Helping families find hope and courage to change

Sudha Nair For The Straits Times

What should social workers do with a family that spends $500 on cigarettes and cable TV, yet applies for financial aid? Questioning the poor on their needs and choices is part of helping them.

In a recent article, sociologist Teo You Yenn painted a bleak picture of the conditions rental flat dwellers live in (Let’s talk about meeting needs, not just equality of opportunity; ST May 30). She argued, among other things, that insufficient space can lead to children being open to negative influence and that the process of getting help can cause families living in rental flats to lose their dignity because they are often asked demeaning questions.

As a practising social worker of 32 years, I started my career working with disadvantaged families. In the last five years, my team of social workers and I have worked at the Housing Board’s Bedok Interim Rental Housing (IRH) project, also called P4650 after the two blocks the families lived in. These are our experiences with them.

The residents of P4650 comprised three groups: families waiting for a rental flat; families in financial straits and downgrading to smaller flats which were still being built; and families ineligible for public rental flats but unable to afford their own housing.

Many of these families were overwhelmed and left with little family support, having exhausted the goodwill of relatives and friends. Some were living on the beach or in parks before arriving at the IRH. Most were previous home owners who had sold their flats for various reasons, spent the proceeds, and then became homeless.

We had the daunting task of getting these families permanent housing. At least a quarter of the families had deep-rooted, multiple problems such as untreated medical and mental illness, addictions, entrenched financial problems, incarceration and severe family conflicts.

We tried to help these families prioritise their most pressing problems before working on their housing goals.

Another challenge was a group of families who only wanted tangible aid – financial help, food rations, rental and utility vouchers. Put bluntly, they were saying to us: “Just give us what we want and leave us alone.”

They resisted discussing their problems. A few became angry and abusive when social workers suggested meetings. It was difficult, but we persevered because these families needed help, too.

At P4650, we learnt the complexities these families presented – lessons that caution against painting a simplistic picture of rental flat dwellers with a broad brush.

FAMILY PORTRAITS

Let me share some of our takeaways.

All parents have dreams for their children. Yet, many disadvantaged families feel that having such dreams is beyond them. Some stay angry and disappointed with their lot in life.

We found that getting parents to express their hopes and vision for their families was critical in bringing about change. For some, it meant saying: “I wish we could have our own flat.” For others: “I wish I could afford to send my children for enrichment classes or overseas trips.”

Once a parent articulated such hopes, the social workers could discuss options to make seemingly unattainable dreams come true, working out solutions, and identifying the resources needed.

This co-creation of solutions was possible even for the most challenging families. For example, we worked intensively with a jobless and angry mother of three who depended on financial aid and food rations for three years while her husband was in jail. She expressed hope for her children to get a good education. It took some effort to show her that having a job would enable her to buy an HDB flat and provide her children with a more secure environment.

She found work, went on to buy a two-room flat, and stopped relying on handouts. After his release from prison, her husband found work, and the family income rose.

Then there was a father of five who earned $1,600 a month and refused help because he felt it was his duty to provide for his family. To save expenses, he wanted his oldest son to quit school. The boy, a top student at the Institute of Technical Education, was devastated.

We persuaded the father to let his son finish his education, with help to pay the fees.

We worked with Workforce Singapore to get the father started on a diploma course which could help him double his income. He agreed to accept temporary financial aid while he finished his diploma.

Those efforts paid off, and the family left the IRH to move into their own three-room flat. It was small, but it was theirs.

Social workers are sometimes faulted for asking seemingly intrusive questions and for their obsession with genograms and ecomaps (that, respectively, map a person’s family and friendship networks) and income and expenditure assessments. Asking good questions and using tools appropriately are in fact relevant and important. They are vital to understanding how families make decisions, and the various roles that family members play.

QUESTIONING SPENDING CHOICES AND NEEDS

We have seen many families make poor choices. They need help to assess their needs and wants.

Needs fall along a continuum, and there is a difference between a felt need (a perceived need), a normative need (a desirable standard), a comparative need (when two groups with similar characteristics do not receive similar service), and an expressed need (a felt need turned into action). A social worker helps families differentiate between these different types of needs.

Yes, we ask questions. And yes, we ask how families strapped for cash spend the little money they have. What do you do when you find the man of the house is a regular smoker, and feels he is entitled to that lifestyle choice? And what if his family is also paying for a full slew of cable television channels? Should social workers not question such a family spending $500 a month on cigarettes and cable TV while at the same time applying for financial aid?

Some say it would be “judgmental” of us to advise him to stop smoking; that we would undermine his dignity.

In this instance, the man of the house did indeed respond by becoming angry and abusive. But that cannot make social workers desist from asking such questions. Not least because public support for social assistance schemes will wane if the public is convinced social workers are spending taxpayers’ money and donations with no conditions.

How can one justify not advising a person to stop smoking while we routinely advise our children, and doctors their patients, about the risks of smoking? Are we being “judgmental” when we do so?

Several months after that angry man stormed out of our office, he returned ready to relook his spending habits and make the necessary changes to get his family out of the IRH.

It took nine months before he was ready to act. The family finally moved out of the IRH to their own four-room HDB flat. Their income has risen to more than $4,000 a month. Grateful for the help they received, the couple have become grassroots volunteers.

If we say the poor should be spared hard questions or being challenged, and be given help without conditions, we would in effect be conceding that such families are hopeless and helpless. A cardinal principle in social work is that everyone has the potential to do well and social workers harness that potential.

Granted, change is uncomfortable. It demands learning new ways of behaving, and discarding old ones. So some families will resist change, preferring to persist with familiar habits. If truth be told, there is no shortage of help schemes to let families remain as they are.

But significant change was possible at P4650 because everyone worked together, and the families experienced hope, believed that change, although difficult, was possible and were willing to act once provided with information and workable options. We drew on many formal and informal organisations to make things happen.

The IRH site closed in April this year. In all, 1,183 families passed through our doors.

Approximately half the families went on to buy flats and fewer than half went on to rental housing. A small number chose to find their own housing or returned to live with relatives. These outcomes were far better than expected.

Some families who moved out earlier returned to the IRH to help others, in ways that facilitated them to get back on their feet. For example, one single mother came back to teach IRH mothers baking skills, so that they could make some extra money the way she did when times were tough.

P4650 was intensive and hard for the families and everyone involved.

But the true picture is one of continuous engagement, with many lives changed because families had the humility to acknowledge problems and the courage to change.

• Sudha Nair is executive director of Pave, a specialist centre that works on issues of family violence, child protection and disadvantaged families. She led Pave at Siglap, the team that worked at the Bedok Interim Rental Housing project.

Source: The Straits Times, Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction.