It’s nearing the end of my third week at St. Anne’s, so it’s definitely time for another blog post. Before we dive into the details, I thought it might be a good idea to clarify some of the jargon I’ll be using throughout my posts.
A ‘client’ or ‘service user’ is someone who has come to St. Anne’s for any kind of assistance, from help with housing or substance abuse problems, to just wanting a shower and a hot meal. St. Anne’s has many different clients, but my project is focused on those who are ‘vulnerably housed’. This term is a bit foggy; it covers just about everything from street homeless (what we tend to think of when we hear the word homeless) to someone living in a hostel, right the way through to people who actually have their own tenancy. You’ll soon pick it up!
Despite the fact that I’ve worked at St. Anne’s before (see my previous blog post) it still took some time to settle in again. For the first week, I heard a lot of “So what are you doing here, then?” “Do you work for a charity?” “Are you a support worker, or what?”. The team at St. Anne’s doesn’t usually change much, so a new face was something of a novelty for the service users.
After this initial novelty wore off, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced during these first few weeks of the project is how to engage with the service users, and how to persuade them to chat to me about Spice. As you can imagine, some clients can be difficult at times, and often have a hard time trusting people they deem to be professionals (that includes me, apparently). It was my job to make them see that I wasn’t asking questions to be rude or critical, I was simply trying to find out more about Spice. Over the past three weeks, I’ve learnt (sometimes the hard way) how to put clients at ease, so I thought I’d share my top tips with you.
- Talk to services users as you would anyone else. People who are vulnerably housed are often cut off from the rest of society, they are used to being shunned and mistrusted. You need to show them that you respect them and their opinion, just like any other person. Be friendly, and don’t be frightened or too formal.
- Try to remember their name. Now, this seems pretty obvious, but I’ve found that it makes a huge difference to the service users at St. Anne’s. As I said before, the vulnerably housed often feel rejected by society and as a result can be quite defensive; making an effort to remember someone’s name lets them know that you’ve not just dismissed them because of their position.
- Let them be the expert. Compared to most of the services users I have spoken to, my knowledge of Spice (from its various effects to the price of a bag) is pretty rubbish. They are the experts, and it’s important that you treat them as such. Listen to what they say, it might sound odd or even silly to you but you’re not the one taking this drug, they are. I’ve found that this approach also helps to gain the trust of the service users; they spend a lot of time being on the receiving end of help or guidance (from doctors, social workers, etc.) so I think that they enjoy the chance to actually give their own opinions and advice.
So, using these basic ‘tools’ (if you like) I think I’ve managed to gain the trust of a lot of the clients. Many of them remember my name, and will say hello if they see me. It’s really nice to feel part of the community at St. Anne’s. In terms of my project, it’s helped me to engage with the service users and to get them to open up about their experiences with Spice. It’s a little too early to go into the details of my findings, but one thing in particular that has struck me is the sheer volume of service users that take Spice. I’d been told that it was very popular among the vulnerably housed by both the staff at St. Anne’s and associated health professionals, but I didn’t quite understand the scale of the problem until I witnessed it first-hand. Literally every single person I have asked in the last three weeks has taken Spice at least once.
The poster shown below is displayed in the reception area of St. Anne’s; I walk past it every day. Worryingly, during my time here I have spoken to clients and staff who have experienced (or witnessed someone else experiencing) all of the listed effects of so-called ‘legal highs’. It’s not pleasant to talk about, but hopefully my project will play a small part in raising the public’s awareness of the dangers of Spice.