Learning, Working, Contributing and Moving On

Within Cyrenians’ Social Enterprises and Learning & Work Services, we are continually responding to the increased demand for training and work experience

Our focus is not only about ‘on the job’ experience, it is also about developing confidence and combating loneliness; and building positive community links. Many of the people we work with have been written-off by society but when given the opportunity can move from being ‘the helped’ to becoming ‘the helper’. We see confidence and self respect growing in some of the most marginalised people in our community and their motivation is evident in the way they embrace this opportunity for a new start in life.

One of our Enterprise Managers recently become a Dad – a time of total joy for the new parents as they celebrate the birth of their first child and begin to look at the world in a new way.  Christopher shared some thoughts last week via our internal staff weekly update, and a précis of this is as follows:

“My daughter (still a novelty to me) is asleep in my arms and I ponder the world.  She won’t lie down on her own; needs someone to hold her until she reaches deep sleep.  Presumably this is because she feels secure with something bigger and stronger looking out for her.  It feels good to be a protector over something so vulnerable.

My mind wanders to darker thoughts: Who am I protecting her from?  There are many dangers in the world outside and I slip into thoughts of the people in this world who will be a danger to her, now and in the future. Other youngsters who might bully her in school; innocent bystanders who unwittingly cough disease in her direction; school teachers who label her too quickly and don’t fulfil her potential; bad parents who don’t know what they’re doing.  (I scrub the last one quickly.  It doesn’t help to go down that road.)  At work the next day I look out of the office at our volunteers and trainees working away with a commitment and energy.  Among them are people who have made some pretty bad life choices.  Some will have actively victimised others or have been victimised, others doubtless will just have been a bad influence and paid the penalty.  But that’s not where they are now.”

As a charity we know these folks are making a contribution to our society, and moving away from the old life towards something new and positive.  For most they are not going back to ‘the old life’.  To quote Christopher again “the work we do has given them the chance to be more than they were; to add to the world, not take away.  Sometimes I am asked why we work with people who are living on the margins of society.  I will now add a selfish answer to my repertoire: for my daughter.  I am proud of my team, this charity and the work we do.”

This innovative Learning & Work Programme works and it is all about taking an individual on an appropriate journey tailored to their needs. Some cases may take a bit longer than others, but it is all about life changes and sustainability – not just for today but in the years ahead.

Carol-Anne Alcorn (Interim CEO)

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Begging the Question

Following the peak of public concern about homelessness every Christmas, it seems every January a politician or business leader makes a call to ban begging and the media are onto us asking what we think? BBC Radio’s You and Yours, Five Live, Politics Today plus various newspapers have been asking for interviews this week following a suggestion from Aberdeen Councillor Willie Young to make begging a criminal offence in that city punishable by a fine or prison. My first question is why does the issue of begging in particular create such media interest compared with other evidence of rising poverty levels, such as the proliferation of food banks, pawn brokers and pay day cheque shops?

Homeless+beggingFor Cllr Young and, this time last year, Ivan Artolli, general manager of the five-star Balmoral in Edinburgh, the issue is that beggars spoil the look of our prestigious city streets and are an embarrassment. I agree. It is embarrassing that a modern, civilised society and modern city should have citizens who are destitute and forced into the ignominy of begging. But there’s the real question: are they really destitute and left ‘hungry and homeless’ by a failed welfare system? Or are we – and they – victims of professional begging rackets run by Fagin-like  gangmasters? Or are they sad-souls who may not be exactly ‘hungry and homeless’ or penniless but are caught in the grip of addictions that need to be fed by the added hand-outs as a better alternative to shop-lifting or other crime? There is probably truth in all three scenaria. So what should be done?

We have been saying this week that the first thing is to go out and find out more about the people and their stories. (At least the Daily Record went and did that this week). There are trained voluntary sector befrienders who can go to where people are begging and extend a hand-up, not just a hand-out, and in the process find out more about the trusth of the situation. Better to spend money on outreach and befriending than on arresting and processing beggars through the criminal justice system. (I would be interested in anyone could put a figure on the cost of that?). Criminalising people already on the margins of society will do nothing to help and create more problems than it would solve.

Journalists always ask me: Would you advise people to not give to beggars? I hold that this is a matter of choice. Our default position is towards the hand-up, not the hand out, so maybe offering a few minutes conversation and advice to use the services in our community will serve you to decide if you want to pass on a few coins. Our friends at Thamesreach have taken a stronger line, arguing that anything you give is feeding a drink or drug habit – but for me that’s too much a blanket view. Other charities say to donate what you’d give to beggars straight to the charity but I find that a bit self serving in tone.

Cyrenians first and last position on the subject is to promote compassion towards people. Whether they’re actually destitute or ‘just’ the victim of an addiction or being used to make money, they deserve respect as our fellow human beings and whatever the cause it can be no fun sitting on cold, wet pavements gathering pennies and putting aside their pride. If you don’t want to give money, fine, but they don’t need your disdain and imprisonment will be costly and unproductive.

Des Ryan, CEO


After ‘2012’

I re-blogged the post below (Scotland Leads the Way) on the momentous occasion of reaching Scotland’s end-of 2012 target date for ‘ending homelessness.’  This means is that from now on there is a duty on local authorities to  provide settled accommodation to anyone who becomes unintentionally homeless. On behalf of Cyrenians I have led the hip-hoorays for all concerned in originally making and then delivering on the historic commitment made back in 2003, for it represents a historic rejection of the idea of the ‘deserving and undeserving’ (i.e. priority and non-priority) that went back to the Elizabethan Poor Laws. A landmark commitment, as well, in that it represents Scotland as a civilised and progressive society in saying that homelessness is simply unacceptable.

What is also remarkable is that the commitment came with cross-party support, surviving changes in administration and the recession. That tells me there is enough concensus on the central values and principle to hold things together as the inevitable arguments now emerge about statistics and whether the issue is being resolved or simply displaced.

Common Lodging House of the Seventies

Common Lodging House of the Seventies

I also celebrate a real and lasting culture change in the local authorities that have the lead role in delivering the commitment. It’s hard for me to convey in words how far we’ve come from the world of large-scale doss houses, soup kitchens  and rough sleeping that I came into as a volunteer in the mid-seventies, and the prejudice and stereotyping of people experiencing homelessness that went with those terrible conditions. But there’s still a long way to go and severe challenges to overcome. I mentioned previously the excellent Homelessness Monitor: Scotland produced by our friends at Crisis. Author Suzanne Fitzpatrick notes against the evidence of progress:

“It remains to be seen whether such gains can be maintained in the face of the prolonged recession, radical welfare cutbacks, and a tightening supply of affordable housing for those on low and modest incomes.”

Putting aside the things we have limited control over – social housing shortage, London driven welfare reforms and failure of the economy – in my view, there are three things that need to happen to maximise our chances of success in meeting these challenges in the next decade:

  • Re-admission of the voluntary and enterprise sector as a full partner in R&D, planning and delivery of homelessness and social inclusion: since the days of the Homelessness Task Force the sector has been pushed out into the corridor largely by the procurement and competitive tendering process. To the extent that the sector is now treated as a disposable provider rather than an expert partner. Inclusion can bring innovation, additional investment and passion to the top table
  • A stronger focus and serious investment in early intervention into the known causes of social exclusion and genuine prevention of people losing their home
  • more creative use of the assets that are there: e.g. support for under-pressure families, engagement of private rented sector housing, use of empty homes and support of new living arrangements, such as flat and home share

Happy New Year folks!

Des Ryan (CEO)


Cyrenians Blog

“In the old days,” she said, “I felt my job was to do the homelessness assessment to find a way of not helping the applicant. To catch them out or find a loophole. Nowadays my job is to find the best way of helping the applicant. I love my job now.”

This was a chance conversation during the coffee break at a conference in Glasgow on progress to the 2012 homelessness targets with a lady who’s been at the front desk of a council housing department dealing with people presenting as homeless throughout the last decade. It said it all to me.

In 2003 Scotland took the moral lead amongst nations by stating that a civilised country should not accept that people without a home should go unhelped. It had cross-party support. The Homelessness Task Force that devised the strategy was a cross sectoral partnership, including charities like Cyrenians with our feet in…

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The Bedsit Family

When I get home this evening for the Christmas break the first things I’m going to do are to pull the dinner table out to the centre of the room and get out the board games. We’re a gregarious bunch, the Ryan family, but even so there are times when everyone disappears off to their own rooms to work, or browse, or whatever.

It came home to me talking recently to our family mediation team (Amber) just how the modern home and family life has fragmented. The extended family became the nuclear family became the bedsit family. Families are not even arguing over what TV programme to watch because there are TV’s in every room. Houses are being built without dining rooms. Members of the household can spend all week under the same roof with little or no interaction.

Cyrenians’ Amber supports teenagers who are at risk of homelessness through family breakdown. If appropriate we shuttle between the young person and parent to negotiate using a mediation process to try to resolve the difficulties that are putting the home, schooling and future relationships at risk. It’s a great service delivered by brilliant, caring people. Have a look at the website and watch the video testimony. As a parent of four young people – three still in the bosom of the family – it brings it home that none of us as immune to these problems. What I hear over and again is that the love is there but families have simply lost the habit of communicating with each other.  Amber breaks through the wall and brings parents and adult/child back together, with every one of the 100 or so cases last year resolved in a good way.xmasdinner_2431212b

On Tuesday past I was at the Scottish Parliament building for the launch of The Homeless Monitor: Scotland report, commissioned by Crisis and with research led by Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick from Heriot Watt. I will blog more about this in the New Year but one thing that struck me was this: There is a presumption in the British welfare system that young people have families and that their families are able and willing to support them. Welfare ‘Reforms’ throw even more responsibility – or pressure – on families to support children who have become unemployed or under-employed young adults. The strength and resilence of families to hold together under financial pressure will be tested in 2013 in a way that has not been the case since the introduction of the Welfare State.

With that thought, turn off the tellies, switch off the broadband and use this Christmas to commune with those you love. But before you do, have a wee look at Cyrenians Farm Christmas Message  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43aPmD5RlEM

Have a great Christmas everyone, and thanks for all your interest and support in 2012 xxx

Des Ryan (CEO)


A Hand Up, Not a Hand Out!

Several things prompt me to repeat Cyrenians mantra as this week’s title.

Next Wednesday (21st) I’m contributing to SCVO’s Third Sector Summit – Taking on Welfare Reform. For ‘Welfare Reform’ read cuts in income to the least well off. (Watch out for the Orwellian use of language). Cyrenian front-line workers tell me that the same people are being hit over and over again; a reduction in housing benefit, then loss of personal benefit, then reduction in child benefit… The cuts in benefit are creeping out and stealthily attacking the most vulnerable. And with more to come. Our case workers are brilliant – it’s humbling and inspiring to listen to what they’re achieving for their customers in the circumstances – but a lot of it is damage limitation.This is the best thing I’ve read about the cumulative impact of welfare ‘reforms.’

So while we try to influence causal factors the day job – as a charity – is to help people deal with the consequences. Our big push is on getting people, where they can, into employment. We’ve got initiatives going to work with employers to supply day-one ready staff. Another to work in schools with leavers at greatest risk of NEET. Our growing social enterprises are creating more work spaces. But accepting that many folk remain on benefits, what else can we do to mitigate the growing levels of poverty?

FareShare – food to ‘hand up’ services

Given that we’ve pioneered and grown Scotland’s first and biggest surplus food distribution project supplying over £1m a year worth of produce to community kitchens, some might find it strange that we’re challenging, on a policy level, the rampant growth of food banks in Scotland. I pretty much agree with Lynn Williams’ blog on the subject this week on the SCVO site. Except to say that food banks should be scrapped as stand alone activities and integrated into more holistic community services so that if I’m needing emergency help with food I get it, but I also get an informed benefit health check, support and advocacy to get full entitlement and linking me with whatever other help I could use to climb out of poverty. A hand up, not a hand out.

Our mantra is also repeated to remind me as we design another new initiative to mitigate the probable impact of ‘reforms’ to the emergency Social Fund that take effect from 1st April next. We’re doing the R&D on a new scheme to enable people to donate unwanted goods directly to people who need them. A sort of charity freecycle. It is a challenging concept on several levels, but needs must.

Des Ryan (CEO)


Sowing the Seeds

A strong October sun shone on us last Friday afternoon for the Official Opening of the Midlothian Community Hospital Gardens: the third of the NHS Community Gardens collection, alongside those in Morningside and Dunbar – the latter as a sort of franchise with the local community group. A fourth is under planning in West Lothian.

Offical Opening of the Midlothian Community Hospital Gardens

We also had the broadcast on BBC Scotland’s iconic Beechgrove Garden of a revisit to the prototypye NHS Community Garden at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, following their original programme ‘way back’ in August 2010. The link to BBC Player is here, with the item running from 21:50 in for about 5 minutes. Well worth the watch if you get the chance. It’s inspiring to see the original garden thriving, not just in terms of growing but also with over 1,000 hours of community volunteering every month.

Cyrenians Gardens Manager Hillary Vipond being interviewed by the wonderful Carole Baxter, presenter of Beechgrove Garden

There is absolutely no doubt that the NHS Community Gardens model – rooted in their local communities and based on volunteering and creative collaboration – is proving highly successful in terms of its social outcomes. The challenge is to make them not just financially sustainable but generating surplus to invest in continuous improvement and growth. Success on a scale requires a degree of professional management – however much volunteering and in-kind support goes in – and this costs money.

It’s been suggested to me that ‘The Gardens’ is a classic example of asset-based community development, (ABCD) except that it merges with the top-down ownership and ambition of NHS Lothian. Slightly disturbingly I have also been told that it is an embodiment of Big Society! Neither ‘model’ suggests where the modest income required will come from in years to come. Hence we are looking at social enterprise development, generating income from sales of Corporate Team Challenges, surplus produce, secondary goods and ‘garden experiences’ – plus some old fashioned community fundraising. It will be an interesing journey.

Des Ryan (CEO)