The internal culture of Thames Reach needed to change for the concept of service user employment to be accepted.
The culture shift
The employment of current or former service users is rare, ad hoc, and usually perceived as potentially problematic within UK homelessness agencies.
‘Professionalisation’ over the past 15-20 years inadvertently led to a strong ‘us and them’ culture in which staff sought to distance themselves from service users.
Employment practices reinforce this approach, tending to treat service users with great suspicion rather than recognising their potential value as employees.
A shift in culture is required, away from a preoccupation with the potential difficulties, to a focus on solutions and mutual benefits. This shift has been crucial to the success of the GROW project and will continue to hold great importance in the development of any other service user employment initiatives within the sector.
How Thames Reach prepared for this change
1. Understanding the issues and barriers
As a starting point, Thames Reach jointly commissioned a six-month piece of research to:
- Identify the structural, practical and attitudinal barriers that prevented us from employing homeless people
- Identify solutions to overcome each barrier
The research was conducted withinThames Reach and Broadway, another homeless agency, and was funded in part by the London Housing Foundation.
The main concerns from staff included:
- Issues around confidentiality, professional boundaries, capability, managing change or failure
- Conflict of interests arising from the dual roles of service user and employee
- Possibility of lowering the standards of the organisation
The conclusions from the research informed the work plan for the first years of the GROW project.
2. Benchmarking the current number employees with an experience of homeless
In March 2005, an anonymous staff survey was conducted across Thames Reach to identify how many staff members had a history of homelessness.
6% of Thames Reach staff defined themselves as having direct experience of homelessness (i.e., had used a hostel, stayed in an abandoned building or slept rough for more than two weeks). Their profile, however, remained low, largely because the existing culture did not value this experience.
3. Service Users at Work Group
Thames Reach established a support and consultation group for Thames Reach employees with experience of service use. The aim of the Service Users at Work Group was to:
Describe and publicise the mutual benefits of user employment to other staff in the organisation
Reassure other staff that user employment is feasible, and that the obstacles are not insurmountable, by raising the profile of individual group members
Act as a peer support group to existing and new members of Thames Reach staff
Act as a consultation group on the development and implementation of the service user traineeships and changes to policies and practices related to service user employment in general
4. Dedicated manager
Thames Reach appointed a dedicated manager to:
- Lead the organisational culture change
- Support, develop or implement other routes into employment (e.g. traineeships, direct employment options, jobs in contracted services, service user volunteering)
- Mainstream the traineeships and the culture change within the organisation, (i.e., no longer part of a special project) near the end of Year 2
- Disseminate the lessons learnt from GROW and influence other homelessness agencies to follow suit
Was placed in the Human Resources team in the Central Services department to ensure the project was seen by Thames Reach staff as an employment issue rather than a service-delivery project
Was seated at head office in close proximity to the directors and service managers
Joined the corporate management team
Was selected for her tenaciousness, ability to influence others and skills in developing and delivering new projects