Trading places: How the other half live
Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Featured
Trading places: How the other half live
American novelist Harper Lee famously wrote: “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” Chris Munday (pictured, left), director of care and support at Midland Heart and customer Neil McGrath (right), a resident at Lichfield Foyer, put this idea to the test and lived each others’ lives for four days. Stephanie Sparrow reports.
When Chris Munday paraphrased one of the most famous lines from ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ to some Midland Heart customers, he started a chain of events which would give him greater insight into their lives.
“I was talking to a diverse group of residents who were going on a Calvert Trust [activity] weekend,” he explains. “I said ‘this is your opportunity to walk in other peoples’ shoes.’ One of the group turned to me and said ‘what about walking in our shoes for couple of days’?”
Munday, who is director of care and support at Midland Heart where he is responsible for 6,600 care and support properties and 1,000 staff put the customer’s idea into action this summer.
He and Neil McGrath, a resident at Lichfield Foyer, shared their typical days. McGrath wore a suit and joined Munday in head office meetings for two days in July, and, one month later, Munday donned casual clothes and lived through two days in McGrath’s life, looking for work, joining in Foyer activities and shopping on a tight budget.
Neither party lived in with the other because of the impact on voids (empty rooms). “I would have felt uncomfortable occupying bed space which possible clients might need”, says Munday.
McGrath, 21, had lived at Lichfield Foyer since March 2010. He had experienced short periods of homelessness and sofa-surfing at friends’ homes after losing his job in a warehouse and consequently his private rented accommodation.
This experience has dented McGrath’s self-confidence and he admits that he felt anxious at first. “I was a bit nervous at the beginning of the swap but my key worker was on hand and Chris was really welcoming and friendly right from the start; he put me at ease and was so calm about everything.”
Munday picked up on McGrath’s unease. “Neil was shy. He anticipated that people would be brighter than him, and that he would feel detached from everything.” But this sense of dislocation brought a fresh perspective and the ability to see Midland Heart through new eyes, which Munday appreciated.
“Neil came with me from meeting to meeting”, says McGrath. “He made a useful observation about jargon, and asked me why we spoke a language which other people may not understand. This is a good point.”
McGrath felt himself gaining in confidence throughout the two days, even though he admits he felt “drained” at the end of them.
“Attending meetings and visiting other projects with Chris I liked the way people were looking at me. I like the fact that Chris was so respected, and that rubbed off on me and has made me feel like I would like to be respected like him one day too.”
Seeing effective communicators at work and being introduced to chief executive Tom Murtha, are experiences which McGrath hopes to harness when he talks about homelessness issues on school visits in the Lichfield area.
“I feel the confidence I gained in the two days I spent with Chris has helped me to deliver my bit in the schools’ presentations I do with Foyer staff because I am more confident in my manner,” he explains. “I also have the confidence to apply for jobs I probably wouldn’t have before. All they can say is ‘no’.”
The second part of the swap meant that Munday spent two days on McGrath’s territory at the Lichfield Foyer. Both are honest about the benefits of this.
“I think it was a lot easier than when I went to Birmingham as I knew Chris a bit better and was able to be much more relaxed around him; I think I was less anxious, as Chris was on my turf,” says McGrath.
Munday was pleased to be in his customer’s setting. “It was helpful to meet in an environment which is not my own because, although we have regular forums with customers, I wanted to experience what life is like for them. I think it is important to be reminded of that and to feel some of that.”
This two-day period started with the pair catching the bus together to Eagle House (a 32-bed hostel in Stafford) in order to attend a young persons residents’ meeting.
“This took an hour and twenty minutes; the bus was full, cramped and really hot and the journey was uncomfortable. I don’t think Chris enjoyed travelling by bus; I think it had been a while since he had been on a bus and he thought it was really expensive,” says McGrath.
The bus journey was an eye-opener for Munday (“I realised how it could take a large chunk out of the day”) while the residents’ meeting, which discussed Midland Heart matters and external news events, confirmed his positive perceptions of young people.
“They were good at giving feedback on our internal policies but also I was impressed by their discussions on the recent riots. They were both disgusted at what they had seen and were thinking about how to rebuild the reputations of young people. They wanted to find a way to publicise positive stories about young people and I want to think about this too
“So many of those at the meeting are bright and articulate people - we have an A-level student there who is going to university.”
The life skills session which followed was based around cooking a lunch for four people on a budget of £15, which was then judged.
“Our menu of chicken curry and Eton mess didn’t win, but it was good fun,” says Munday.
Luckily they were able to avoid another bus journey. “We were both happy when we were offered a lift home by a staff member at the Eagle,” says McGrath.
Back at the flat Munday realised that empty hours lay ahead. “I’m used to being busy all day,” he says, “but for someone like Neil there was nothing to do. This was part of the experience for me, but I couldn’t survive like that hour after hour.”
The struggles facing unemployed young people made an impression the next day too.
“We went to the Job Centre where I was struck by the lack of jobs. And if you see an opportunity you can’t use the phone or email - it all felt very unhelpful.”
McGrath adds: “Chris managed to find two security jobs for me there that I later sent my CV off to.”
Leading Neil’s life for the rest of the day meant that they did what he usually does next - walk around the town until it was time to meet his mother and aunts for a weekly lunch.
“Lichfield isn’t very big. It didn’t take long to wander around, so we walked around twice”, Munday explains. “But we enjoyed the lunch and it was good to see that Neil and his mum maintain a positive relationship.”
Food shopping on McGrath’s budget of £20 for a fortnight was the next challenge.
“It is do-able and he has to do it, but I was shocked to see that a standard loaf or pack of butter constitute luxuries and the impact that even the smallest price changes can make,” says Munday. “Neil looks for bargains, such as 11p packets of noodles.”
Storing the food can be awkward. The experience has encouraged Munday to raise the issue of new fridge- freezers for the flats, because he noticed that although residents find frozen food more economical, the current models have a large fridge and small freezer.
“If Neil buys a bag of chips this takes up half the freezer space. This is significant because it can be more cost- effective to buy frozen food.
“The whole experience brought home to me the problem of living on benefits and the potential boredom”, says Munday. “I could see how soul-destroying that would be and how your internal clock would slip with the boredom and the emptiness. For example after lunch we played on Neil’s Xbox in his room. That’s what he does, hour after hour.”
Munday admits that he first thought of the Xbox as a luxury (because of its implications for McGrath’s electricity bill) but he changed his mind.
“I realised that if he didn’t have the Xbox he would be isolated from his peer group. When he started talking to someone in Walsall and said to him ‘mate let’s park up the [virtual] cars and chat’, I realised that the way Neil socialises meant nothing to me. It taught me that I don’t know their world.”
The experience ended with the pair cooking an evening meal with some other Foyer residents. For his part, McGrath appreciated the insight into the workings of Midland Heart and the one-to-one conversations with Munday, both about life at the Foyer, family and friendships.
“Chris spoke to me and treated me as an equal and asked me questions about my life and sounded really interested. He was open with me about both his work and personal life and I felt that I was able to be open with him about mine.”
Munday says that the initiative has fuelled his ambition to provide “more services that make a difference” and to step up Midland Heart’s plans to stimulate employment, like the forthcoming Snow and Frost cupcake bakery in Birmingham which will offer training opportunities and employment.
“I think the time I spent with Chris gave me a better understanding of his life, but did I walk in both of his shoes? No. I was probably in one of them”, he says.
Name: Neil McGrath
Work history: Warehouse operative, currently job- hunting
Hobbies: Xbox. Would like to return to previous hobby of Motocross when back in employment.
Ambitions: To find work, preferably in security
Name: Chris Munday
Work history: joined Prime Focus, which merged with Keynote to form Midland Heart, in April 2003. He had been with Stonham HA from 1990, initially as project manager, then becoming service manager and finally regional director.
Hobbies: Reading, walking and watching Spurs - “the team I grew up with in London”.
Ambitions: “In my personal life my ambition is for my five children to do well, but all you can do is encourage, guide and hope. In my professional life I want to continue to offer opportunities and services to people, who may be marginalised or isolated, which will help to change their lives.”