Some of the groups here help individuals with their problems. How do you do this?
Harry McGill: Initially as a group we were doing what we call ‘casework’, such as helping people who have had their money stopped, which is an incredibly important thing to do. We noticed that some people who might not have the best English were being targeted or people who had learning difficulties. Certainly many of the professional people who were laid off didn’t seem to have as many problems. As a result of that our group grew gradually. One of the things we did as regards to a change in how we operated is that rather than just being a group that would do casework, we have become more political and prepared to take on larger issues like for example the welfare reforms that are taking place.
Casework can take an awful lot of time. It’s absolutely essential that it gets done. But a lot of the people that were being helped maybe didn’t understand who we were. Maybe they thought we were being paid for doing this job. In any case not everyone wants to join groups. Most people just want their problem solved. What we were finding was that after people had their problem solved they were gone and didn’t contribute to the group. So we thought that for the survival of the group and to think about growing and developing the group we thought it would be better to work with people who were prepared to take part in the group, and contribute. So as a result of that we have done less casework, which could take up days and days of our time and we are now working with people, and helping people, who are taking an active part of our group. We find it is better. It allows us to take more political directions rather than be tied down at this level of working with individual cases.
Helen Lowe: Do you not still have individuals coming to you for help and how do you deal with it then if they don’t fit into wanting to join the group?
Harry McGill: Good question. It’s a balancing act really. We have to try and offer advice in the meeting as to what they should do and where they can go and at the same time inform them that we work as a group, mutually and give them information that is useful for them, but not trail after them through the city to solve it, going to unemployment offices, housing offices, lawyers and on and on and on. What we would do is the person would come back to the group the following week and we would offer more advice and we would kind of do it that way. The person would find that if they were taking a part in the group then they would get more help.
Pragna Patel: That just wouldn’t work with us because we are dealing with people who are incredibly invisible and vulnerable. They would not be able to get the services unless we provide advocacy and advice services. Already sign-posting is becoming more and more difficult actually, if you are a front line organisation, because the others are also closing and that becomes a difficult obstacle. I agree with you in the sense there has always been that tension between providing services and campaigning. If you manage to keep your feet on the ground you can do it better then some others do, for whom providing services is only a career issue.
Harry McGill: Like you say its not an either or, and if our group was a lot bigger we probably would be doing quite a bit more casework than we can in the time we have.
Is there a shift in some of your groups from ‘casework’ to mutual support?
Ellie Schling: Yes, now we work in groups and support each other within the groups. The groups are based on principles of mutual help, and although we are supporting each other on our individual cases we don’t call it casework. There is generally a mixture of people within the groups, I think that’s one of our strengths: we have a mixture of experiences and needs which means we are better able to support each other.
Lani Parker: One of the strengths about Islington Poverty Action Group is that we really are focused on finding out what our rights are together. It is a different relationship. We are not caseworkers and clients. We are not a front line service in that sense. We have a lot more space to build in that way, rather then going for funding the way services do.