21st January, 2019

Give a brief outline of your career to date.
I am now Project Manager for Extern Homes, an innovative project to help people move on from homelessness, but my background was originally in youth work. Around 17-18 years ago, though, I became an administrative assistant with the Simon Community in one of their hostels and worked my way through a variety of roles, including as a manager of a homeless hostel. I’ve been project lead for Extern Homes since July 2016, which, since it started, has helped to ‘free up’ over 2,000 nights of supported accommodation for people who are homeless and in need of hostels, and given nine people a home so far; and there’s more to come.

What was your favourite subject at school?
I was quite the mathematician in early teens, but politics and psychology became my real areas of interest.

Did you go on to further/higher education, if so what did you study and where?
I went to Queen’s University Belfast, where I studied Social Policy and Sociology, and then to Ulster University in Jordanstown, where I got my postgraduate diploma in Guidance and Counselling.

How did you get into your area of work?
After university I worked in the Civil Service for a couple of years but I wasn’t happy. Genuinely, I knew that I needed to find work that suited what I felt was important to me. So I got searching and was over the moon when I was appointed as ‘Foyer Assistant’ at a local Simon Community hostel.

Is this what you always wanted to do?
I have always felt I wanted to help people – in whatever capacity that might be. So to find a job that offered me the opportunity to do that was, at the time, very exciting for me and created the opportunity to work in a variety of roles within the homelessness sector thereafter.

Were there any particular essential qualifications or experience needed?
Experience, I think, is the key. I was offered a wonderful opportunity when I was around 17 to volunteer for Children Community Holidays, a project which brought schoolchildren from both sides of the community together. I volunteered my summers from the age of 17 to 20 and that built up a level of experience for me that held me in good stead, particularly with getting into the youth work sector.

Are there alternative routes into the job?
I suppose social work or social care training would be vital for anyone looking to get into this line of work. It professionalises what you do and would be a good way of ensuring that you have recognised qualifications for the sector.

What are the main personal skills your job requires?
Communication. But communication in all its forms – listening and empathising. As Extern Homes Project Manager I work with funders, statutory bodies, practitioners within the sector, and obviously tenants themselves, who come from a variety of backgrounds and sometimes have very complex needs.

What does a typical day entail?
More often than not I try to get to the office and write up my to-do list for the day and week ahead. This will include tenancy visits, report writing, meetings with statutory and voluntary sector organisations, funding applications, the list goes on … and there are always different challenges every day.

What are the best and most challenging aspects of the job?
The best part is handing over a set of keys to an Extern Home to someone, as this is their opportunity to come out of the difficult situation they’re in, and provides that sense of hope to them. The biggest challenges are getting people to work together for the greater good of those that are homeless. Homelessness will not be ended if we don’t work together to do so!

Why is what you do important?
Homelessness isn’t going away, unfortunately. On average we have 19-20,000 people presenting as homeless to the Housing Executive every year. In an ideal situation housing would be provided for all those in need, but the reality is very different. Extern Homes is doing its part to change that, and we are striving to do more. And so what we do in Extern Homes is provide an opportunity for people who are homeless to move on and get their life back.

What advice would you give anyone looking to follow a similar career path?
You’ve got to want to do it for the right reasons. I got a lot out of my volunteering years and lending my time unselfishly to organisations that were helping others. I believe that’s essential for anyone who wants to get into this type of work. To give something back for nothing in return is what this is all about.

If you weren’t doing this what would you like to do?
I’ve always thought I might make a good teacher or trainer.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself on your first day?
Don’t judge, empathise. Use your own experiences as a way to connect with people.

Describe your ideal day off.
A day out with my two boys and good lady wife! (You all know I had to say that!).

And finally, what’s the key to any successful job search?
Have a serious think about what you’re looking for. Ask yourself what are the types of roles that will suit your skillset, and stick to that.

This article appeared in the Belfast Telegraph's NI Jobfinder on December 5th, 2018.