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Healing Our Most Dangerous Communities: Putting the ‘Social’ back in to Social Work

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Last week, a British Court heard how Police Officer Keith Blakelock died in an estate in North London which was identified by Scotland Yard as being “impossible to police.” The Broadwater Farm estate was described by the Chief Superintendent Colin Couch, as a “working-class, multi-ethnic area” with a notoriety for the sale and use of drugs, and PC Blakelock died in October 1985 after riots broke out across Tottenham.

Keith Blakelock

Officer Keith Blakelock

Thirty years later, the problem of “impossible to police neighbourhoods” is still as prevalent as ever. In almost every country in the world, there are inner-city neighbourhoods where crime, drugs and prostitution plague the community. Cities across Jamaica, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States are all well-known for their troubled areas. And yet, there are hundreds more cities across the world, whilst they may have lower murder rates, which still suffer from the effects of poverty, drug addiction and unemployment. We all know those places where it is not safe to walk or where you would not want to raise your children.

When you actually take the time to not just look at, but really see and understand these communities, you immediately discover the inherent potential and beauty within them. This is no more evident than in the photography of Chris Arnade, who has taken thousands of photos of homeless people and sex workers in Hunts Point in the Bronx, one of New York City’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Through his photography, Chris states how he aims to “capture conventional snapshots of unconventional people.” However, what the photographs do best, is capture the humanity of even the most excluded and berated individuals; a humanity that we all share.

As a student Social Worker I undertook my first placement in an area of Sheffield that was notorious for gangs, shootings, violence and drugs. It was an area, I admit, that I had previously avoided and it would be dishonest to say that I was not a little nervous about working there. However, within the first few weeks, I found myself in love, not only with the eclectic an exciting range of people but also with the general sense of comradery and community that can only be found in neighbourhoods where there is a shared concern. The passion and involvment of individuals manifested itself in to local groups and charities who worked tirelessly to support and improve their community. Behind the poor reputation of the neighbourhood lay numerous individuals and families who were fighting for a better world. There was so much intelligence, compassion and dilligence waiting to be utilized even in this, the most “broken” of communities.

I believe that in the UK, we have lost the ‘social’ in Social Work. The true value of Social Work would be in immersing ourselves fully in these communities. Energy needs to be focussed on getting to know these neighbourhoods and then, not only supporting people on an individual basis around issues of health and housing, but also advocating for better resources and support for those living in poverty. We need to lobby at a political level and act as a voice for the voiceless.

Radical Social Work is not a new idea, but it is certainly one that has fallen by the wayside since the spread of neoliberalism which has pushed privatization, the centrality of the market and crucially, the individual as separate from the whole. As Social Workers we must draw on Critical and Radical Social Work to identify oppressive functions in society and analyze them to create social change. “No man is an island” and we must accept that a profession which seeks to heal social problems, such as child abuse, addiction and prostitution, will not be successful as long as we continue to work on a one-to-one basis with people.

No neighbourhood should remain a no-go area or indeed a complete ‘write-off’. Social Work, if utilized correctly, has the potential to heal these damaged communities. However, the key lies in ensuring that neighbours know and care for each other; that inequality does not go unchallenged and that people are never seen as less than the sum of all their parts. There is no such thing as a neighbourhood full of ‘junkies’ or ‘criminals’; there are only neighbourhoods full of varied, fascinating and important human beings.

Rebecca Joy Novell is a Qualified Social Worker working with gangs in central London. She graduated from The University of Sheffield in 2012 with a Masters in Social Work. Rebecca has been involved with Youth Justice since 2008 in a variety of voluntary and paid roles and is currently undertaking a Professional Doctorate in Criminal Justice. She was elected to the Professional Assembly for The College of Social Work, is part of the Criminal Justice Reference Group for the British Association of Social Workers and regularly blogs for The Guardian’s Social Care Network. She is also the author of Starting Social Work: Reflections of a Newly Qualified Social Worker. Her blog can be found at www.charitynovelll.wordpress.com.

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Grenfell Tower: Three Months On

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If you aren’t still angry about the Grenfell Tower tragedy, you probably haven’t been listening. For (perhaps international) readers who have not yet heard this story – the story of an inferno in a London tower block. The story of a hellish injustice, and it both starts and ends with inequality.

The fire at Grenfell broke out back in June 2017. The nation’s horror was bright, the smoke still choking our words, and the broken building breaking our hearts. And yet, in the wake of Grenfell’s black ashes, the nation’s indignation has been sparked by other tragedies. However, Grenfell has not been forgotten.

Allow us to go from the beginning.

The affluent borough of Kensington, West London, is known for hosting numerous high-end eateries and shops, alongside the famous Royal Albert Hall. On average a person will pay a cool £2m for a house here – which suits those who earn the area’s mean salary of nearly £123k, but perhaps not those who earn the median (which is about a quarter of that). Kensington and Chelsea reportedly the most unequal borough in the country.

Grenfell Tower is – was – a block of 129 flats. Within it lived young artists, working adults, older adults (some with dementia), people with disabilities, schoolchildren. It housed the whole colourful spectrum of life, from infancy through to retirement. Read about the residents. Learn their names; learn their stories. The Grenfell Action Group, established in 2010 to defend “the rights of the residents of Lancaster West Estate”, repeatedly warned that the building in which these people lived was unsafe.

The Grenfell Action Group did the best they could – created a community collective, campaigned, gathered evidence and shared stories. Nobody listened. The tower, built in the 1970s, received a “refurbishment” in 2014.  Cheap combustible cladding was used to cover the outside of the building – largely reported as a way to improve the appearance of the tower, for wealthier local residents. Their home was airbrushed with death.

Leaked documents suggest that the cladding was deliberately downgraded (from fireproof to combustible) to save £300,000, at a time when the council was actually in surplus of around £2.74 million. They had also recently given the rich (who payed full council tax) a £100 tax rebate in their “overachieving efficiency drive”.  The cladding material is banned in continental Europe and the United States – in late June, Chancellor Philip Hammond suggested it may even be banned in the UK.

The Grenfell Action Group tried, again and again, to bring fire risks to the attention of those with the power to spare their lives. That particular post ends with chilling prophecy: “ONE THING IS CERTAIN – THEY CAN’T SAY THEY HAVEN’T BEEN WARNED.“A fire risk assessment back from 2012 noted a range of out-of-date fire safety checks. The cladding was unsafe. Rubbish and waste blocked fire exits.  Reports to the government dating back to 2000 suggested that non-combustible external cladding should not be used on buildings. It’s all there.

The fire started in a flat on the 4th floor, apparently due to a malfunctioning refrigerator, around midnight on the 14th June. Approaching 1 AM, the first call to firefighers came in. Eventually, around 40 fire engines with around 200 firefighters were tackling the blaze. Despite their best efforts, it was not enough. Of course, the cladding was not responsible for the onset of the fire. However, it accelerated the blaze phenomenally. It wasn’t until 5pm the next day that firefighters reached the top floor.

However, it cannot be understated how much the power of the Grenfell community shone through – from offering shelter, food and taxi rides, to supporting grieving and traumatised individuals, to helping each other escape from the tower itself. Humanity was not lost from the side of the residents and locals. It wasn’t lost from the rest of the public. The Grenfell community was always there. It was never a blight. It was home.

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, initially suggested it would take three weeks for survivors to be found a new “home”. Later, this was recast as a promise offers that everyone would have offers of housing. As of 1st August 2017, only 45 “offers of accommodation” were made, with 12 families being rehoused. Some survivors ended up searching for private accommodation such as one man because his wife couldn’t leave the hospital until they had a home to go to. Others are now currently “bidding” for council housing.

As of the end of August, Freedom of Information requests have suggested that £4.2 million was spent by the council on hotels for survivors. And that’s not the only money in questionable status. Around this time, over half of the funds raised by charities after the fire were “available” for distribution. However, just over two-fifths of the money raised by charities to support survivors of the fire has actually reached the intended recipients. There was over a £16 million shortfall as of early August, but there have been some improvements since then.

The Metropolitan police have confirmed that the Grenfell Tower “tragedy” amounts to corporate manslaughter. Note how the “tragedy” is referred to as an “incident” or “disaster”, because heaven forbid we actually mention the people who created this situation.

Sir Moore-Bick, Judge presiding over the inquiry into the fire has suggested that his work will not give survivors the justice they deserve. The scope of the inquiry is only allowed to ask questions about the fire, but not the context of how flammable cladding was purchased for prettiness).  Residents have not been consulted on the inquiry, and the  – despite promises from the Prime Minister that they would be. So what now? How do we help?

We have the charity football match Game4Grenfell, the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” charity single with various celebrities and other public characters offering their support, condolences, and sympathies. We have empathetic stories about the futures missed, the A-levels passed, the art displays. We also have first-person accounts bluntly calling out what amounts to a context social cleansing which created this tragedy.

“I want to urge everyone in the media with the power to do it to give the individuals who work with and for you the space to do something, anything, in the wider community we communicate with.” – Journalist John Snow

What you are reading, then, is an article trying to harness media power. Firstly, it’s an article trying to prevent Grenfell’s ashes fading away in the wake of other, more recent tragedies and governmental abuses. Secondly, it’s an article to say: charity intervention is still not going to change the underlying causes.

When we do our post-mortem, we can’t just think about the specifics of the blaze. We need to include the socio-cultural fuel: poverty, inequality, contempt for the poor, an ignorance of people’s lived experiences. For example, the Grenfell Action Group documented first-hand what was going on, yet their stories which still has fewer views that mainstream second-hand sources.

Do we live in a country where tax rebates are paid for in blood money? Do we live in a country where we unashamedly let empty, million-quid houses lounge comfortably next to our crowded, deathtrap towers? Do we live in a country which still has nearly 230 other high-rise buildings at risk due to cladding?

Are you angry now?

Follow Grenfell Media Watch online, write to your MP, keep tabs on what the people in power are doing. Keep asking where the charity money has gone. Stop demonsing the poor, and/or immigrants, and/or people on benefits. Accept that, through no fault of their own, whole swathes of our society need a bit of a leg-up. If you hear other people doing the demonising, call them out. Read people’s own stories, in their own words, and believe them. Amplify the voices of people who are perfectly able to speak for themselves.

Grenfell is cold, but our hearts aren’t. Let us show more solidarity and support than just our sympathy and disbelief. Let’s continue to stand alongside each other.

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Britain: We Need to Talk About the Benefits System

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Whether we want to admit it or not, the benefits system is hurting people. It’s killing people, and something has to be done.

Examples of how the benefits system can kill include incidences of people starving to death in their own homes to the 600 benefits-related suicides that have been reported so far (and this is a conservative estimate). The suicides and other deaths related to benefits have been reported again and again.  Reportedly, over 200,000 have been physically attacked as a result of claiming benefits, and, although it is not easy to unpick the reasons for this, approaching two and a half thousand people have died after being deemed ‘fit to work’.

A 2016 conference, Psychologists and the Benefits System: Time to Get Off the Fence was dedicated to just this topic. The British Psychological Society is also one of five official therapy/mental health organisations which have signed a statement opposing welfare sanctions due to the lack of evidence that they work, and the potential for harm.

After all, mental health has always been a social and political endeavor. If mental health professionals stay silent about our deadly benefits system, so deadly that the UK has been investigated by the United Nations for grave and systematic violations of human rights, are they not siding with the status quo?

A report from Cradle2Grave, a campaign against the abuse of human rights of people who rely on the state for financial help, highlight the shocking number of suicides which have been linked to welfare cuts.

In more than one case, it was the coroner themselves who suggested that the main cause of death was worry about benefits. A 2015 report from mental health charity MIND found that, as a result of the benefits system, job centre, and “help to work schemes”, around eight out of ten people:

  • Felt less able to work (76%)
  • Required more support from mental health services/GP as a result (86%)
  • Had worse self-esteem (83%)
  • Had worse confidence (82%)

And nearly a quarter of people were hospitalised or sectioned (i.e. legally detained) for mental health crises whilst on such schemes.

If this is the case, why is the rhetoric (and indeed, “commonsense”) view of people on benefits so at odds with reality?

One theory suggests that ordinary, compassionate people are able to stigmatise others because they feel that stigmatisation is justified (Crandall, 2003). British media has long been complicit in creating a culture whereby it is easy to stigmatise people on benefits, which creates fertile soil for this kind of thinking.

Stigmatising other people can be justified in two main ways. The first way is through the acceptance of a natural social hierarchy. The idea of a natural hierarchy is based on evolutionary theories, and is known as Social Darwinism – some people are intrinsically ‘workshy’, maybe worklessness runs in families (spoiler: it doesn’t), and so on. This image of the ‘benefits brood’ is designed to create a culture where an anti-welfare stance is the commonsense, rational way of seeing the world.

Secondly, stigma can be justified by suggesting someone is to blame for their own circumstances. This can include believing that the world is fundamentally just (i.e. people get what they deserve), and victim-blaming (poor people are lazy, make bad decisions and can’t plan properly, have too many children, spend frivolously, and are a burden on society). All of these stereotypes play out in empirical research into the matter.

Societal stigma can also lead to people who are on benefits repeating the same debunked myths about benefits, in order to distance themselves from the stereotype (i.e. “I’m a real/good/proper claimant”). This means that from all angles, this dangerous welfare narrative is being played out.

Better information and awareness may be one way to dispel these harmful stereotypes (necessary, perhaps, but unlikely to be sufficient). For example, people usually that ‘benefits’ means out-of-work, disability or child benefits. Newspaper stories reinforce this image. So do TV programmes such as On Benefits, Benefits Street, Benefits: The Millionaire Shoplifter, Skint, Dogs on the Dole, Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole, Undercover Benefits Cheat, Myleene Klass: Single Mums on Benefits and Benefits: Too Fat to Work  (yes, they are all real programmes). As such, government welfare figures can be easily misconstrued and used to political advantage.

Contrary to the popular image, benefits as an umbrella term include fuel payments, cold weather payments, carer’s allowances, bereavement benefits, over-75 TV licenses, Income Support and more. Notably, the bulk of Income Support being towards lone parents and carers, and less than 10% of Income Support is made up of incapacity benefits. Benefits are mostly spent on pensions (approaching half of the welfare budget, at 42%), whereas unemployment benefits account for 1% of welfare expenditure.

There is an entrenched public understanding that the benefits system is riddled with fraud. The public believes that 24% of benefits claiming is done so fraudulently. Interestingly, ‘benefit fraud’ is only used as a term for people claiming benefits. When companies assessing fitness to work make fraudulent claims that someone is fit to work in one in five assessments, or three out of four assessments for people with mental health problems (these are researched facts), we do not call this ‘benefit fraud’.

So, given ‘fraud’ as a term applied solely to the individual claimant, data suggests that there is no widespread issue with fraud in the benefits system. According to the government’s own statistics, benefit fraud by claimants is 0.7% of total benefits expenditure (£1.2bn). The public belief that around a quarter of benefits claims are fraudulent is, therefore, a 3329% overestimation. Benefits-related administrative errors, to give some perspective, take up double the amount of money spent on claimant fraud. The figures for tax evasion and avoidance can also be used for comparison here: the cost of the ‘tax gap’ in the UK reaches £122bn per year (over 10,000% the cost of fraudulent benefits claims).

Another myth is that benefits are ‘too generous’. In 2013, a study from the University of Edinburgh found that there is no link between the wellbeing of people without paid employment and the amount of money they get in benefits. Additionally, it is not the first study to reach this finding (see Veenhoven, 2000). In fact, cultural factors such as perceptions of people on benefits (i.e. stigma) have a much bigger impact.

Rather than being ‘too generous’, for years now multiple organisations have been stating that benefits cuts are causing material harm, especially to the most vulnerable of society. This includes housing charity Shelter, disability charity SCOPE, domestic violence charity Women’s Aid, child abuse charity NSPCC, a whole host of mental health organisations, and anti-austerity organisations such as UK Uncut, Sisters Uncut, Disabled People Against Cuts, Black Triangle, and Psychologists Against Austerity (now Psychologists for Social Change) to name but a few.

These ideas – the poor are deserving, benefits claimants are fraudulent and the whole system is a drain on society, the benefits system is too kind and generous, most of our welfare system is spent on people too lazy to work, have to to be quashed. People’s health and mental health is suffering. People’s lives are being destroyed. People are dying. People are killing themselves.

Is this the kind of world we can live in, with good conscience?

We do not have to accept things the way that they are. We can join or support the organisations mentioned above. We can join in talks, discussions, marches, and events (or publicise these events when we can’t go to them ourselves).

We can write to our MP’s, sign petitions, talk to our friends and family, support films such as the recent I, Daniel Blake, avoid reality TV demonising people on benefits, call out the false narratives when we hear them. We can be aware of the facts (and ideally, share the facts!) to reduce stigma. We can offer a helping hand, we can be aware of the impact of losing benefits and try to offer a listening ear to someone who feels like a drain on society. We can look after each other.

Perhaps is it is not just psychologists who need to ‘get off the fence’. We all do, for humanity’s sake.

References

Crandall, C. S. (2003). Ideology and lay theories of stigma: The justification of stigmatization. In Heatherton,T. F., Kleck, R. E., Hebl, M. R. & Hull, J. G. (eds.) The social psychology of stigma (pp. 126-150). New York,NY: Guildford Press.

 

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Scotland National Poet Encourages Looked After Children to ‘Get Write In’

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Jackie Kay – Scotland’s National Poet ©cc by 2.0 University of Salford Press Office

Scotland’s national poet, Jackie Kay, has today (Tuesday 15 August), announced the winners of a new national competition for all school-aged children in Scotland who are looked after or have experienced care. The competition aims to show how writing can enhance creativity and give a voice to young people who are looked after.

Get Write In! has been launched by CELCIS (the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland), and supported by The Scottish Book Trust, Who Cares? Scotland, the University of Strathclyde, and the world-famous Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Participants from throughout Scotland were encouraged to submit a 500 word creative story in either English or Scots, capturing the theme of ‘Random Moments’ about an unexpected surprise, a moment that was a turning point, or a fork in the road, which could be transformed into an inspiring story.

There is one overall winner in each age category: one for primary aged children (under 12); and one for secondary aged young people (12-18). The junior winner is Joseph Ness for his entry ‘Dumb’, and for the senior category it’s William Cathie for ‘New Life’.

The winners were presented with their prizes by Jackie Kay and Mark McDonald, Scotland’s Minister for Childcare and Early Years, at a special event at Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh this evening. The fantastic prizes included: a trip to the Harry Potter Experience in London with overnight stay and travel; a storytelling and creative writing workshop; and tickets for Scottish Book Trust Authors Live events.

Jackie Kay, who chaired the judging panel, commented: “We were moved by these extraordinary pieces of writing, both the poetry and the stories. Young Scots lives came shining through, the very tough times and the good ones. We were blown away by the talent that emerged, and by the openness of so many young Scots to share their stories. They struck a chord with us. We hope many more will continue to enter next year. For the young Scots this year who did, it has been a validating and uplifting experience to have their voices heard and appreciated.”

Minister for Childcare and Early Years, Mark McDonald, said: “It is inspiring to see young people take such an interest in creative writing, and this competition is a brilliant opportunity for care experienced young people to develop their literacy skills and to gain confidence in expressing themselves. I have been so impressed by the quality of the competition entries and I’m sure that for many, this is just the beginning of their creative journey.”

Professor Jennifer Davidson, Executive Director of Inspiring Children’s Futures which CELCIS is part of, commented: “We were thrilled with the response that we had to the competition, and it’s been a real pleasure to read the rich creativity within the stories and poems from across the country! As we all know too well, the challenges faced by children and young people who are looked after, and their families, are many; we are hopeful that by encouraging young people to draw on their inner creativity through writing, this will contribute to building a positive sense of their power to influence the world around them, as well as strengthening their literacy for their future.”

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