Sheffield may have developed as a cutlery manufacturing town in the early 18th century but its people have been anything but spoon-fed. Ever since it achieved city status in 1893 it has sought to put citizenship and civic pride – something strongly felt in large northern towns and cities – at the heart of its services. And it is this that is at the root of its seemingly effective services for asylum seekers and refugees.
Following the council taking in asylum seekers during the Kosova crisis, Penny Thompson, executive director of social services, volunteered to take the corporate lead on asylum. As the issue of dealing with asylum seekers became more prominent politically and nationally, it was inevitable that cities such as Sheffield would be expected to play a part. “With our partners in Yorkshire and Humberside, we felt it better to volunteer and have some capacity to shape arrangements,” Thompson says.
A crucial part of that shaping exercise was recognising that although the service was primarily a housing one, there was a strong element of social care and thus the idea of setting up a joint team emerged. “Integration made sense. We didn’t want to have different services in different directorates and end up sending people from pillar to post,” says Thompson.
“We did a lot of work around this and it reached a point where we realised that we couldn’t blend this work in with mainstream services – it needed its own team,” adds Vicki Bennetts, service manager, children and families. Partnerships have also been formed with health services, Connexions, Sure Start, NSPCC, police and voluntary sector organisations.
For all this to click, everyone needed to be in tune with the direction. “Importantly from the outset we have had cross-party support for what we are doing. In the period since we’ve had the asylum seekers team there have been changes in the political control of the authority but there has been no change in the shared commitment to our approach. And I think that’s been critical,” says Thompson.
Equally important Sheffield has taken an active approach with the media. “We’ve sought to tell our story rather than hide ourselves away and be subject to myths, I suppose. And in the main I think that’s worked well,” says Thompson, who has appeared on radio and local television putting the positive case forward.
This has seemingly helped to debunk myths of six-bedroom homes and £500 a week cash hand-outs. Thompson continues: “We have been saying that we have been sustaining this programme through government funding – so people don’t think all this is being done at their expense. It hasn’t been about taking money away from services for the people in Sheffield. Also the accommodation we use is that which we have otherwise found difficult to let.”
As the asylum team’s workload expanded so has the team. “We’ve recruited family support carers alongside social workers, as well as a social worker who provides assessment and support for carers of unaccompanied asylum seeker children,” says Bennetts.
One of the asylum team’s most important attributes is its approachability. “We have a drop-in service and quite a number of young people do just pop in for a chat. It’s interesting sometimes they think of our office here as home. One young person recently got hurt and he ran here because he felt safe here,” says Helen Kendall, asylum team manager, social work.
Giving people a sense of home is crucial. “We have a proud record of all our looked-after under-16s being placed with racially and culturally appropriate carers within the city. They are with carers of their own community and, importantly, people who speak their first language,” says Bennetts.
A further example is that families move into properties that can be seen as their own and which have been newly decorated and furnished, rather than being housed in bed and breakfast accommodation.
Kendall is particularly proud of an ordinary residential house that is home for three young women. It is staffed by residential social worker Daphne Curate. “I see myself as a surrogate mum – getting close to the girls. Sometimes I’ll cook a meal and we’ll eat together like a family. Other nights we’ll just have girlie nights-in. I really love it. It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” she says. The young women who live there feel similarly about Curate. One of them, Blanche, says: “I like living here. Daphne is like a mum to me.” Another, Cohgoxi, says: “I’ve been here three months and the living together is very good. I like it!”
Kendall adds: “Very often Daphne is here when the girls get home – like their mums used to be. And that’s very important for them – they need that and it makes them feel more secure. It’s as much Daphne’s presence as anything else.”
Another popular service is the Tuesday Club which meets at a city centre youth club between 4pm and 6pm. This provides a time for social interaction, informal access to staff, discussion and debate and – significantly – a culturally appropriate meal. “They come straight from college and there’s a range of activities – basketball, football, pool and table tennis. And there’s the food,” says Kendall. Five young Arab and Somali people who regularly attend were clearly getting on well together laughing and joking, and all agreed the club is a fun place to use: “It’s really good,” said one.
Recently, another group for 16-17 year olds has been set up. This was partly the result of a group of African young people wanting to meet together to explore their history, culture and need for refuge.
These schemes are in place to foster a sense of community and, of course, to give young people something to do. The decision to issue all unaccompanied asylum seeking children with leisure passes giving them free access to the city’s recreational facilities was also to do with ensuring young people are occupied. As Thompson says: “If we don’t have drop-ins or give people things to do they hang about. And unfortunately in today’s society if more than three men stand about together then that is seen as intimidating.” The passes help keep the young people occupied and healthy. However, as Bennetts points out the passes, although free, have to be earned: “They will only get one if they are in school or college. And they have to put in a month’s attendance before they become eligible.”
“It is a reward for educational attendance,” says Kendall, “as is the free bus pass. These rewards are very effective in getting people to do things, but they are mostly very motivated – I think only four people over the past 16 months have refused to attend college or work-based learning schemes.”
Indeed, education is seen as a free pass in itself: a pass to a better life. “The children want to do well – so education is seen as a positive thing to pursue,” says Kendall.
“Some of the young people have been an inspiration,” adds Thompson. “Their commitment and desire to do well is incredible. They have come to our schools and in a couple of years have learned a language and picked up a spate of GCSEs – they can only have a tremendous effect on schools.”
One school with a previous less-than-shining Ofsted report found itself being commended in its most recent report for the way asylum seeking children have been integrated into the mainstream. It’s that ethic of inclusiveness again.
The young people also have an undeniable motivation to give something back. Indeed, the latest plan hatched by two family support workers is to lead two groups of unaccompanied asylum seeking children in carrying out voluntary work as part of the South Yorkshire police “Lifestyle awards” over the coming summer holidays. This will hopefully offer the young people the chance to be seen making a positive commitment to the local community, reinforce a positive image of asylum seekers and raise their self esteem.
For those seeking asylum, the streets of Sheffield may not be paved with gold (or stainless steel for that matter), but the welcome, commitment and quality of services available have a priceless ring about them. The way services were shaped along simple lines of inclusiveness and outcomes is what glisters impressively. As Thompson says: “This was a service where we could practice what we preached.”
Scheme: Asylum seekers team.
Location: Sheffield, South Yorkshire.
Staffing: The corporate asylum team has 28 staff. The social work side includes a team manager, five social workers, one part-time social worker who specialises in the assessment and support of foster carers, four family support workers and one seconded residential social worker.
Inspiration: To integrate unaccompanied asylum-seeking children into the community.
Cost: All work is funded through Home Office grant.