Michael Corbishley, Head of Housing Initiatives

In the second of a series of blogs, Michael Corbishley, SHP Service Manager, describes his experiences working on the front line in New York. 

Standing at the top of the Empire State building, the size of New York stares you in the face daring you to try and comprehend its enormity. The matrix of high rise blocks trumpet the sound of construction workers, poles clanging, drills hammering, engines roaring. The city is far from complete.

Manhattan acts as a canvas, every building its own picture. Ornate stonework adorns rooftops, statues, carvings, pediments – no two buildings are the same. This apparent bedlam of design is no accident, the style and beauty of the city is as intentional as the grid it’s found within.

Cardboard signs plea for help

But something has been lost. Everywhere you walk cardboard signs plea for help, ruffled bedding lies in wait in doorsteps. Homelessness is visible everywhere, from those sleeping on the street to those queuing for the city’s night shelters. But their plight seems to be largely ignored, walked past by those on their way to work or out for dinner.  In his hit song Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen) the film director Baz Luhrmann said people should live in New York once but leave before it makes them too hard.   Perhaps it’s that but as I well know from my work in London, the causes of and reasons for homelessness are many and complex.

The Centre for Urban Community Services (CUCS) is at the heart of trying to help New York’s homeless population. They use a support approach called Critical Time Intervention (CTI) which studies show is up to 60 per cent more effective in supporting those with a chronic history of homelessness.

I’ve spent my first week on the Transatlantic Exchange visiting a number of different CUCS projects and services, from their Kelly Project in West Harlem where chronic rough sleepers are supported off the street for the first time in years, y, to Delta Manor in the Bronx where homeless men with a mental health diagnosis are helped to stabilise their lives and move into more independent housing. But CUCS’ work isn’t limited to housing projects; their outreach team leads the charge, engaging and supporting those on the street to access services and receive vital psychiatric and psychical healthcare that otherwise would not be available.

Passion and drive

The passion and drive of the staff I have met has been incredible and their work is underpinned by the core principles of CTI. CTI’s success hinges on the skill and ability of the staff delivering the service who utilise three core components to achieve success with their clients:

  1. Having a working knowledge of the cycles of change
  2. Work using a ‘harm reduction’ approach
  3. Utilise motivational interviewing to maintain engagement and motivation from clients

While these are already established practices in the homeless sector, what makes CTI unique is that it is not a person-centered approach but rather time specific and focused on supporting clients during a period of transition. Services are delivered over a defined period, split into three phases in which support is slowly tapered off until a client is able to live in the community and harness their own support network. This prevents clients becoming dependent on a service and galvanises both the client and worker to strive toward and achieve set goals. CTI isn’t about solving every problem a client may have but helping them to identify and select the biggest barriers they face, overcome them and empower them to tackle future challenges.

A revolving door

I know that when I had a caseload, I was very protective of the clients under my care and was keen to see them through from start to finish. It was always a real joy to see someone achieve a significant goal in their life and at times I know I was reluctant to close a case for fear I would miss that moment or that things would fall apart once I was out of the picture. This was and is sometimes the case; clients often have anxiety about their case being closed and many end up in a revolving door with services.

So perhaps taking clients from start to finish isn’t the best approach. True empowerment can only be achieved through independence and this is what the CTI model promotes. Transitions are scary for all of us, whether that’s starting a new job, joining a new class or moving into a new home for the first time. Anything that supports  homeless and vulnerable people  to take these daunting steps can only be a good thing.