Walking Birmingham’s frontline of multiple needs
Natalie Allen, Director of Birmingham Changing Futures Together, wanted to experience the impact of the project first hand, so she spent a day shadowing one of the project’s peer mentors.
Warmest of welcomes
“The first thing I saw when I walked in to the office that morning was the smiling face of the Peer Mentor I would be working with for the day. The combination of enthusiasm and lived experience results in the warmest of welcomes and an instant feeling of being at ease. It gave me a small, real-life insight into why it works, he is why it works. It has been a few years since I spent the day #walkingthefrontline and I was feeling a bit nervous. It’s not every day a senior manager asks to spend the day with you, but if he was nervous, it didn’t show.
Knowing and experiencing are different
We went straight out on our first visit, a relatively new referral to the Lead Worker and Peer Mentor service who had just been released from prison; a prolific offender, at risk of homelessness and struggling with addiction. As we entered the tower block I felt myself withdraw. Standing in the corridor for no more than ten seconds waiting for the lift, I wanted to leave. The stench of urine was overwhelming despite cleaners mopping the floors. I know people live in these conditions. I talk about it every day, saying everyone deserves a clean, safe place to call home. But knowing and experiencing are different. It was hard to accept this is someone’s life, someone’s home. As we waited to meet the service user, I could hear shouting and screaming in the flat opposite; a distressed mother at her wits- end bawling at a small child to “shut-up, nobody cares”. It struck a chord, as I thought about my two year old son.
We didn’t go into the flat and instead had a brief conversation in the corridor. The Peer Mentor stressed the importance of going to probation and avoiding a recall to prison but it was clear the individual’s top priority was to get his ‘script’; he wasn’t functioning well without it. The client didn’t want to see his probation worker (she was only interested when he was “in a bad way” and he knew it would take up to six weeks to be recalled anyway. He said his living situation was “doing his head in” and he wanted help finding suitable housing.
It seemed prison was an escape, a preferred option. The Peer Mentor later told me of times when he had pleaded with the courts to give him a prison sentence. But that was 20 years ago. Has nothing changed?
The service user showed a spark of energy when we talked about a meeting to discuss his housing. He said he’d attend and repeated back the details. I hope he does.
As we travelled over to the other side of the city, the Peer Mentor briefed me on our next visit. Another relatively new referral, the service user was living in shared accommodation but wanted to move. He has his own substance misuse issues, but sees a distinct difference between his frighteningly high use of prescribed medication and the drugs of choice of his housemates. He said Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the trigger for his substance misuse and kept saying the ‘lived experience’ of the Peer Mentor meant he felt understood. I’m not sure he really understood the lethal risks of his substance misuse; it seemed he thought because they weren’t Class A it “wasn’t so bad”. Detox was on his agenda, but only at some point in the future. He couldn’t let go of his meds yet.
Our last visit was to drop off an emergency food parcel. The individual was feeling the impact of what support staff thought was an “unfair” benefits sanction. He was lucky – the understanding of his accommodation provider meant he still had somewhere to live – but the added stress was affecting his mental health. He had also had to endure ‘cold-turkey’ withdrawal from Mamba and was suffering physically and psychologically. The Peer Mentor talked about the risks of Mamba including recent deaths attributed to it, hoping it would make him think again about using it when his benefits came through. The client said “this could not all be for nothing” and he would “never go back”. Time will tell.
Throughout the day as part of our outreach work we visited the Salvation Army and Midland Heart’s Multiple and Complex Needs unit. I was impressed; they provide a great platform for recovery and stabilisation but only for people ready to accept help.”
“The main thing I have taken away from my day #walkingthefrontline is not wanting to die doesn’t equate to having a reason to live. The circumstances individuals find themselves in often makes it extremely difficult to see a way out, with prison and substance misuse being a preferable option to dealing with the reality. Such a large part of our job is to keep people safe and highlight the consequences of the risks they take until they are ready to start to address their needs. The flexibility and longevity of the support offered by the Peer Mentor I spent the day with means we will be there when they’re ready.”
Contact the Birmingham Changing Futures Together team for more information.