Doorway, Social Exclusion & the Berlin Wall – Guest Opinion Column published in the Gazette & Herald Newspaper – Jan 2015

Way way back, 25 years ago, in November 1989 the Berlin wall was brought down by the people of Berlin. Not by the authorities but by the people on both sides working towards a common goal of freedom and inclusion. Because they believed that they were capable of bringing about change as a united force against the East German communist society that had repressed the population behind the wall for 38 years.

Now I remember watching the event, on television, as a 20yr old student with that marvellous feeling when one is still young and naïve that anything is possible if enough people believe in the potential outcome. Unfortunately, over the years the cynicism monster grows within us and slowly gets more powerful until the stage that you think there is no point in attempting something because you’re never going to make a substantial difference anyway.

And then you stumble upon an organisation like Doorway. Which against all the odds continues to make a difference to the everyday lives of a number of people year after year. And okay maybe it is not as dramatic as a 100 mile wall tumbling down one cold night in Berlin, but actually the underlying issues are really very similar

Because as Doorway celebrates our tenth birthday this year it is worth looking at why there is a need for the organisation to exist in the first place and the common theme running through all the different stories of our guests is that of social exclusion.

Social exclusion is formally defined as “the failure of society to provide certain individuals and groups with those rights and benefits normally available to its members, such as employment, adequate housing, health care, education and training etc”

Now we at Doorway are unable to actually eradicate the numerous instances of social exclusion for those who are accessing our service but what we can do, very successfully, is minimise the damage caused by the failure of society to provide those rights and benefits.

And so, over the last year we have worked very hard at empowering our guests to develop a resilience to the constant battering they may get from both statutory agencies and society as a whole, both of which build barrier after barrier to them accessing the services that they so deserve as human beings.

This is achieved by building on the basic foundations of the extra activities that we provide for our guests – the football training, music workshops, writing group and the women’s group – which have all played a major part in our aim of increasing the motivation and self-worth of those who access our services. This has subsequently enabled our guests to have more confidence in tackling those everyday issues in their lives concerning addictions, housing, finances and debts, unemployment and mental health issues all of which contribute to the general feeling of isolation and of social exclusion.

So much of our work at Doorway is spent in compiling ‘hard’ outcomes for funders that sometimes it is difficult to remember that the ‘soft’ outcomes matter just as much to people on a daily basis – we can make someone feel better about themselves for even just a short period of time each week. It’s not all about the statistics and how many people have gained employment or housing, it’s often about the journey towards those goals and involves increasing self-confidence, self-worth, and motivating people to not give up along the way no matter how many hurdles are thrown at them by both statutory agencies and society as a whole.

The vast majority of our work over the last year has been concerned with the fallout from the introduction of the devastating swathe of welfare reforms in April 2013. I predicted, in my article in the G&H in  February 2013, the onset of ‘a perfect storm’ and explained that a combination of factors including falling incomes, rising costs of living, increasing unemployment, a lack of decent jobs and the proposed benefit cuts would affect those who were already very vulnerable.

And, unfortunately I was right in my predictions. More and more people have been driven into debt, hunger and homelessness over the last year. The bedroom tax, cuts in council tax benefits, the ending of disability living allowance, the benefit cap, just to name a few of the reforms, have all contributed to the fact that our workload has substantially increased in volume over the last year.

Over the last few months other, newly introduced, factors have contributed to the demand on our services. These include firstly the removal of the ability to apply for new benefit claims over the phone and replaced with the compulsory method of online applications; the vast majority of people who access our drop-in sessions are unable to complete these hour long applications and are therefore reliant on one of the Doorway support workers to assist them.

Secondly, the introduction of severe benefit sanctions which have a knock on effect. Often the individual will only be aware of the sanction after it has been put in place and therefore after the housing benefit has also been stopped, thereby ensuring that the rent hasn’t been paid and the person is even further in debt and also at risk of losing their tenancy.

Add to this the ongoing severe lack of funding in this county for statutory services including drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, a crisis mental health team that is itself in crisis, and the funding cuts to our partner organisations such as the Citizen Advice Bureau which have led to a reduction in their team of specialist employed staff and it is no wonder that we are inundated with the complexity of people’s everyday needs.

There are still so many moments in my working life when the cynicism monster rears its ugly head and I am filled with monumental despair and frustration and an insurmountable doubt in our ability to actually make a difference to the lives of those who are so dependent on our organisation. But it is also those very moments that keep me motivated to continue to fight for the right of everyone in our community to be able to access those rights and benefits that they are entitled to as human beings.

And that is where the work of Doorway is so critical, we exist in order to support all those whilst they continue their struggle to be more inclusive in society. And so, every moment spent at Doorway is almost like small chunks of the Berlin wall repeatedly falling down day after day after day…

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