Monday, 10 October 2011

How to help the poorest (2)

Just come back from a rotten time at a CAB session.

My first client refused to leave my office insisting that his human rights had been infringed because we could not help him. It was a criminal matter. We only deal with civil matters. I had given him all the phone numbers for people he could contact but he was not happy.

This person alleged that he was "kidnapped" and assaulted. It turned out that he was being charged with assaulting a policeman. A senior volunteer adviser (SVA) tried to explain the situation to him and client went, "What? Are you trying to strangle me?" Senior volunteer (probably in his 70s) had not laid a finger on him.

Client finally left my office when SVA said he would have to call Security. Client was shouting that SVA had assaulted him. ??? This client was in denial that it is a criminal matter. I had given him a list of solicitors circling "C" for "Criminal" and he said, "I don't want no criminal lawyer."

When I thought the dust had settled, another client was shouting, saying us volunteers were useless, go get a real job. By this time, security had been called. This second man left before security appeared.

I learned later that the bureau had been helping this man countless times before. He is a case where instead of being empowered from previous advice given, he had taken CAB as a crutch.

This time he alleged that a policeman was mistreating him simply because he is black. Sure, police officers stop and question a black man simply because he is black and ignore the white man who is ranting and raving and behaving in a threatening manner across the street.

First up, two people who seem to refuse to take responsibility for their own aggressive behaviour. It is their human rights being violated and other people's racist actions to blame. Nothing to do with the way they were shouting and making life unpleasant for other people, even those who were trying to help them.

Rant over.

The Big Issue

Meant to say, really, that if you were to visit the UK you are likely to encounter people with big plastic identity tags dangling from their necks selling copies of a magazine call The Big Issue.

This started as the brainchild of a man called John Bird and co-founder of The Body Shop Gordon Roddick. You can read more about this magazine here.

The idea was that homeless people, if they fulfilled certain criteria for homelessness, could apply and be trained to become sellers of The Big Issue. They are given a few free copies to sell at a specific pitch, and after that they could buy a few more copies to sell, and basically decide on how many copies they could sell, and thus become self-employed.

One might well ask how it is that in a country with a comprehensive welfare system individuals could become "homeless".

There are a great number of reasons, not least of all arising from mental illness. For some reason people could be deemed "intentionally homeless" in which case local councils are absolved from any responsibility to house them.

There are those who prefer to remain homeless with their dog rather than be housed in a hostel or B&B while waiting for more permanent accommodation. But you are unlikely to be rehoused permanently unless you are first in temporary accommodation. A Catch-22 situation.

Be that as it may The Big Issue is doing a great job in helping some of the most vulnerable back on their feet.

What about Singapore? Could a Good Issue (bearing only good news?) help the poorest of the poor? Following the theme of a previous post we could call this The Good Heart Issue (or Ho Sim Times?)

To some extent, it is not much different from people who used to hawk Ma Biu Po (papers giving the race results) as such. (Is there still Ma Biu Po in Singapore these days?)

Selling The Big Issue is only the first step towards normality. These homeless vendors need further practical support to help them into long-term jobs and a more regular income.

In the same way the poorest and most vulnerable Singaporeans are likely to need help other than a pitch to sell magazines to get them into the rhythm of work. Are there debts that need to be cleared/otherwise managed, illnesses to be cured/managed, homes to be cleaned/decluttered, bedding to be de-bugged/replaced?

Part of the failure of the UK welfare system is that it is a huge, cumbersome and impersonal bureaucracy. There are fixed sets of criteria and fixed sets of rules and corresponding sets of decisions and sets of rewards.

But in the real world people's personal circumstances do not fit neatly into those sets of criteria.

Handouts prevent a person from being homeless but it does not stop him/her from getting dependent on alcohol and spiralling into deeper troubles. Nor does being so aggressive like our first two clients today make long-term employment possible.

For any "helping system" to be effective, the whole person, the individual in his specific set of circumstances, within his family of a particular/peculiar structure, in the context of his personal abilities, mental well-being and emotional/physical limitations, must be taken into account.

It's what the anthropologist calls the "holistic" perspective again.

I mean, if the first man here went to court and was found guilty of assaulting the police, what is going to happen other than a short prison sentence, maybe some "unpaid work", a fine (paid out of his benefits money) and then he's still back on benefits.

It chews up police, court and probation service time. Should he complain about police mistreatment he would be chewing up even more administrative time, maybe even precious legal aid. And the result? It is still one young man who refuses to work and who thinks that the whole world is against him.

He, on the other hand, is the ultimate innocent. His only recourse is to shout "my human rights are being infringed", "you are not helping me", "don't treat me like I am stupid".


Any way, note though that even an ostensibly charitable venture like The Big Issue could be abused.

It has been reported that in certain regions of the UK Romanian migrants who do not qualify for welfare benefits get themselves into the The Big Issue circuit. As they are classified as "self-employed" they then become eligible for benefits.

This is another example of how when there are easy pickings (a generous welfare system), people would try, in the most devious ways, to benefit from it.

And I wonder if our two CAB clients were out busy working at a suitable job to earn their keep because there are no welfare handouts, would they have the energy to be so aggressive?


How to help the poorest (3)
How to help the poorest (1)

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