Focus: People Management - Ex-service users 'add value' as staff

Graham Willgoss, graham.willgoss@haynet.com

Thames Reach Bondway wants ten per cent of staff to be ex-beneficiaries.

Charities should employ ex-service users to "add value" to the work they do with beneficiaries, according to Jeremy Swain, chief executive of Thames Reach Bondway.

The homelessness charity set up Grow - Giving Real Opportunities for Work - last year, hoping that former service users would make up 10 per cent of its workforce by 2007.

By the end of July this year the charity will have 18 traineeships for formerly homeless people to introduce them to working in the homelessness sector.

The training will last nine months and cover areas such as professional conduct, office skills, planning and health and safety. The trainees will also provide support and training to other once-homeless people.

"The point of this scheme is not to be nice - we know if we can bring people through, that's added value," says Swain. "Someone who was homeless can not only empathise with current service users, but also act as an inspiration to them.

"They see they are being dealt with by someone who is skilled, trained and articulate, and yet was in the same position they now find themselves in."

The scheme was inspired by a visit to the Fortune Academy for ex-offenders in New York in 2003. Just under a third of its workforce are former clients.

"It was something we learned a lot from," says Swain. "One of our clients once said to me that the problem with our staff is that they don't have a built-in bullshit detector. That's the difference with people who have been homeless - they are much more straightforward when they're dealing with people because they've been there and done it themselves. They know when someone isn't telling the truth, so they are better equipped to help."

Swain says not everyone Thames Reach Bondway has taken on has made it through the Grow scheme because its purpose is to train only those people who are capable of performing successfully in a job.

"You're always going to get the odd disaster, but I think that underlines how scrupulous we are being in maintaining our standards," he says. "Some of our staff were cynical about what we were doing at first, but it's not a free passport to a job - we're training people so that they are capable of competing for jobs in this sector.

"Bringing ex-service users through gives you a massive advantage. It is something that should be routinely expected of the sector."

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