About homelessness

Woman sitting on the pavement crying into her hands.

From 1995 – 1997 I worked for the Shaftesbury Society with young homeless people (16-25 year olds) in London. I worked in three hostels: two direct access (in Kilburn and Camberwell) and one supported hostel in Bermondsey.

I remember hearing at that time that there was enough money being pumped into the various homelessness charities and services to buy each and every homeless person in London a house. And I remember thinking at that time that that was an awful lot of money, even with lower house prices ten years ago, and surely the money could be put to better use.

You see the solution to the homelessness problem isn’t in pouring money into hostels to remove these ‘inconvenient’ homeless folks from the streets: out of sight, out of mind. The solution, surely lies in investing time and money in trying to help transform these people’s lives.

(I suddenly realised that I could be writing about the Church here too! But I digress, back to homelessness …)

A lot of the homeless young folks who entered our hostels we saw again and again. From our short-stay hostels many would be allocated a council flat and move out. Only to return to the hostel a few months later, having lost their tenancy. The reason being that many of these young people didn’t have the social or domestic skills to be able to look after themselves or to keep a house.

It’s maybe something that many of take for granted: keeping a house. But it’s an enormous leap — especially for an 18 year old — to go from living on the streets, or on a friend’s couch, or in a hostel to your own flat. It takes courage and discipline and patience and responsibility. I have a great deal of respect for those who managed it; I know a few who died trying.

Open letter

So it was with delight that I read Big Issue founder John Bird’s open letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown in last week’s issue (June 28 – July 4). Here are a few key paragraphs:

Ninety-five percent of the budget that goes towards homelessness services-the-problem rather than ending-the-problem. If you look at the amount of people who get out of homelessness compared [with] the money spent, it is derisory.

Put metaphorically, it is a bit like paying the interest on a loan rather than paying it off.

This is not the fault of the hostels, which become like warehouses. It is expensive getting people out of need, and no-one has that kind of money available.

The same, alas, is the situation in the prison system. We don’t spend money to transform people. Again, we spend about 95% of the budget on keeping people in. But increasingly that does not guarantee that when they are out, they will stay out.

What we need to do is TRANSFORM people while they are homeless, or in prison. Not hold them for a while and then let them go, only to return to their former problems …

He then gives a couple of examples. I certainly recognised this analogy:

Imagine going to the doctor and being told that you need an operation. You are immediately booked into a hospital. You are shown your bed. You are shown the thing to change the telly. You are asked what you want to eat. The next day is the same. And the day after. And then the day, the week and the month after. Then one day the nurse says with a smile, “You’re going home tomorrow.” And you say, “But I thought I was going to have an operation.” The nurse says, “Oh yes, you were, but we can’t afford the cure. We haven’t got the money for that.”

That is what life is like when you’re homeless or in prison. The cure is not a part of the deal. People are sometimes cured, but the rate is so low that the amount of investment makes a mockery of the process.

Lena Fox House

That’s why I was proud of what we did with Lena Fox House in Bermondsey, SE1. We moved from being a direct access hostel (that is one that takes people straight off the street) to being one that offered training in life-skills.

We had three levels of accommodation: residents moved from supported accommodation, where we cooked meals for them, to semi-supported where they’d have to budget and cook their own meals, to independent living in bedsit flats next door.

Some of the young folks we worked with moved into their own flats, got jobs and as far as I know are living successfully on their own or in relationships. It’s just such a shame that there wasn’t the money to keep that work going, and the project folded a few years after I left.

New Start Project

That’s also why I’m proud of Jane’s involvement and achievements with The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award New Start Project which works with young people in prison and at risk of offending. Their efforts have really enhanced the lives of so many young people and worked to help solve the problem, not just help fund it.

… Dear Gordon

If I may close with a few more words from John Bird:

The other big issue … is to dismantle the oxygenators of social collapse in the first place. The culture of benefit-supported poverty, the culture of social failure …

You need to go upstream. You need to get to the family before it is a family. We need to dismantle the poor parenting, the poor estates, the poor living conditions and culture. That is where the majority of crime, violence and murder is bred. It’s bred in the early years of life. And we have to be brave and stop that source of oxygen to social failure.

The 2004 Joseph Rowntree Trust Centennial report said that, in spite of spending vast amounts of money on poverty, we are scraping the surface. Prime Minister, you have the power to really make poverty history, rather than a short-sighted utopian media campaign.

The Big Issue is more than happy to help in the dismantling of homelessness, crime and poverty. In fact we think it is our duty. And imagine the vast savings of money you will make because instead of just paying the interest on that loan, you’ll be paying the loan off.

Much more to be praying about, I think, dear Saints of the Internet; praying and writing to our MPs and the Prime Minister about.

You can contact your Councillors, MP, MEPs, MSPs, or Northern Ireland, Welsh and London AMs for free at www.writetothem.com.

A little bit about how work is going

Gears, not sure from what.

Quite a few people have been asking me recently how work is going. So I thought I’d say a little bit about how work is going: Work is going very well, thank you for asking.

I can hardly believe that I’ve been in the job for ten weeks now. In some respects it feels like I only started last week, and in others it feels like I’ve been here for ever. It feels like the most obvious and natural move that I could have made.

I did wonder how it would feel returning to St Andrews to work having been an undergraduate here, but it doesn’t feel weird at all. Apart from the fact that I know where everything is. Almost every other job I’ve had has been marked by the first three months or so of wandering around lost, trying to find out where shops are, or work-related buildings, or whatever. So in that respect it felt like a coming home; oddly.

Which is odd because between the time I left (1993) and I don’t know, maybe a few years ago, I really felt that I’d failed, somehow. That I’d not lived up to the potential that my St Andrews educated expected of me. Which is nonsense, I know, but hey! I was feel all insecure about a whole host of things during that decade. Like failed relationships, and weird part-time jobs, and my dad dying and stuff.

And now this job. And it feels the most natural next step. It’s as though so many of my past experiences and interests and skills have come together at the right time.

Someone said to me recently how sad it was that I’d moved from a parish job to one that saw me stuck in front of a computer screen all day. And yet it’s nothing of the kind. In my first month here I was having about three meetings a day. Meeting people, listening to what they do, who they are, how their job fits into the larger picture of the life of the University, so that we can pull it all together in the end and create the best website that we can for staff, students, parents, alumni, press and Joe Public. This is very much a job with people at the centre of it; this is about person-to-person communication, and it begins with listening.

It’s been interesting adjusting to this new pace of life. Obviously it’s doing me the world of good, what with my blood pressure returning to normal for the first time since about 1997, and my doing weights and going out cycling and not getting ill.

Mind you, I have dumped my old bicycle built from recycled radioactive waste!

I love the boundaries of this 9-5 lifestyle. There is a kind of monastic discipline that I love about it. I love that I can come home in the evening and that’s me off until the next day; no 24-7 on-call; the last time I had that I was working in a homeless hostel in South London, and even with the abuse and assaults I still found that less stressful than aspects of public ministry. I found that always-on-call lifestyle and expectation very stressful; that’s just me. I also love that I work within a geographically-close community; not quite a campus, but not far off.

In so many ways this post works to my strengths and allows me to work to my best abilities. Except in one small respect: I do mornings very well. And I do (late) evenings very well. But I’m not great in the afternoon. But hey! You can’t have everything.

I mean, where would you put it? (with apologies to Steven Wright, for ripping off his gag.)

The transition from full-time ordained clergyman to Assistant Information Architect/Web Manager has been interesting too — from Reverend to Mister, if you like — and at times painful as I adjust to a new role, new expections. It’s funny, I think people find it easier to understand someone who moves from IT into “the Church” than the other way round. The idea of someone moving from “a proper job” into an ordained role has a certain romance about it, but the other direction: is that not just selling out?! (Personally, and predictably, I don’t think so.)

I was encouraged today by a friend who told me that they appreciated that I didn’t shovel religion at people, but that I try to live my life as an example of who Jesus Christ is. Because that’s what it’s about for me. My faith in Jesus, and also my ministry, has something to do with just being with people, and journeying with people (there are plenty of stories in the Bible of God journeying with his people); it’s about relationship with people and God. It’s partly why I blog such personal things, too: a recognition that sometimes what is most personal is also most universal. And so if there is anything that I’m going through that can be some kind of encouragement for someone else going through something similar, then great.

And … erm, that’s a bit about how work is going.

Off to Bath

Bath tub seen from above, water pouring into it. There is a yellow rubber duck in the bath.

Tomorrow I’m off to Bath for a couple of days, to attend the Institutional Web Management Workshop 2006. It’s a workshop for … well, institutional web managers. Never been to one before, but I’m looking forward to it.

In a change of roles, it’s me who’s going to be away for a few days rather than Jane; I’ll miss her. On the positive side, I will be able to quickly catch up with a couple of my dear exNYC friends, Lindsey and Jonny.

The long train journeys there and back will also give me ample opportunity to catch up with some reading (and probably sleep too). Spendid! But before I go off to bath … I’m off to bed. G’night!

A week of IA and contrasts

Display in the wood panelled Parliament Hall in St Andrews
An Information Architecture report displayed in Lower Parliament Hall, St Andrews.

It’s been a busy old week, as we’ve been working on the Information Architecture report by American firm Dynamic Diagrams, hence the noticable lack of blogging action; yesterday was an 11 hour working day, Thursday was over 12. As tiring as it has been, it has never-the-less been a most enjoyable week — as indeed most weeks here have proved to be.

Dynamic Diagrams’ visit

Much of the week was spent in the company of two splendid consultants, Kim and Mac, from Dynamic Diagrams an Information Architecture firm from Providence, Rhode Island whom the University are employing to untangle the mess that the current websites are in and present us with a better, more intuitive and usable information structure and design. This is only one aspect of the University’s website redesign strategy.

Part of the reason for Kim and Mac’s visit was to present the draft of their Information Architecture (IA) report, which was presented to a group of around 60 members of the University community in Lower Parliament Hall on Thursday afternoon. The response was very positive, and the feedback received so far has been helpful in helping to determine whether this IA is right or whether it still needs tweaking and reworking in places.

My part in this aspect of the project now gets busier and more involved as I work through scenarios and current portions of the website and see whether the IA holds up, or whether there will be significant parts of the content left over at the end of the exercise. I can see that I’m going to be spending a lot of time standing in front of the IA diagram (above). It’s a so-called ‘2.5D’ isometric diagram, also called a “Z-diagram” and is a favourite of information architects.

Another aspect of DD’s visit was to get a feel for St Andrews as a place. We’d planned for it to be a visit of contrasts: the old and the new, the traditional and the cutting-edge. What we couldn’t plan was the weather and it simply joined in: Thursday was glorious sunshine, Friday was cold and foggy.

Following the presentation on Thursday we were able to take a walk to the ruins of the cathedral and climb St Rule’s Tower, which offers a beautiful view over the town and surrounding countryside.

The ruins of St Andrews Cathedral
The ruins of St Andrews Cathedral.

A saltire flag flys over St Andrews
A view over the rooftops of South Street and beyond. I think the saltire flies from the roof of the Town Hall.

Much of yesterday — over 5 hours — was spent working on the IA for the website: are the labels right? what about the categories? are items listed under the correct categories? do these fit with the priorities of the University? do we need an A-Z index, etc. I could have gone on for much longer, had it not been 20:00 and we were all tired, and hungry.

Friday evening has never been associated in my mind with stopping work and knocking off the weekend. On Fridays I used to be gearing up for Sunday. Thursday was my day off, and so Friday was my Monday.

… meanwhile at home

Anyway, it’s been a great and very productive week at work. Meanwhile, at home I slept, ate, watched some Big Brother, and wrote some more of the Teach Yourself Mahjong updates.

A little bit about my new job…

Three ducks beside the Kinness Burn in St Andrews
Ducks by the Kinnessburn in St Andrews, which I pass each day on my walk to work.

Journey to work

I can hardly believe that it has now been three weeks since I started work at the University of St Andrews. I’ve deliberately not posted much about work on my blog as I’ve been settling in and getting my head around the job, … until now.

Each morning I leave the house here in Cellardyke sometime between 08:20 and 08:35 (depending on the usual variables: the time I got up, how long I spent in the shower, the number of places I have to look for my ID badge, etc.) and walk past the beautiful Cellardyke harbour (sans swan) to my car. It’s a view that I don’t think I’ll ever tire of, looking out towards the Isle of May in the Forth. My drive to St Andrews takes about 20 minutes, and so far has been accompanied by a soundtrack from Metallica, Iron Maiden, Anthrax and Megadeth. It’s a very metal road, it would appear.

I park on Kinnessburn Road, a creatively named road that runs parallel to the Kinness Burn, and then walk from there to North Street, to Butts Wynd, where Business Improvements (BI) is located. In fact, BI is located in the creatively named building called the “Butts Wynd Building”. Bright people who named these streets and buildings. And I certainly approve of that level of usability.

What I do

My job title is Assistant Information Architect/Web Manager, and at present comprises of two main tasks: helping to oversee the redesign of the University website, and assisting the Schools and Units with their websites.

So far I’ve written a report on the Press Office website, and made some updates on the Estates’ Environment and Sustainability Development website. Today was the first time in about six years that I’ve had to deal with nested <font> tags!

Despite having been in post for only three weeks, I must have attended nearly 25 meetings so far. I certainly hit the ground running, with hardly a minute to catch my breath and trying to think strategically about what I might need to prepare for the long-term in this post. That will come, no doubt. And now that the University Web Manager and I have moved into our own office that will certainly help.

My new office

The furniture arrived for the former seminar room on Wednesday, and I finished moving things in this afternoon, with some kind help from a couple of new friends in the Business Improvements office. On of the challenges in getting the room set up is that there is a PC Classroom at the end of the corridor, where there are examinations being held all week. For some reason (I’m sure there must be a good reason) the invigilator doesn’t close the door to the classroom, which means that every time I open the door at the end of the corridor he pops out of the exam room like some kind of meercat! This morning I took some WD40 in and oiled the hinges!

Anyway, here’s my new work environment:

Photograph of my new office.  A desk in the corner of the room, beneath a window.  A table in the foreground, and a bookcase to the left of the desk.

And here’s Steve’s desk — although he hasn’t seen it yet, and I know that he reads my blog, so I don’t want to spoil the surprise!

A pixelated photograph of Steve's desk.

Did I tell you how much I’m loving my job?