Work that breaks a vicious circle

Aspire, an innovative mail order business, enables rough sleepers to begin the move into mainstream work
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The Independent Online

Many people, asked why they work, flippantly reply: "Oh, it keeps me off the streets." But for former homeless people, it's literally true.

Many people, asked why they work, flippantly reply: "Oh, it keeps me off the streets." But for former homeless people, it's literally true.

Unemployment and homelessness operate in a vicious circle. If you haven't got a job and depend on benefits, it's difficult to persuade a landlord, particularly a private one, to accept you as a tenant. Lack of references – and sometimes a criminal record – put off employers. Also many rough sleepers suffer from low self-esteem and a fragmented, isolated lifestyle. These conditions are made more acute by unemployment, making it more difficult to get a job.

Recognising that it was essential to tackle the lack of work, education and training suffered by many rough sleepers, the Rough Sleepers Unit (RSU) devoted £4m to plugging the gaps. To date, their Special Innovations Fund (SIF) has helped more than 2,500 rough sleepers nationwide.

Take Aspire, an SIF-supported mail-order catalogue business. With its head office in Bristol, this innovative employment and training organisation also has units in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Blackpool, Manchester, Southampton, Sheffield and Oxford. More than 100 homeless or ex-homeless people have been employed so far.

Each regional unit is given a full-time support worker funded by head office; otherwise the offices operate autonomously. They are expected to break even and also to pay the salary of a co-ordinator who acts as a business manager. The idea behind the scheme is that after a period with Aspire, employees will move on into mainstream work. For example, more than 40 per cent of staff taken on at Bristol Aspire since its launch in 1999 are now employed by other organisations.

The first challenge for Aspire groups is recruitment. "We work with a variety of organisations such as The Big Issue, housing associations and day centres. If they see people who seem ready for the responsibilities of full-time employment, they recommend them to us," says Amy Fuller, support manager at Central Aspire. Fuller stresses that if employees seem right, they are taken on even if they are still sleeping rough.

Regional training varies, but it is generally tailored to individual needs. "Sometimes we find the rough sleepers have better computer skills than the office workers," laughs Fuller. "But regions do offer training in IT budgeting, literacy and telephone skills. Some are even running NVQs in areas such as warehousing."

Mark Nightall is chair of Aspire, Oxford, and also the full-time supported housing manager for the English Church Housing Group, which runs the hostels from where most Oxford Aspire employees are recruited. "We currently employ six ex-homeless people on a gross wage of £160 a week – plus we have the support worker and a co-ordinator," he says.

"Although we won't take on anyone with an active drink or drug problem, we don't ask for references. So basically, we're giving people a fresh start."

Training at Oxford Aspire mainly happens "on the job", but the support worker has arranged for one employee to have driving lessons, subsidised by the Government's New Deal scheme, so that he can take over the goods deliveries currently being done by volunteers.

"Two employees deliver the catalogues across the city, each covering certain streets on foot, with the catalogues in a trolley," says Nightall. "After a couple of days, they retrace their steps and pick the catalogues up, hopefully after people have filled in the order form." Many people, however, place their orders over the phone and Nightall stresses there is no hard sell on the doorstep. He also points out that the goods, which range from Russian dolls to Christmas hampers, are all produced under Fair Trade conditions.

Back at the office, another worker takes the telephone orders and processes them on a computer, while the fourth bags up the stock ready for delivery via volunteers with cars. Tasks are rotated regularly so everyone has a chance to pick up new skills. It sounds uncomplicated, but in practice, like any new business, Oxford Aspire has had its ups and downs.

"For some of our staff, this is the first time they've ever worked," Nightall says. "So they have no experience of interacting with other employees. Consequently, when they disagree with each other, they can end up arguing violently." This is where the support worker steps in to help employees learn less stressful negotiating techniques.

It soon became clear to everybody that some ground rules would have to be established if the business was to run smoothly. "All of us sat down to work out house policies around issues such as sickness and punctuality. Everybody has signed up to them and it makes life much easier," Nightall says.

Two months after the launch, the Aspire staff are clearly thriving on paid employment in a structured environment. "The most exciting thing is to see the change in their self-esteem," says Nightall. "They have so much more confidence and they're learning techniques to deal with stress. You can see how even their body language has changed."

Although the co-ordinator has overall responsibility for strategy, a concerted effort is made to run the business as democratically as possible. "Everybody has a say in which areas of the city we should tackle each day and which goods are selling best," Nightall says.

Indeed, entrepreneurial ideas are welcomed in today's tough marketplace. "To give the business a boost, we've tried to branch out a bit. We're now running a puncture repair service for cyclists and a weekly market stall." As proof of the success of Aspire as a social enterprise, Nightall reveals that the employees are now running the market stall unsupervised. "It shows how much we trust them and it's a sign of how far they've come."

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