Visit to the Barka Foundation in Poland by John Downie, Singles Project Manager and James Morris, Alcohol Strategy Coordinator from LBHF and David Fisher, Director of Services from Broadway.
A deputation from London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham visited the Polish Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) the Barka Foundation in and around its headquarters in the Polish city of Poznan. The borough was considering entering into a contract with Barka to offer an outreach and reconnection service for destitute and vulnerable A8 migrants on its streets. This visit was made in order to ensure that reconnection would be an appropriate and effective response to the borough’s own inability, because of restrictions on the use of public funds, to intervene in the deteriorating condition of A8 street drinkers & rough sleepers.
Poland after Communism
Following the end of the communist era Poland had, in common with many former soviet countries where the state provided everything, a vacuum of NGO agencies and social services responsible for the provision of a “safety net” for those people who failed to thrive in the new era of free enterprise.
In the absence of the formerly highly protectionist social policies and deliberate over-employment in unproductive labour there is now significant long term unemployment. Unemployment rates in Poland were at 20% at their height but have, following the Westward migration, fallen to 15%.
Barka Foundation – Origins & Growth
The Barka Foundation was one of the earliest entrants into the NGO vacuum and has developed a national and international profile. In order to make progress Barka have not only had to develop their capacity they have also had to influence change in the legislative environment in order to make some of their efforts possible.
Barka is clearly motivated by an underlying Christian ethos but describe themselves as a secular agency. This ethos has a modern interpretation that is founded on a belief in self-help and is unfettered by the Victorian era version of Christian charity, still so common in the UK today, that has a palliative approach as its heart. The UK’s congestion of agencies may offer an option of methodologies that commonly respond to need but do not require any commitment to change. This therefore encourages service users to choose “paths of least resistance”.
Freedom from operating within such a environment may have contributed to Barka’s high level of engagement with at least 50 thousand individuals (who have taken advantage of the Barka system directly for the last 10 years), having allowed them to develop programmes where no expectation of a free lunch exists and where service users contribute to Barka’s delivery and deelopment. Although resources available to deal with social inclusion are limited they have not had to be divided to the level of ineffectiveness in order to keep different stakeholders happy.
Freedom from rules & regulations has been both a burden and a benefit to Barka. The lack of legislation defining the status of social enterprises had, for example, made it difficult to bring such entities into being and therefore to raise capital to support them. Barka has therefore had to spend a lot of effort on influencing and informing legislators toward making it legally possible to do the work that needed to be done.
Getting something done may, however, have been made somewhat easier by the relative lack of UK (&EU) regulations and requirements around such things as employment or building standards.
Operational Philosophy & Methodology
Self-help was built into the foundations of Barka’s approach and is evident across all services. It is common for relatively senior figures to have once been service users. The case for this is repeatedly made that those who are socially excluded lose belief in their own capacity for change and it is only those who have also experienced such a sense of “being on the outside” or being an alcoholic who can truly win their trust and confidence.
Problematic drug use is not anywhere nearly as evident as in the UK but it was reported to be on the rise.
There is a strong indication that an offer of help comes with the expectation or even a desire for an active contribution to the running of the services on offer – through cleaning, the use of trade skills and so forth. This heavy reliance on volunteers and the use of service users as volunteers also helps to keep costs down.
A further benefit may arise in that there was strong evidence of service users and ex-service users being willing to take an active part in the management and governance of their projects and services. This has encouraged a level of activism within wider community regeneration and development initiatives.
No one seen in the short 3 day visit either on the streets or in any of the shelters appeared short of food. All have access to health care. Long term unemployment and resultant increases in the consumption of alcohol were held to be the most significant reasons for social exclusion. Unemployment benefits are available for 6 months only after a sustained period of employment lasting at least a year.
Active work with Barka is only considered for those who are prepared to engage and to address their problems. People who suffer from alcoholism must address their drinking by achieving abstinence. Ready access to an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) service is available throughout Poland but it is the only approach that was evident and would appear a reflection of a national picture. One service user proudly stated Poland had the largest AA movement in Europe and another informed us there were 5 Polish speaking AA groups in London already. Detox and rehabilitation services are also in evidence. Access to settled accommodation will not therefore be allowed unless people are prepared to get on the path to abstinence.
Recidivism was acknowledged as an eternal problem but one that would not result in immediate ejection from services, however, persistence in such conduct would. Barka repeatedly made the point that at no stage did they feel that anyone was totally beyond help and they would readily readmit someone who was formerly excluded but they must first be prepared to help themselves. Some of their success stories describe people who have had up to 30 or 40 alcohol detoxes before sustaining abstinence for prolonged periods and rebuilding their lives.
It is not possible to ascertain the degree to which successful engagement may be supported by the lack of viable alternatives. There were no alcohol-tolerant accommodation services apparent and there are no on-going state benefits available to support an addiction. The influence of such factors may however be considerable.
Barka have implemented a comprehensive model across different types and levels of social inclusion ranging from outreach to street drinking rough sleepers to the long term unemployed. This model has been replicated in nearly 200 urban and rural settings across Poland.
Street outreach has access to night shelters with move-on to more settled hostels. Hostel dwellers and non-hostel dwellers may join social inclusion centres in order to combat social isolation. Social inclusion centres have links to other Centres with an accent on skills training. Skills afforded may range from basic literacy and numeracy all the way through to specific vocational skills, with work training programmes geared to local employment markets. Examples of all of these services (with the exception of street outreach) were visited. Accommodation standards ranged from large hostel dormitories to self-contained family homes. Space standards appeared smaller and level of occupancy higher than in equivalent services in the UK. High levels of sharing were the accepted norm.
Perhaps the ultimate level was social enterprises formed around a group of service users who work well together. Initially provided with advice and coaching these enterprises would eventually “float off” as independent commercial enterprises. Two farms and a rowing boat/pedallo hire centre were visited as examples of these. Both farms had been given to Barka by the government. They had formerly been collective farms providing unproductive work to perhaps 40 people and were now being run by around 5 people per farm.
One farm visited drew its workers from nearby social housing that had been former derelict army barracks until it had been redeveloped by Barka. An adjacent block of flats was operated as a hotel, staffed by ex service users and had accommodated many visits from other Eastern Bloc countries who wished to see Barka’s services in action.
The farm itself was operated on a completely organic basis. This was a step ahead of the Polish market where the desire for organic products was insufficiently developed to offer a premium outlet. However, the farm had an interdependent relationship with other such farms and with other Barka services. A catering vocational traineeship, for example, would purchase its entire foodstuff from such farms. Livestock was traded between farms at what was described as “fair price”. Here and elsewhere in Barka there was this inherent compromise between the creation of a genuinely independent profit-generating enterprise and the provision to the poor of an otherwise inaccessible social service of some kind.
The farm seemed a positive happy place and was staffed by people who obviously enjoyed the work. Production was shortly to begin on site of organic pasta, the buildings and equipment for this having been largely commissioned.
The other farm visited was a different affair altogether. Accommodation was poor in contrast to the first farm. It was explained that this farm had been operating for a much shorter period of time and started with very little. The people who worked here were much closer to the reasons that brought them to Barka. All but the farm manager’s accommodation was cramped and very basic. The manager had ambitious plans for further developments on the farm and when the farm’s condition and livestock were referred to, the response provoked was “you should have seen it 5 years ago”. It was nonetheless commendable that Barka should be prepared to show not only those initiatives that were clear examples of success but also those still struggling to find a foothold. In this and in the lack of corporate “branding” of all such efforts by Barka was the implicit expectation that having been equipped with the necessary basic support and resources, each social enterprise was expected to stand on its own.
These separate stages of the journey towards inclusion are located in different physical environments. This is enviable as it brings together people who are at different starting points or at roughly the same stage in that journey and avoids mixing with people who have not made the same level of progress.
Barka & the Polish Media
Barka seemed very popular with the media, their work providing a popular contrast to government policy. This is not surprising given (it was announced at a meeting of local politicians and community representatives) that the money levered into regeneration and social inclusion by Barka from the EU more than rivalled that within the direct regional government investment. European money was having a very direct and visible impact on the quality of life for poor Polish people and on the future prospects for their children.
Everybody, it seemed, knew somebody who had gone to the UK in search of work. Among the young a good command of English was common but in older poorer people this was the exception rather than the rule. But despite the risks involved many were prepared to make the journey for reasons that seemed often as much to escape problems in Poland as because of the attractions of the UK.
The single largest reason for men to flee Poland is because they had during long periods of unemployment accumulated significant debts. The state will pay child maintenance if a man is unable to but if he takes up work he will be required to repay all of it. Non-registered employment in the UK is therefore a means to send money home to his family without first servicing thousands of pounds of debt.
Acceptance of this financial burden is something that presents a significant hurdle to the reintegration of people in gainful legitimate employment.
Conclusions & Recommendations
On the basis of services seen and talks held during this visit Barka was found to be a reputable and innovative agency with access to comprehensive programmes for social inclusion that are better equiped and coordinated than many in the UK.
Avoiding the issue that they seem to be the only agency qualified to do this work, they nonetheless offer the prospect of effective partnership work on the borough’s behalf and it is recommended that are signed up to a service level agreement for the six-month A8 reconnection pilot programme.
John Downie, 09.05.2007.