People Management: Giving service users a chance to grow

Indira Das-Gupta

A homelessness charity aims to employ the people it exists to help.

Thames Reach Bondway has spent £533,000 on a scheme to recruit the people it was first set up to help. The aim of Giving Real Opportunities for Work is to ensure that by 2007, 10 per cent of the charity's workforce consists of people who are or have been homeless.

The charity is developing 12 traineeships for people in front-line emergency or hostel accommodation, or people who have formerly slept rough.

Bill Tidnam, the charity's director of housing and community support, insists that the scheme does not constitute positive discrimination. He says: "It's about levelling the playing field. When we looked at our recruitment practices, we realised that we were unintentionally discriminating against homeless people.

"For example, a requirement of all our posts was that applicants had to have experience of working with homeless people. We have amended that and we now ask for people to have 'demonstrable experience of the issue'."

Being or having been homeless will not be enough to guarantee someone a traineeship, however. Tidnam explains: "We will turn people away if we feel they are not ready for it. At the same time, we will be concentrating on people's potential rather than what they have or haven't done in the past."

Thames Reach Bondway is not the first charity to actively recruit from service users. Disability charity Scope wants 20 per cent of its workforce to consist of disabled people by 2007, a steep rise from the present 4 per cent. The main way in which it plans to achieve this is through reserved posts.

Some charities, however, take the view that reserved posts can be counter-productive. A spokeswoman for the RNID says: "We believe in equal opportunities and employ the best person for the job in order to maintain our competitiveness."

About 11.6 per cent of the RNID's workforce is deaf or hard of hearing, compared with the 14.2 per cent of the wider population who fall into this category.

The only position that requires its applicants to have British Sign Language (BSL) as their first language is that of BSL tutor. But as the spokeswoman explains: "It does happen that deaf parents have children who are able to hear - in that case, the children could still apply for the post even though they were not deaf.

"Even without reserved posts, we have a lot of deaf and hard of hearing people working for us because we give them the support they need and offer them an opportunity to shine."

Thames Reach Bondway believes that its new scheme will also give homeless people the chance to prove what they can really do. Tidnam says: "We believe that through the traineeships we will produce employees who really are the best people for the job."

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