The way I work: Thomas Dodson

The Knowsley Housing Trust employee helps vulnerable tenants keep on top of household bills and deal with benefits, and he occasionally comes face to face with a squawking parrot

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I’m 30 now, originally from Toxteth and until around three years ago I was working in retail as a manager. Back then one of my main strengths was helping staff through problems they had. A lot of my family work in the housing sector so I thought I’d try to put my skills into use in that field and applied for a job in a contact centre, thinking that would be a real fast-track route to learning about all aspects of community housing. Around seven months on I moved to my current job as a tenancy sustainability adviser, a post which seemed almost tailor-made for what I wanted.

It’s so important tenants feel like they have a real home, not simply a place to stay

Basically I look after tenants we classify as vulnerable or high risk, tenants who typically may have trouble sustaining a new tenancy for longer than six months. We have a risk assessment that new clients complete and through that scoring system we end up working with people who are leaving care, who have previously been homeless or living in a hostel, those coming out of prison or the forces and many with mental health issues. Me and my colleagues shadow these vulnerable tenants and help them tackle their housing problems.

Often, as soon as they first get the keys to a flat, tenants just think “that’s it now” and everything will take care of itself. Of course it doesn’t. As we all know, dealing with everyday things is never as straightforward as it should be but tasks most people take in their stride, such as paying utility bills or arranging council tax payments, can be totally alien for people who might have been in prison since they were young. For the vulnerable, getting a letter taking them to court for council tax arrears is not something they know how to deal with. Being an individual in society at large instead of just a cog in an institution is something that comes as a shock to many.

I try to get out on my visits, which are usually booked in advance, after we’ve had morning meetings at our office in Huyton on Merseyside. We visit some tenants twice a week, some fortnightly; it’s completely up to them how much interaction they want to have with us. There are some people who we need to visit in a morning because Universal Credit usually gets paid quite early in the day, so we have to help them with things like covering any rent that’s due and looking after the money which is paid directly to them.

Throughout all this contact one of the most important things is that we deal with everyone in a friendly way, spending a lot of the time just chatting and setting up a bit of a bond. We obviously have to cover basic rules and regulations but never in a daunting way.

Now Universal Credit has come in it’s difficult to get any back payment on rent so new tenants need to apply as soon as the sign-up is done. We offer as much advice as we can, often coming out the very next day to help them through a process that can be quite daunting. I’d like to think that one of the best things about our team is we can all make clients feel comfortable and talk things through in a common-sense way that won’t make anyone feel overwhelmed. We can help tenants get hold of basic white goods, like a fridge and cooker, then a couch, bed, wardrobe and desk. We can also give them a voucher for £105 for paint, brushes and other decorating materials. It’s so important tenants feel like they have a real home, not simply a place to stay.

We work Monday to Friday, sometimes starting as early as 7.30am. It has been known for us to still be working at eight at night but it’s obviously not always like that – just dependent on the workload. Something I have noticed though is that if you ever need to get away early on a Friday then that’s when you get things coming in guaranteed to keep you here until late!

At first I found it difficult to leave my work behind when I left for the evening or weekend. To be honest though, I wasn’t going through the best of times myself back then and I had some personal things to deal with. I found that specific cases stayed on my mind and I did the worst thing possible, which was keep things to myself, all bottled up. When I finally let it out and started talking with my manager and colleagues I found they were all so supportive. Now I know I’ve always got them to talk to. At first I did think this was the kind of job where it wasn’t a good thing to show weakness but it’s turned out to be the opposite really. These days it’s shockingly easy to turn off when I leave. I’ve done training that specifically looks at how not to take work home with you and how not to take things personally, which has also helped.

The best things about this job are no two days are the same and often just taking one phone call can change everything you’ve got planned, so it’s unpredictable too. There’s also a fair bit of job satisfaction. I remember one of my early clients was deemed almost unsustainable and it initially felt like we were doing nothing more than ticking boxes with her, but she really did become a model tenant. Before I knew it we were helping her with college applications and then during follow-up visits you could see how well she was doing with her education and her home life, and that made me feel on top of the world. I used to think a job’s just a job and you’d never get moments like that but, well…

Like any job, you get your funny moments. Once I had to visit a tenant because we’d had complaints about strange noises coming from her flat. Turns out she had a big parrot in a cage that was continually squawking. I explained to her how you had to be mindful of your neighbours and how really you’re only allowed one small pet and she just looked me in the eye and said: “But it only flew in through the window last night.” I just looked straight back at her and asked if it had brought the cage and bird food with it.

I know I have personally changed a lot in the time I’ve worked here. This job really teaches you not to categorise people before you’ve even met them. And I am a lot more understanding when it comes to stuff like addiction, especially in relation to mental health issues. There was a time when if you told me someone was an alcoholic I would have automatically thought that was all self-inflicted but my perceptions haven’t half changed.

This job has also made me realise how quickly clients can change for the better. A lot of focus is on how quickly people can go downhill but I’ve seen the wellbeing of some people improve so much over such a short time. That’s such a great thing to witness and play a small part in.

Photo: Rebecca Lupton

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