Jonathon Graham spoke to Andy and Caine, who live in supported housing in the north-west, about their experiences of finding work, challenges they’ve faced, and how they think things could be improved.
In his first speech since becoming the new Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions, Stephen Crabb MP outlined his views on why employment is so important to people and society as a whole:
“Fundamentally, as human beings, we are hard-wired to derive satisfaction from meaningful, fruitful work […] “I really do believe that a welfare system which does not elevate and reinforce that central understanding of how important work and fruitful activity is for us as human beings is actually very damaging for society.”
Whilst it is universally recognised that work is a good thing, as a society we remain deeply divided over how best to prepare those with limited, or no, experience of the labour market for employment. In certain cases, we also face difficult questions over whether work should play any role in people’s lives at all.
People who experience overlapping problems of homelessness, substance misuse, mental ill-health and contact with the Criminal Justice System, and those who work with them on a daily basis, have first-hand experience of these debates.
Back in November of last year, I visited a support service in Manchester to talk to people about their views on the subject of employment. The two interviews included here represent the thoughts and feelings of Caine and Andy; residents at a supported housing scheme run by Sanctuary Supported Living.
Both Caine and Andy had thought a lot about work, but they faced real challenges in making positive progress towards employment. These challenges ranged from the very personal:
“I’d be thinking about work a lot. It’s not really as important to me as getting me sorted, because I’m struggling with a lot of things at the moment.”
“At the moment I’ve just got to look at sorting my physical health – my physical health and then concentrate on my mental health”.
To wider structural factors, including the instability of the labour market:
“On a zero hour contract, you could have – it’s good during the summer months, but come the winter months, you could have three weeks of bad weather and one week of okay-ish weather, and some of the places, where they work, are not that busy, so you haven’t got the work to pay your bills.”
And the restrictive nature of the benefits system for people who wish to return to education:
“I would go into education, but I can’t go back to college and still get JSA. I’ve got to claim, I think it is £20 every two weeks, no housing benefit, nothing. How am I supposed to live on £20 every two weeks?”
They also talked about their experiences with mainstream employment provision such as the Work Programme and what they believed could be done to improve this kind of support, especially for people with limited qualifications:
“What I personally need from the government and stuff is for them to turn around and go, ‘all the people with no qualifications or anything, we’re not going to make it so it’s a chore for you to go and learn this stuff. We’re going to sit you down, we’re going to find out exactly what it is you’re good at and then we’re going to focus on that.’”
These interviews with Caine and Andy represent the start of MEAM’s work around the issue of employment and what role it should play in the lives of people with experience of multiple and complex needs.
Over the coming weeks, we will be conducting and publishing further interviews from around the country in an effort to broaden the scope of participation in a policy debate which remains as important as ever. Thanks very much to Andy and Caine for their time and sharing their views with me.