The big freeze and the thaw of change: journeys, theory and holistic support from Stepping Stones

Student social worker Nick Hampton reflects on valuable lessons learned from helping Z2K clients in our wrap-around support project

Nick Hampton, student social worker

Many of the clients we support in our Stepping Stones project are completely frozen out of the social security system. They have lost the means to communicate with it, overwhelmed with fear, anxiety and depression. To someone struggling with multiple complex issues, accessing the right support can sometimes seem like chipping through a slowly moving glacier.

When I first started my social work placement with Z2K, I had this preconceived notion of Westminster: the Westminster of St James’s Park, Horse Guards Parade and tourists, which set red and blue colours in my mind.

Looking back now, I think of all the Z2K clients that I have worked with. I think of their homes situated in Westminster streets with cafes which are not hipster, but cheap and smell of chips, and cartoons of chicken bones blown along. I think of them and my beginnings as a professional social worker with the holistic service that Stepping Stones provides.

My supervisor had told me that the Stepping Stones project supports clients with multiple needs to develop their financial and emotional resilience and to access essential services, through one-to-one sessions with our social work and psychology students.

I really hadn’t a clue what this meant, until I met my first client.

Sayeed was a big man and his position blocked my exit from the interview room. He took off his hat and showed me the scar from an argument that had got out of control – and had ended with him being hit by a brick. At his feet were three Tesco bags stuffed full of paper and brown envelopes, letters and statements showing an ever-growing swirl of debt. Sayeed ran his finger down the scar and said, ‘I forget things.’

The Stepping Stones project has one central theme: the treating of clients with unconditional positive regard. By introducing focused, tailored support, it allows clients to create and manage goals, to reach other relevant services and to develop strategies to prevent a reoccurrence of their problems. In the first sessions we work with clients to identify their most pressing needs and establish an appropriate plan. Over the following 12 weeks, we provide structured mentoring and connections to enable clients to move forward.

Already dealing with the effects of his brain injury, Sayeed was so overwhelmed by all his correspondences that he hadn’t dared open most of his letters. They detailed debts that needed to be repaid – with the threat of court action to follow. Not knowing what else to do, Sayeed had placed them unopened into plastic bags, and left them there.

Over several weeks I worked with Sayeed to set up a folder structure and sort the letters into order of priority. With my reassurances he was able to overcome his fear and open every single envelope. By breaking down and simplifying the process, and by supporting him through it, we helped him begin to manage and prioritise over 100 letters that had been neglected for weeks.

We also referred him to a debt management service, supported him to make online applications for his disability badge and secured a budgeting loan for his immediate needs.

Perhaps most importantly of all, we gave him the time and space to communicate his worries. With patience and respect, we enabled him to develop the skills to manage his financial and cognitive difficulties.

On any reporting system this success is hard to document. How do you begin to explain the marginal move towards addressing major problems? For Sayeed, providing the space to talk was integral to the process of being holistic. It took many weeks for him to even attend our appointments on time and many more to complete the goals we developed with him, but eventually he managed it.  Over the hours and months of watching him progress, I learned that holistic support is not a panacea for solving problems – but a way to help individuals decipher complexity, develop resilience and cope with change. For me as a student social worker, this lesson has been invaluable.

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