Hi Patricia! Tell us how you came to join Extern?

I came to Extern as a social work student at the Ormeau Centre in January 1999. This was a comfortable environment for me as I had worked in another hostel with a different provider, but with a similar service user group, so I was able to use this experience to inform and develop my practice within placement.

What made you want to work for Extern?

It was a natural progression upon finishing my social work placement. I registered as a bank worker and then obtained a full-time permanent post as a residential social worker in the Ormeau Centre, after graduating.

After six years there, I spent a couple of years with the Multidisciplinary Homeless Support Team, and then began working at the Innis Centre in 2007, where I eventually became manager in 2015. Then in 2017 began managing Dismas House as well.

What sort of work do you and your team do on a day-to-day basis?

Innis and Dismas are probation-approved premises, and as such, straddle the practice areas of homelessness and criminal justice. Service users can get support in the areas of housing, addictions, mental and physical health and learning disability.

Staff also provide support with budgeting and money management, accessing benefits, and training and employment. Where necessary, they can also refer residents to other services.

The focus of the service is on reintegration into the community through maintaining an offence-free lifestyle and developing social and life skills in order to maintain independent accommodation. Service users are assisted to develop their independent living skills through individual programmes and groupwork.

What kind of insight has working with Extern given you into the world of social care?

It gives you a real understanding of the challenges and barriers that our service users face every day. Due to their complex needs, they often straddle different areas of practice and it can be difficult for them to access a single service that meets all these needs.

Therefore they are often engaged with a number of services simultaneously or are refused access to services because there is a view that one need must be addressed before another can be looked at.

The beauty of the work that we do in Extern is that it is holistic and staff are trained and equipped to provide support in many different areas. Across the teams there is a wealth of knowledge and experience within different specialist areas, which provides the service user with a rounded package of care which supports their move to independence.

What are the particular challenges faced by the people you work with?

The main ones are in relation to their convictions, which result in barriers to housing, employment and engagement with other services. As well as carrying out robust risk assessment in partnership with the Probation Board NI, our staff often have to advocate for our service users to get them access to things that others may take for granted.

The benefits system and lack of income provides challenges in gaining suitable housing and there remain long waiting lists for specialist services across many programmes of care.

Housing is a particular issue, as many of our service users do not meet the required points to avail of social housing and are therefore dependent on privately rented accommodation, which can be prohibitively expensive.

What are the qualities you need to do your job?

Flexibility, an ability to multi-task, good organisation, time management, people skills, the ability to remain solution-focussed in the face of challenges, and patience. Also, a sense of humour and an innate ability to keep calm and carry on!

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The variety of the work and the ongoing contact with service users is very rewarding. I also have the unique opportunity to teach and train students who often become future staff members. I really enjoy the opportunity to develop the services and to challenge negative historical narratives unfairly attached to the people we support.

I have loved seeing new staff join the teams, who are committed and motivated to provide the best service they can in order to provide quality outcomes for our service users. And I love seeing the progress that service users can make because of these interventions and supports.

Have you any interesting or unusual stories you can share?

When I started at the Ormeau Centre as a social work student one of their long-term residents said they thought I was very young to be a social worker. I asked him what age he thought I was and he replied ‘16’. I was 25 at the time and quite offended – but now I wouldn’t mind so much if people thought I looked nearly a decade younger!

And what do you like to do when you’re not at work?

We have recently completed an extension at home, so I am occupied with all things to do with interior design. I’m really looking forward to getting everything in order and actually enjoying the new space and decor. It was like having another project on the go during its construction, so now I want to reap the benefits of it!