nick garden party at No.10 way back in May last year. I earn a living running courses for social care staff up and down the UK, and I notice things. I notice how much less cheerful are the delegates who come to my courses. Is it my crap jokes? Have people really become homicidal at the mere sight of a Powerpoint slide? Well, probably yes, but this hasn’t been the reason for the pervasive gloom in my training rooms. 

The fact is, I’m working with large groups of people who are not only attending the last course they’ll ever get under the previous training budget, but more seriously are facing the prospect of reapplying for their own jobs, or being handed a P45 and a note of thanks 'for all their valuable service'.

These aren’t the bureaucrats and middle-managers with incomprehensible titles and Mickey Mouse job descriptions. These are front-line, face-to-face support workers who do the often gutty work of helping people who really can’t get on in life without the help of that Warden, Carer or Support Worker who helps out with anything from benefit claims to suicide prevention. 

But sometimes something is so blindingly, dazzlingly obvious that it never really hits home until you see it in black and white. On paper or on a laptop screen, the effect is the same. And yesterday, thanks to The Guardians Housing Network, I read the confirmation of all that I’ve been hearing these last sixteen months:

Courtesy of The Guardian: Author Keith Cooper 22.8.11
Supporting People cuts leave housing sector unable to help most vulnerable

Now I can certainly help you understand why a 17-year old service user stubs out fag butts on his arm or help you devise a risk assessment and management strategy for your supported housing service, but mention ‘ring fencing’ or ‘local housing allowance’ and I’m likely to look at you as if you’re spouting the combined works of Stephen Hawking in Mandarin Chinese. But I do know a little about Supporting People, the programme of funding established specifically to provide community support for vulnerable people. 

People whose lives are shattered by mental illness, drugs, alcohol, homelessness or often a bit of each. Ex-offenders, people with learning disabilities or the frail elderly are also the very folk supported by Supporting People, usually with the invaluable provision of four walls and a roof, and a regular visit of one of those front-line, face-to-face support workers.

Supporting People (SP) is a fund distributed to local authorities to spend on housing and support provision for vulnerable people. The providers may be in-house local authority staff, but are more likely to be independent providers or charities who receive a portion of the local SP pot every year to help those who really can’t get by without support. The Guardian report highlights the massive re-allocation by some (not all) local authorities of SP budgets away from their original targets and into … well, I don’t know what, but it certainly isn’t going to be spent on providing sheltered accommodation and a warden for 80-year old Doris, or helping Gary get his life back on track after a 5-year jail term. 

David Cameron and Housing Minister Grant Shapps will undoubtedly argue that their government have barely touched SP funding (true), and it’s those nasty councils who’ve pulled the rug right from under the already unsteady feet of the vulnerable. But this sounds to me like Hitler blaming the Holocaust on a few SS officers who got a bit over enthused with the gas tap.

Shelf Stacking at Tesco Courtesy of
But back to my real world - the training room, where I spend coffee breaks and lunchtimes staring disbelievingly at yet another support worker telling me “Yes, Connor, this is a very useful course, but to be honest I’ll be stacking shelves in Tesco in six months so there won’t be much call for your insights on Dual Diagnosis.”

And I ask, rather fearfully, what will happen to the twenty or so clients on their caseload when they’ve chopped the staff allocation in half? “Don’t know. Haven’t a clue” is invariably the answer, but neither of us needs a crystal ball to imagine the misery, the mayhem, the reversal of fortunes and the undoing of what often amounts to years of hard work by a support worker who, whether at the end of a phone or the end of a sofa, is quite possibly turning lives around and staving off inevitable chaos. 

Mind Mapping: Connor Kinsella
I often use a technique called Mind Mapping to help staff think about the work they’ve done, often for a particularly difficult or vulnerable client. There are inspiring success stories, the odd dismal failure, but more often the seemingly humdrum case of a service user encouraged to reduce their intake of White Lightning from four litres a day to two. 

I ask the support worker a simple question: “Where would this tenant be if it weren’t for your support and a roof over their head?” The answer is usually death, prison, homelessness or very long spells detained in a psychiatric unit.

With rapidly diminishing training budgets and fewer and fewer people left to do training with, I don’t expect to be asking these questions for very much longer, or to be talking job security over coffee and biscuits. But if I were, I’d expect the answers to feature less and less inspiration and more and more White Lightning.

Thanks for that, Dave.