Shut up or move in?

Back in 2009 I wrote a piece about Owen who ran a community project focused on litter picking, clearing flats, refurbishing homes and recycling furniture.

The project was held together by recovering addicts, who volunteered at the project. While it felt chaotic the outcomes were impressive – huge areas of land blighted by rubbish cleared up, by an organisation committed to involving those most excluded from society. It was brave, bold and ambitious, and preposterous!

Spend any time with Owen and the stories soon start to fly. Dog eared photo albums are dug out featuring filthy infested flats inhabited by haunted figures, each subsequently transformed in part by contact with an astonishing collective of kind, generous volunteers. On the estates workers in fluroscent jackets became common place, while the well-healed, well-to-do queue up for Saturday morning photo-calls; you can understand people wanting a slice of the action, and a guaranteed picture in the paper.

Owen and the project went on to be nominated for various gongs with visits to Highgrove and the Palace. Yet despite the interest, accolades and appearances, the modest funding to keep everything afloat was non-existent. Local supporters were bankrolling the project from private loans, while unemployed volunteers didn’t claim their benefits as they were volunteering with the project and no longer seeking a job. People found their vocation. It was with Owen.

Despite delivering outstanding work, the organisation lurched from one funding crisis to the next. It wasn’t sustainable. The project closed back in 2011 leaving Owen to go on and set up new initiatives.

Despite warm words about the significance of local projects to bring change,  despite the billions spent on research that affirms their critical role in building ‘resilient neighbourhoods’, despite the hours of training and ‘capacity building’ poured into the sector by local ‘council for voluntary service’ and similar organisations, these neighbourhood projects are now threatened by closure. Despite gushing rhetoric from successive governments, each have preceded over an erosion of their status with local authorities, opportunity for funding sliced and cuts to their own budgets. The impact is felt most on small projects and their capacity to work with those most excluded. Since 2011 many have followed Owen and shut down.

Nip back and revisit Owens project and you’ll probably be overwhelmed by the value placed on people written off, both in the brilliant service provided, and the way the team operate. You’d be shocked at the willingness of staff to empathise with the heart break many volunteers experienced, and their flexibility to react to extremes – accommodating difficult behaviour, affirming vulnerable humans. At times we’d be exhausted by the chaos pervading the organisation, frequently reacting to messy situations and circumstances. Getting work done – but at what cost to volunteers and staff?

Yet the problem for Owen isn’t the violent behaviour of a volunteer or destructive person using the service. Its the distance between their activity and the budget holder, the commissioner or policy maker.

Tucked away in a fourth floor office they are busy juggling agendas, making decisions about where dwindling resources maybe allocated, based on the quality of written information provided and targets met. The noisy, chaotic organisation that cannot fill in a form correctly or use the right spelling just fuels a perception of risk. ‘Risk is not good.’ The smaller, chaotic community group that delivers results brilliantly, but struggles to communicate, market, brand and present itself or explain its work, feels doomed. Never mind these organisations are loved locally, work with people and transform lives by the shed load.

Correct the geography – locate decision makers in offices adjacent to our Owen. Prioritise time to sniff out the work – the vulnerability of the volunteers and those calling in, needing help, see the anarchy, feel the chaos. And watch alchemists like Owen and his team doing their work with the most marginalised. Maybe then by being in the neighbourhood, and with a little imagination, projects like Owen’s will remain open, there work understood and supported. Maybe.

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