Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A run-down homeless hostel that had been a magnet for drug dealing and anti-social behaviour.

When I tell people that I run a charity, they often assume that I spend my time wandering around like Mother Teresa, ministering to the destitute while uttering the occasional profundity. The reality is that I spend much of my day answering emails, stuck in meetings, and playing around with spreadsheets trying to turn figures from red to black. Most of the beneficiaries of our charity wouldn’t link the benefit they’ve gained to the rather stressed bloke in a suit who they see running in and out. 

One thank you – and my career helping homeless people was worthwhile

But Tracey-Anne was different. She was a young woman with a difficult family history who’d come to this country from Jamaica, via Canada, only to find herself unemployed and homeless when relationships broke down. And so she found herself at YMCA Birmingham’s scheme for young people, The Orchard. Her initial few weeks with us did not go well. There were repeated altercations with staff and a number of complaints from other residents about her behaviour. But most of all she refused to engage with the raft of services aimed at getting young people into employment and secure, permanent accommodation.

The Orchard had replaced a run-down homeless hostel that had been a magnet for drug dealing and anti-social behaviour. When I announced my intention to build a modern, state-of-the-art facility, linked to relevant services that would help people to live independently, there were plenty of folk who said it wouldn’t work. It took five years to replace the hostel and a further five years to put in place the range of services we knew were needed. And all the time people were muttering behind their hands that we had embarked on a fool’s errand – the whole scheme was hopelessly idealistic and expected far too much of young people. But I knew that we were right to try. And I also knew that if we could make The Orchard work for someone like Tracey-Anne, it really was capable of working for any young person.

Eventually Tracey-Anne began to calm down and take up some of the opportunities on offer; she turned up to her weekly keywork sessions and developed her own personal action plan. Then she went on our employability programme, after which she volunteered to work on our corporate reception for eight weeks while undergoing further job preparation training.

Volunteers and charity workers: tell us about the day you made a difference
A few months later, I was invited to speak at a national conference about The Orchard. It took place at a major conference venue here in Birmingham. I outlined the vision for the scheme and what we’d done. At the end of my presentation, the inevitable question came: “That all sounds great, but what evidence have you got that it’s actually worked?”

“Well,” I replied, “you know the young woman who greeted you today on reception? The professional-looking lady who showed you where to go and calmly handled any queries you raised? Well her name’s Tracey-Anne and she lives at The Orchard and she got a full-time, permanent job here on the back of the training and volunteering opportunities we offered.”

I hadn’t known Tracey-Anne would be there until I saw her that morning; I didn’t even know she’d got a permanent job. But she recognised me and was so enthusiastic about where her life was heading it made me realise that the previous 10 years of hard work had all been worth it.

The day I made a difference is the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network’s series that showcases the work of people involved with charities. If you have a story you want to share email with a short summary of your experience.

by Alan Fraser
CEO of YMCA Birmingham.UK