Holding the Strings to the Safety Net
26 June 2014 at 9:47 am
For many people in the community facing life’s challenges, their web of social connections can be threadbare, writes Fiona McLeay, CEO of Justice Connect.
It’s interesting to step back and think about the web of social connections that support us in our daily lives. They can range from the simple – feeding the cat or the dog – to the important – looking after children – to the critical – an emergency loan to pay for urgent health care.
These sorts of social supports are almost invisible for those of us who have them; they can be assumed and even taken for granted. However, there are times when this kind of simple, practical connection makes the difference between success and failure.
For many of our Justice Connect clients, this social net is threadbare. As they face life’s challenges, the threads unravel.
‘Stanley’ had been homeless for many years, sleeping rough, between friends and family and in crisis accommodation. Two years ago he successfully obtained a community housing property. But his struggles with anger management and alcohol continued.
Despite undertaking to cease being disruptive, further incidents had resulted in a strong prospect that Stanley would be evicted. The relationship with his housing provider, even on Stanley’s admission, had become untenable. His safety net was threadbare. He had alienated his one last shot at avoiding homelessness.
At this point and facing eviction yet again, Stanley sought the assistance of Justice Connect’s Homeless Law service. We began to weave some of the threads of his net back together.
With the help of our pro bono lawyers, he avoided being evicted back into homelessness, or having court ordered restrictions on his behaviour. Our social worker found him new accommodation with a community organisation, to make a fresh start.
The housing came with a requirement to participate in weekly voluntary work and the possibility for engagement in employment after stabilising in the new accommodation.
He vacated the property willingly the day prior to the Possession Order hearing and spent Christmas settling in to his new place.
Since moving out of the property, Stanley stays in touch with old neighbours there. A few months ago he told us that he is really happy in his new place and with the opportunities it has given him; along with volunteering, he is working a few hours a week at a local business.
Stanley is a refugee from Africa. Both his parents were murdered there and his sister was also injured in the conflict. He fled with his uncle when he was just 17 and then eventually emigrated to Australia. Since arriving, he worked for a period but was then a victim of an armed robbery whilst working at a service station. He suffers from PTSD as a result of these experiences.
Many of the people who find their way to Justice Connect are like Stanley. For most of us – those of us reading Pro Bono Australia News for example, our safety nets are pretty robust, able to catch us if things go off track. But Stanley’s situation was perpetually fragile, his net was frayed, and there was no room for anything to go wrong.
Picture a simple “safety net”. Horizontal strings in the net represent factors that you have little or no control over, including whether you grew up knowing both parents, any physical illnesses, whether you’ve experienced abuse and whether or not you’ve ever been discriminated against on the basis of your race, gender or ethnicity.
Vertical strings represent factors that you have some control over, but which are rooted in the horizontal threads we have. These include whether you have a university education, a job, access to a car, a good credit record, substance use problems or involvement with the justice system.
Everyone who works in community and social support services is part of our community safety net. You might be a lawyer who has done pro bono work. Or perhaps you work for a community legal centres or in the welfare sector. You might be a part of an organisation or a philanthropic foundation that funds the work of these organisations, including ours.
This is the way that the safety net works – it relies on a web of interconnecting people and organisations who are willing to work together to make sure vulnerable, disadvantaged and marginalised people don’t slip through the net. We’re here because we don’t want our society to be like that – and because we recognise that, there but for the grace of God, go you and I.
*Justice Connect provides access to pro bono legal assistance to people experiencing disadvantage (and the groups that support them) who are unable to pay for legal help or get assistance from another source. Justice Connect programs include MOSAIC, Seniors Law, Homeless Law and NFP Law. More about Justice Connect at www.justiceconnect.org.au
About the Author: Fiona McLeay is Chief Executive Officer of Justice Connect. McLeay started her career in commercial law. She was also the first General Counsel to be appointed at World Vision and has been awarded international scholarships at Harvard and NYU and in 2012 was appointed Deputy Chair of the inaugural Advisory Board to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission.