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Call 14: From homelessness to the Home Office, young people's services must be humanised

By Leo Plumb, Ian Hamilton and the young people from the Youth Community Support Agency, with a response from Alison Phipps

The Youth Community Support Agency (YCSA) is a charity based in Pollockshields, Glasgow, providing holistic support for young people from mainly black and minority ethnic backgrounds and encouraging them to be active participants in a diverse society. YCSA focuses on engaging young people deemed ‘hard to reach’, at risk of social exclusion and on the fringes of society.

Amongst the projects run by the agency is a weekly film club. Over the summer of 2018 seven members of the club produced a short film titled Where Homelessness Lives, focusing on their experiences of coming to Scotland, what makes for a meaningful welcome, and the quality of support they were offered.

As part of the 25 Calls project, Children in Scotland staff met them to talk about these experiences. Four members of the group, Victoria, Lawrence, Ishaq and Mohsin, discussed whether they thought services for young people in Scotland that they’d engaged with recognised individuals as being different and having diverse needs, and what needed to change. Here’s what they told us.

On being welcomed and not welcomed in Scotland...

Victoria: “I feel like I was not really important [in visits to the Home Office]. If you are doing great, they start noticing you… my auntie took us to the Refugee Council to study but there was a long wait. I went to Skills Development Scotland because my cousin told me they could help finding places in college and with employability, things like that. The person that was helping is just amazing. I feel like he actually cares. He would ask me, ‘How was the interview?’. All the time, he was encouraging. I think that’s so important.

“When I go there, I’m just happy because there’s something constructive that I’m getting out of there. And he’s actually helping. He is the person that helps me through college, and to getting into college… When someone is actually giving you support, they can motivate you to do something. I think this is important… So I stopped going to the Home Office. I started to do things that are beneficial for me.”

Lawrence: “Organisations need to understand a lot of young people don’t have information or confidence to engage. Sometimes when I go to these organisations, I don’t feel welcome… For some young guys, they don’t want to go back again.”

Ishaq: “When I first came here, I found it very difficult to understand the situation in this country… I didn’t know anything. I didn’t speak English. I didn’t know how to use Google Maps and GPS. I was staying at home all the time. It was really cold and it was snowing. Although there are some organisations that help people to learn English, I didn’t know where to go to learn. Then I met someone from my country. He put me in touch with a community organisation. Still I didn’t know how to get there. I had to phone him and he would take me there.

“When I had an appointment with the Job Centre, I didn’t know how to speak English. I didn’t know what to do and what they said. I asked if I could have an interpreter so I could understand what was said to me. But I was told I couldn’t get one because I have already been in this country for eight to nine months. He [the person at the Job Centre] gave me the date and time for my next appointment and said if I don’t attend the appointment, they were going to cut my money. The Job Centre said my friend should be here to help me. I tried to get him to come to the Job Centre but he was working. By the time he arrived, we were 10 minutes late. We were shouted at and told that I should be looking for jobs through the advertisements. It was very stressful!”

On what genuine individualised support can feel like…

Lawrence: “Support [for young people] should be about more than materials. Giving out leaflets is not enough.”

Moshin: “To help people in the homeless situation, it needs more than a house… they need practical help and genuine support. What needs to change? See me as a person, not an appointment! Put more effort and time into genuinely supporting us.”

Victoria: “It’s not effective if services are delivered in one way. Use diverse approaches to understand the person, their culture and know how to appropriately interact.”

Lawrence: “I need to feel that a person really cares about me before I can open up with my problems.”

On being inspired and unbeaten by negative experiences...

Victoria: “There are different ways of support to meet people’s needs. When support is right, it can go a long way and change someone’s life... I want to become a social care worker, so other people don’t have to go through what I’ve been through.”

Alison Phipps' response: What would help? Empathy, stories – and people as bridges

What the young people from YCSA are saying, especially those talking about seeking refuge, is my daily bread. I hear it every day. Official people speak a language which even I would struggle to recognise as my mother tongue. For the last ten years I’ve filtered all encounters with support providers, officials and the Home Office through the lens of young unaccompanied minors.

“So what you need is to get you PYJ3 card and then enter your details into the 018GP3 Form online and then when you have passed your Advanced Intermediate Level 2 you can progress to the SQA. There is an online form. You need to find the form and register. You can’t go for an appointment without an online registration. To register you need you XP95A identification number. You’ll need to verify this through a text message to your mobile phone.”

“What do you mean, you don’t have credit?”

“You can go to the library and get online there.”

“What do you mean you don’t have any money for bus fares?”

“It’s okay, you don’t need cash you can just tap on with your debit card.”

“What do you mean you don’t have an account?”

Everything the young people say about their experiences is underscored by research. Leaflets don’t help people navigate the maze of identification numbers, calls on hold, English spoken at speed. Young people in the asylum system speak many languages, but often not English, or at least not yet, and certainly not the bureaucratic English of online navigation, forms and appointments.

Coming from contexts where protocols with elders and officials are face-to-face and involve relationships the abstractions of our technocratic world are alienating in the extreme. Information is usually often with a thick accent and serious lack of intercultural communication training. Stories help. Empathy helps. People to act as bridges between officialdom and the world which they have left, helps. Leaflets, Apps, and more service-providers who amplify the bureaucracy and levels to navigate are hopeless.

In the Poverty Truth Commission, we spent several years learning that ‘nothing about us without us is for us’ when it comes to policymaking and poverty reduction. What the young people are identifying is precisely where the problems lie, and they have all the solutions. As survivors of this system they have found ways through despite, not because of the barriers. And what those ways are, are crystal clear – people, welcoming people; kindly people; guides from within their own communities; people who act as re-assurers, accompaniers, translators, guides, and one another. Peer support is the way forward for policymaking. And radical reform of the Home Office to be, well, more like home and less like a departure lounge with no exits.

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Article 27 – United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: '...the right to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development...'

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