Sunday, 19 April 2015

Job #9 Benefits Office

Today's job was getting an insight into the vast roles that combine to provide us with a housing benefit service. This is a scary one to blog about as it’s a rather controversial topic! Obviously I can’t go into any detail about people I met, but it was a very eye opening experience.

The morning started on the 'meet and greet' desk where I observed the huge amount of queries that the staff there have to deal with. I can't imagine what a first day there would feel like! You’re asked everything from can you order me some recycling bags (which FYI if you live in a flat Gravesend you don’t get yet), right through to asking about housing developments to see if there are any potential new properties on the horizon. There are around 3000 people waiting for houses in Gravesend alone, I actually met someone that had made it to number 12 on the list - must be an amazing feeling! Anyway I've got off track. The guys on the front desk certainly cope amazingly under pressure, it's impressive how calm they remain - there was a que to speak to them for most of the hour and that was a quiet day apparently! In the past they have had someone bring in a rat to prove they had a rat infestation, another time someone emptied their rubbish sack in the entrance (I'm informed this kind of thing only happens once a month!). There was however a member of the public having a panic attack this morning which was pretty scary - but the staff took it in their stride…I did help out a little with that. Certainly seems there’s never a dull day!

I'd just like to add I'm writing this in the cafe where the staff have made me feel amazingly welcome (I know some of them now that this is my third week) all whilst there are a group of people singing and playing the guitar - the community feel of this building is great!

Anyway, next was the face to face drop in service where people can get help with their housing benefit. This could be anything from completing their application to informing the council of changes of circumstances. It was quite upsetting how much stress some people were under, some were even crying where they were in circumstances that they were unable to change. I can imagine how stressful trying to do everything that you need to is - especially if you aren't functioning properly which some people wouldn’t be. One person had a small increase in their income which meant that after recalculations taking this into account they actually ended up paying out more than their increase…so lost money!

I know that there is a lot of stigma around people that receive benefits, but as someone who had their life turned upside down beyond my control, I can completely understand that sometimes you end up in a position where no matter how much you would like to, you simply can’t support yourself.

Everyone that I witnessed in my few hours at the counter seemed like they genuinely needed help, one person had actually knowingly not claimed thousands that they were entitled to (they weren’t backdating their claim), but now needed the help of the council.

The team were so kind, and wanted to do everything that they could to help people. If I’m honest that’s not something that I expected, but I guess it is just that they have very strict guidelines that they have to slot people into to decide whether or not they are entitled to help.

The last section of the day, I was allowed to attend a couple of fraud investigation visits. I certainly can’t write anything about these, but all that I will say is that I would definitely not be able to do a job like that as I would want to help everyone! That said, I do realise that unfortunately there are people that abuse the system...otherwise the fraud department wouldn't exist!

I didn’t realise just how many staff it takes to provide us with housing benefit – and that’s just one borough! There are so many aspects to this department of the council, there are even dedicated social media teams to make sure there are as many ways as possible for people to be able to contact the council when they need to

Thanks to Gravesend Council for having me along for the day, it was certainly an interesting day – just a shame I can’t really share the insights that I gained

Job #8 Theatre Usher

Job number 8 was an usher at the theatre. This isn't something that would ever be a paid job at Woodville Halls, although I don't know if there are theatres that would pay for people to do this. The main aspects of the job are to dress smartly (all in black), stand up tall and be polite & helpful to people when they arrive for a show...simples!

The first week I ushered when the ballet was on, and had to show people to their seats. There were 6 of us volunteering that night, volunteers are sent a list of performances and can choose which ones they want to volunteer at (so you can do as much or as little as you like).

About ten minutes after the performance had started we were allowed to sit and watch the show (one of the main reasons a lot of the volunteers do this role). I have to say that I did learn that I don't like ballet, at least I didn't pay for the ticket...that 2 hours felt like 2 days!! Once the show is finished we had to stand by the door and say thank you and goodbye to people leaving then collect up the rubbish left behind. Certainly a nice relaxed way to spend an evening or two

I was really surprised on arrival how theatrical a lot of the people that work there are...makes sense I suppose! It seems most of the people work there for their love of theatre rather than it being a way to pay the bills. There are a huge amount of staff needed to put a show on - bar staff, bar manager, ticket office staff, theatre managers, volunteers, people to sell programmes and greet people at the front door, cafe staff, cleaners, maintenance people, sound engineer plus the people changing the stage between scenes - and I've probably missed some people from the list! So as you can see it is a great deal of work to put on a performance for our enjoyment (or not as the case may be!)

Then there's the director of the show, I can imagine they can be rather difficult to deal with as they are creative people and this is their big vision, so everything has to be perfect!

I spent my second day working as an usher for the cinema, this was even more laid back as people didn't have seat numbers - I did have to tear the strip from the tickets...surprisingly there's definitely an art to that! 

The film that was showing was called 'Still Alice', and is about a lady that develops early onset alzeimers. I'm a cryer at the best of times with films, but this one particularly hit a nerve. If you read my last blog, you will have an idea of some of the memory problems that I experience due to my disorder. I hadn't realised how many similarities there are with the start of alzeimers. It really made me realise that I have a very tiny insight into how that disease feels, and it's definately something that I would like to help people with somehow. Strangely last week someone suggested helping at a monthly cafe that helps people and carers with Alzheimer's and Dementia as one of my jobs...everything happens for a reason!

There's a line in the film where Alice is telling her husband about the suspected diagnosis, and he says it's nothing, I forget things all the time. Her response is - this is different, it's like it's fallen out of my brain. Something that is hard to imagine unless you've experienced it, it really resonated with me. Something else she said was that she wishes she had cancer, as then she wouldn't feel as ashamed and people wear ribbons and raise money for you. Now I certainly don't wish that for a second, however it has certainly been challenging having something that people have no idea about and that from the outside you look absolutely fine.

I had to watch the film twice that day! People's reactions when leaving were really interesting mostly they said how depressing it was - I felt it opens your eyes to the struggles people go through every day! This challenge has really shown me that more people than you would think are fighting a personal battle that as an onlooker you'd have no idea be kind to everyone, you never know what their facing.

The other reaction that I got was 'it's sad if you know someone affected by it', I know that's why it upset me so much - as I had experienced a minute amount of what the character was going through. I found it so interesting to think that I struggle with my memory and yet people I was talking to about the film had absolutely no idea - just shows my point you never know anything about a person unless you take the time to get to know them.

Overall it's an absolutely lovely team at Woodville halls, and everyone made me feel so welcome. If you have spare time and you want to fill it somehow I would definately recommend looking into being an usher at the theatre - you get to meet loads of great people, and watch things you may not usually go and see.