Alex's Story: My mantra is, it’s not about me, it’s about you
Can you describe your role at Centrepoint and what you did previously?
My job ultimately consists of supporting young people leaving care to gain the skills necessary to move on into their own accommodation, in addition to providing them with tailored support and creating opportunities for them to talk and be heard.
Prior to working in housing, I was a prevention worker as part of a pilot programme, delivering independent living skills to young people alongside outreach workers. In addition to this, I had responsibility for the Youth Educators Project. For this, I worked with young people currently in our accommodation services, or those who had moved into their own properties, to explore their experiences of homelessness, devising a series of awareness-raising sessions to eliminate the myths and reduce the stigma that surrounds homeless young people. These sessions were delivered in schools, colleges and community groups, as well as to professionals such as social workers and youth workers. These youth educators wanted to challenge the stereotypes perpetuated by the media: that young people who do not live at home have done something wrong, when in fact the reasons for young people coming to live with us range from parental bereavement or mental health issues, to family breakdown and overcrowding.
What are some of the challenges you face when working with vulnerable young people?
The young people I currently work with have a variety of backgrounds and have faced a number of experiences which are traumatic – it’s very difficult for them to have to tell their story over and over to more new people (which is a necessary part of the moving-in process). They have often had professionals from multiple agencies involved in their lives for a number of years, and due to the high turnover in some of these professions, young people can develop a sense of mistrust. They frequently voice feeling abandoned by some professionals when they had just got settled with them; that they are too much to handle for them; or that they do not care enough.
Some of our young people move in with substance misuse issues, and we support them to engage with agencies to reduce or eliminate this use. Sometimes young people just want to know that they can engage and are using safely.
Our residents struggle to believe in themselves and get perplexed when faced with positive reinforcement, which is a vital aspect of boosting self-esteem. They get angry, frustrated, sad and lost – it's particularly challenging not to become too overly invested in them as it can lead to personal stress. (I know this for real!)
How do you work with young people? What kind of approach works well?
My mantra is "it’s not about me, it’s about you", and that is what I tell them from the very beginning. I ask them what the best way to work with them is – have they any quirks or foibles? (For example, one of my young people hates being interrupted, so I gingerly raise my hand when I’m thinking of a question, or a flash of brilliance bursts into my mind.) It’s a person-centric approach, but it’s for two people – I make them aware that there are commitments and expectations from our organisation’s perspective; not just rules, but activities that serve to broaden their horizons and change their outlook. It is crucial that young people appreciate the fact that they are decision makers – not just in the future, but now.
How has the pandemic affected the young people you work with?
Many of our residents experience difficulties with social anxiety. They were used to shopping in twos or threes, but restrictions put in place meant that they were not able to queue together and sometimes had been challenged by store staff if they met up in aisles. It was impossible to get online deliveries arranged. They resorted to shopping at our local corner shops, which was much more expensive for them. Prior to the pandemic, staff would often accompany young people on their shopping trips, to help them learn about budgeting, how to choose healthier options and how to shop effectively, but the lockdown meant that we couldn't go together. They struggled to get back on track when restrictions were lifted, with many of them even more anxious about going shopping without the restrictions! We work slowly and steadily to increase confidence, ensuring that they abide by the ever-changing regulations being introduced.
WHY DO YOU THINK PROGRAMMES LIKE THE YOUTH EDUCATORS PROJECT ARE SO IMPORTANT?
I do believe that the Youth Educators Programme is essential to helping society and communities empathise more with young people and not demonise them. I wish that all newspapers - local and national, broadsheet and tabloid, and online - would dedicate a whole section on a regular basis to promote the positive things that young people are involved in, from all walks of life.