Last week I went to my tenth Tearfund UK project to do a final day of filming for the epic Ten Keys Project.
We were in Ilford, and we interviewed a man from the council. I asked him to jot down his job description for me and it took 8 lines of my notebook. (It wasn’t a large notebook, but still). I asked him why he’s worked in the Housing Department of Redbridge council for twenty odd years. And he said, self-deprecatingly, that it was because he was “old school”, meaning that he wanted to work to improve services in his community and make things better. And stick at it.
We spoke to another guy in the Housing Department, because they were queuing up to praise the project we were filming, known as The Welcome Centre. He said that there are a bunch of services working with people who are homeless, but what marks out this project is their persistent kindness, no matter how often people fall back into bad choices. Rough sleepers are a hard group to work with, a fragile and often entrenched community who frequently resist support and certainly have no time for the bureaucracy of council services.
(To access help from the Housing Department you need ID and proof of eviction to get past reception. It’s hard to get a nice letter from your wife explaining why she threw you out).
The Housing Department couldn’t get these people to come to them, so the department staff went to The Welcome Centre (which was set up by a local church). They knew that the town’s rough sleepers felt safe and welcome there, so it was the only place they could go and talk to them and find ways to help them. Having been to both of their buildings I can honestly say that I would choose the Welcome Centre every time as well.
The new Welcome Centre, funded by the government’s ‘Places of Change’ initiative
The project itself was brilliantly inspiring (staffed by some amazing women with fiery compassion and great wisdom) but I keep returning to those two men from the council. They weren’t especially prepossessing or charismatic, probably just what you might imagine civil servants to look like. But they were faithful. They were in it for the long haul. They hadn’t been neutered by the bureaucracy of local government. They were working away in overheated, decaying, depressing office blocks, amidst ever-increasing cuts, and they were keeping going, eager to find news ways to support people who are hard to help. And they were championing this brilliant ray of light that is The Welcome Centre, trying to find them funding and to look for news ways to partner with them.
It reminds me David Hare’s play, Skylark, and some impassioned, angry words from the main character, Kyra (with some expletives removed):
You only have to say the words ‘social worker’…’probation officer’… ‘counsellor’… for everyone in this country to sneer. Do you know what social workers do? Every day? They try and clear out society’s drains. They clear out the rubbish. They do what no-one else is doing, what no-one else is willing to do. And for that, oh *****, do we thank them? No, we take our own rotten consciences wipe them all over the social worker’s face, and say, ‘If –‘****! – ‘if I did the job, then of course if I did it…oh no, excuse me, I wouldn’t do it like that…’
I’m not owning up to being that angry on a regular basis, but there’s something ugly about the contempt we show for these kinds of jobs, how quick we are to dismiss, or critique. And there’s something tragic about how society is moving further away from valuing them (kids only want to be glamour models and footballers now, apparently). I don’t remember ever having the first clue what a social worker did or how you might become one.
So today’s post it talking up the people who work for good in the council. The people who sit on committees. The people who work in local government to make things better. The social workers and support workers. What honourable work you do.
There’s something to be said for old school kindness.