Social "streetwork" - getting closer to the client

Матични улица в городе Устье-на-Эльбе, 2000 г.

A decade ago, back in 1993, a new model of social work called "streetwork" was introduced to the Czech Republic. The idea is to move the act of social assistance from the office desk to the clients themselves - to the street, so to speak. Streetwork began to develop both in the governmental and non-governmental sphere. At first the two sectors did not cooperate much and there was even a certain level of rivalry between them. In today's Talking Point we look at one project of social streetwork where the state and NGOs work in harmony.

Forty-one-year old Anton Pompa works for a charity in the Moravian town of Kojetin. He is also a member of the local Roma community and in his job as a social streetworker, Mr Pompa tries to help those members of the community who have found themselves in difficulty. Eight months ago he enrolled in a special training course for social streetworkers and has just graduated, together with 30 other participants, most of them members of the Roma minority.

"The training has a three-year history. I have taken part in all three years. In the first I was a student and in the other two I myself was able to pass on my experience. Every year the participants are more advanced and motivated than in the year before. It is dynamic and it is still evolving. In the first year, anyone could join but now the competition is tougher, this kind of job is more in demand and the students who've been accepted are more motivated to finish it and graduate successfully."

Says Michal Krocil, a lecturer and the chairman of the examination board at the final exams. Michal is himself a social streetworker. He works for the People in Need Foundation in North Moravia. He taught some of the courses that were part of the training for social streetworkers. The training took place in the town of Zdar nad Sazavou in East Bohemia and the courses included basic law, cooperation with police, communication with the media and explanation of phenomena such as usury, gambling and commercial abuse of children.

Anton Pompa, a fresh graduate of the course, finds the newly acquired knowledge and skills very useful for his job. He explains what his work entails.

"It concerns housing issues, problems with contracts. There is also financial assistance in the form of one-off benefits. The head of our Charity in Kojetin, Klara, teaches families to cook healthily. We have a Roma club, where we teach children school responsibilities, like doing their homework and revising for class. I think it is a long-term job but it is significant. Now that we have successfully finished the course, we will be all the more able to help our clients."

The course was provided by the organisation Drom - the Roma centre in the Moravian city of Brno. The programme was originally organised by the People in Need Foundation. For the second year now, it is run by the state. As for funding, it is partly financed by the Good Will Committee, the UN body UNHCR but mainly by the Czech state.

"This is a government programme, it receives 10 million crowns annually from the state budget. Hopefully, in the future it could receive more."

Jan Jarab is the Czech government's Commissioner for Human Rights. He explains the meaning of social streetwork.

"It is about social work from below, which may seem almost needless to explain to listeners in Western countries because social work is supposed to be from bellow, with the client, individually. But it wasn't the tradition in this country; it wasn't the tradition in the former eastern bloc where social workers were seen as an extended arm of the state bureaucracy - the arm that would bring people to discipline. And we are undergoing a gradual transformation of the whole profession of social work. When I say gradual, I mean we do have many new graduates, including university graduates who are contributing to a shift in emphasis from this supervisory role to the assisting role. But on the other hand, we have many people who are have been in the positions since 20-30 years ago and these people very often carry out their job in much the same job as before 1989. Simply handing out welfare benefits but if the client fails, letting him fail. We say, that it wrong. We believe that is wrong, for instance in the case of the Roma, you need to have a sensitive approach, you need to find out why the client is failing, because there may be a failure of the bureaucracy in the first place. There may be a failure of some culturally insensitive regulation, there may be a failure of communication on the part of the bureaucracy, there may be reasons within the community, such as the fact that people are in debt to other members of their own community and therefore they are unable to pay what they should pay to the state, and if we just apply repressive measures, we will simply aggravate the problem."

Present at this month's graduation ceremony was also Czeslaw Walek, the head of the office of the Czech Government's Council for the Affairs of the Roma Community.

"It is a very important part of our work. We have basically one programme which is devoted only to this social streetwork. And this grant programme is for municipalities. The second programme which is for NGOs and a part of this programme is also social streetwork. Besides we created a working group for social streetwork where together with the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and with municipalities and social workers we tried to develop some kind of system how this programme would be set up in a national strategy."

The Government's Council for the Affairs of the Roma Community runs a number of projects and programmes.

"The other activities are communication with municipalities, we are revising a policy concept of Roma integration, a part of this concept is a policy for housing, healthcare, education etc. Basically, our office tries to be an umbrella for government policy towards Roma integration."

However, Czeslaw Walek says he is aware that there are a lot of stereotypes which influence the attitude of the majority society towards the Roma community and that changing that situation will be a long process.

"I've been in the office just for four months so it's very hard for me to evaluate. On the other hand, I've been trying to monitor the situation for longer than four months and I must say that the attitude is not changing much."

After their successful graduation, the participants of the 3rd year of the special training for social streetworkers, are now looking forward to applying all their new skills in the work for their communities. Anton Pompa from the Moravian town of Kojetin.

"I'm very happy to have learnt all those things, because without the training I would have never been able to do all I need to do with my clients in our area. Before that, my work was kind of empty. I had never worked with Romany clients before and sometimes I did not know how to help them. And the training has helped me to find ways to be of use to my clients."