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Indelible Stains? How one homelessness charity is turning criminal records from a problem into an asset

Indelible Stains? How one homelessness charity is turning criminal records from a problem into an asset

Indelible Stains? How one homelessness charity is turning criminal records from a problem into an asset

Monday, March 6, 2017

“I thought it was a misprint when I saw the job advertised,” says Kerrie. She’s talking about her job as a peer mentor for people coming out of the criminal justice system. The application form specifically said that personal experience of the system would be desirable. Kerrie was taken aback. “I had mixed feelings,” she says. “Mostly I was over the moon at the chance to turn something so negative into a positive experience but there was some concerns that being labeled a peer for a criminal justice service would mean I would always be seen in that way.”

Over three years later though, she’s still working for Cyrenians in Edinburgh. The charity, which took the deliberate decision to recruit someone who really knew what it was like to try and put their life back together after dealing with the cycle of police, courts, social services and more.

Kerrie, who became a mum at 18, says that in her mid 20s, life began to spiral out of control after she suffered a bereavement. “My dad died of alcoholism when I was 25 and four months pregnant with my daughter. My partner also suffered a bereavement… when his brother died of a heroin overdose. We both began to drink heavily and the violence between us became a daily thing.”

“The more we drank, the more violent we became,” Kerrie says. “The next nine years were absolute chaos. I lost good jobs, ended up being arrested on numerous occasions for police assault, breach of the peace etc… I didn’t have the tools to deal with my life and did not know how to remain sober for long. Eventually, I’d reached my rock bottom. I had social work involvement with my children, I had run out of chances with the courts and I had given up on myself. I entered a three month residential treatment centre for my alcoholism in 2011 and began to re-build my life.”

Kerrie’s story of personal restoration goes on until today. “I have remained abstinent,” she says, “not surprisingly, I have never committed an offence.”

Yet the story doesn’t end there. Once Kerrie had got over her surprise at that job ad, she applied and has been mentoring people dealing with similar issues to those she went through ever since. “My lived experience has given me a unique advantage to truly understanding how a client feels,” she says. “I can empathise with a client and hopefully give them hope that they too can move away from the vicious cycle of addiction and offending.”

Cyrenians’ approach to hiring may seem like a risk. Yet it’s consistent with the values the organisation has promoted for nearly 50 years of working with homeless and vulnerable people – aiming to transform their lives by beginning with their story. Kerrie’s experience shows how a bold approach can pay dividends. Amy Hutton from Cyrenians says, “we work with people who’ve been involved with homeless services for a long time. We’re trying to do things differently so that we can find a different type of relationship for these people to engage with.” She says Kerrie’s experience has been vital: “by giving people access to others with their lived experience it gives credibility. We work with people who’ve got massive mistrust of professional services – this is an alternative way of reaching people.” She also says there are tangible benefits to having somebody with lived experience. “We can learn how to be more sensitive, and avoid a ‘them-and-us’ divide. Having lived experience as a desirable attribute on the job description means that people think it might be an option for them. This will make for a richer workforce.”

Cyrenians has been working with the Open University to investigate the impact criminal convictions can have on a person’s future. Last year they held a joint event, called ‘Indelible Stains’, which brought together the lived experience of those with criminal convictions, the experience of the employer, and an academic perspective. Cyrenians has a long history of helping and supporting people determined to turn their lives around – while acknowledging that new approaches will always be needed when tackling entrenched problems.

Cyrenians promote an approach where lived experience of struggles is valuable, both to those with whom they work and the organisation itself. Taking this approach can build bridges with those who face severe or multiple disadvantages, especially when they have mistrust of traditional service provision.

After the event with the Open University, more possibilities are being explored to take on similar projects in other areas. Amy Hutton from Cyrenians says that a mentoring service that had just been for women is now being expanded. “Partially as a consequence of the event,” she says, “we’ve secured funding to work with men as well. We’ve also secured some funding to recruit a paid peer worker to do some outreach. We’re feeling more confident on different types of peer work we can develop.”

Is this a pattern that could be replicated elsewhere? Kerrie certainly thinks so. She’s keen to see the practice extended as far as possible. “I hear it from my clients a lot that they would like to do the same job,” she says. “I get a lot of job satisfaction watching my clients progress and I encourage them by sharing my story, which helps by showing them that it is achievable.”

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