Monday, December 31, 2012

Report of Findings:

 Staff / Client Relations
Observations:  The staff / client relationship begins from a place of mistrust. It does not matter how welcoming, friendly and pleasant you may be, your motives are immediately assumed questionable because you are staff. To win the clients’ trust we must present with integrity; you can be the meanest S.O.B. in the building… and the clients will still respect you, if you always take a hard-line. It is equally true, that you can be Mary Poppins and as long as they can count on consistency from you… you will gain their respect and co-operation. Ideally though most staff conduct will fall somewhere in between; firm but fair, respectful and kind with all clients.
         I found staff often had unrealistic expectations for client behaviour… beyond what they would expect from anyone in a regular world environment. Don’t use curse words, don’t be cranky when staff wakes you up, don’t bicker with other residents and don’t intentionally or unintentionally break a rule. Reality check !! Clients are just people and what is reasonable behaviour in any household is the kind of behaviour you are going to see in a shelter.
         The most striking observation was how the architecture of a building impacts staff /client relations. The most significant interactions between clients and staff come from casual encounters. Shelters with open common areas (drop-in style environments) where staff could join the clients for cards, crafts or just a cup of coffee; foster better interactions then the T.V. sitting room environment. In many shelters the staff are relegated to bull-pen style reception area buffering a small bank of offices. This style proved to be quite workable, but required a few considerations be given to accessibility and traffic flow. 
The Lookout Shelter in Vancouver B.C. had an L-shaped counter separating staff from clients but, the isle in front of the counter was wide enough that people could easily pass by when a client stopped at the desk to engage in a conversation with staff.  It was a very effective system for a facility with no common (conversational areas).  A similar bull-pen situation existed at Shepherds of Good Hope in Ottawa with the addition of counter to ceiling Plexiglas … the barrier could have been made of brick and been no more effective in alienating and dividing staff and clients. 
            I never witnessed any inappropriate interaction between staff and clients… but of course if it was inappropriate, measures would be taken by those involved, to keep it secret. As a client I was privy to confessions of undue attachment by clients toward individual staffers. On these occasions I would caution the client that they were misreading the staff person’s intention.
Conclusions: It would be my conclusion that not enough attention is paid to facilitating meaningful counselor/client style relationships between frontline staff and clients.  Frontline staff has the most interaction with clients and properly trained can be a great asset in monitoring changes in client behaviour as well as encouraging forward action for individual clients.   
Recommendations:  First when purchasing, renting or renovating a space… paramount consideration should be as to how it will facilitate or block staff / client interaction.  If your staff feels the need to protect themselves behind Plexiglas … they need to find a new line of work. The best protection you will ever have, is a good relationship with the clients.  That is not to say that there should not be a safety zone of some sort where staff could retreat too in the unlikely event of a riot… (Probably triggered by a comet hitting the building). Truthfully a well trained staff will be able to de-escalate and resolve any incident long before it reaches a crisis level.
             Proper training is a difficult issue to address. Degrees (book learnin’ as my granny called it) are very important, but street smarts (experiential learning) are also important, knowing the culture you are working with and respecting those norms will gain you the respect you need to encourage a client to move forward. The best staff you can hope for are both street smart and book smart.
            Requiring a former “street-person” to acquire certification in counseling or social work before taking a position in client care, provides the best staffing option; equally a book smart kid needs the benefit of situational training by experienced staff. Who should mentor is matter of their relationship with the clients, NOT YEARS of SERVICE; many long time employees would be best suited to the role of security guards. I am not sure that, “How to choose staff  mentors” falls under the scope of this paper … so until advised otherwise I will end here.
         Every staff person working with vulnerable clients needs to ensure that they and the client are clear as to the nature and scope of their relationship.  This is the only boundary issue any of us has as a worker… we do not need to worry about gossip or someone else’s idea of boundaries.  If your client is clear on were your professional interest begins and ends…he/she will only grow from your support and commitment.  Misunderstandings will cause confusion, humiliation and setbacks for already vulnerable people.

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