Saturday, February 24, 2007

Communication Breakdown

At times I do wonder about budget cuts and what they spell for society as a whole, especially in the field of mental health. It seems that each and every major hospital and facility for mental health care has been either closed outright or funding has been cut to the point where services just can't be offered. We see the results each and every day as people come into the offices wanting housing. Frankly they often can't find anything suitable because they're unable to look after themselves in the general community. Often they're nice people who just need someone around to prompt them to take their medication - when those people aren't there the results can, at times, be fatal.

Makes me weep. Seriously.

As we're the front line and an essential service we see and deal with them daily. Those dealings are not always the nicest and there are triggers that you begin to see more clearly. There's people that'll say they used to be housed in a certain ward of a hospital - once they say a name you know where it's going to lead. This week contained a classic example.

The customer walked in, slightly unsteady on his feet and looking rough. He had half a 1.25lt bottle that might have contained Coke that he kept swigging from. Who knows what was in there? Eyes like crushed Jaffas and the smell was fairly intense. I was on shift with a female colleague and I drew him as a short straw. Truth be known there's times I'll manipulate the line so I can get the difficult ones as they're less likely to yell at a big guy than a petite girl. Doesn't always work that way though. So up he walked.
CUST: "I'm gonna tell you something and I want you to shut up and just listen."
ME: "Ok then."
CUST: "I said shut up and listen!!" (pause) "Well?" By now I was fearing a discussion on the level of Monty Python's famous argument but I bit anyway.
ME: "Sure."
CUST: "Good! You f&cking, I was in John Knot House* for five years. Five f&cking years you guys had me there and I had to pay $200 a week for a room with a sink and a bed in it and no window and then they threw me out and I ended up in a f&cking place, the f&cking Aragorn House** and they kicked me out last week and I had to spend $100 a week for those and there was no sink and I've had my name down for housing (that's right - he didn't draw much in the way of breath) for eighty f&cking years and I want that five and a half years of rent back paid to me now, by you, right now."
ME: "I'm sorry to hear that but I can tell you right now we won't be paying that back rent. That's not what we do. I'd like to help you though..."
CUST: "You f&cking white c%nt!! Look, my people were here before yours were and I'm going to be running this place within five years and I'm going to kill all the politicians and all you white c%nts will be crushed beneath my feet into the ground. I'm going to live for a thousand f&cking years!!"
ME: "Look, I don't have to listen to this abuse. If there's something I can help you with then I will, otherwise you'll have to leave."
CUST: "Get me a supervisor!"
ME: "No. They're going to tell you exactly the same. We're not going to give you that money. That's it."
ME: "Stop yelling. We didn't put you anywhere. And it may very well have been your money, but we're not going to repay it. We don't work that way."
CUST: (by now he's stamping his feet and slamming his hands on the counter) "GIVE ME THE F&CKING MONEY OR ELSE YOU WHITE C%NT!!!"
ME: "That's quite enough of that. Leave or I'll call the police."
CUST: "Call them! Call them!!! White c%nts! I'll kill them all! I've had enough of you you f&cking white c%nt! I'll kill you and all your family! I'm going to live for five thousand years and I'll stomp your bones into dust beneath my feet as I walk upon this nation and rule the Earth!!! I'll kill..."
ME: "That's it. Leave. Now. This is your last chance before I make the call." For dramatic effect I picked up the phone.
CUST: "F&cking white coward c%nt!" With that he threw the bottle, slammed the door and left. Bottle fell short of the mark, missed me by a country mile. Mind you I wonder if he'd call me a coward if there wasn't a big counter separating us? I'd love to see what he does in a bank. For the record he looked whiter than me but there you go. That's a conversation seared into my mind.

Our big boss came running out, just in time to miss the whole event as happens. "Everything alright?" he asked. I felt like saying, "No, everything is far from alright," but this is a guy who believes these things don't happen because we don't file as many reports about them. Why don't we file the reports? Because nothing happens with them, because he believes the incidents don't happen all that much. Vicious circle time. So, shaking a bit, I went and served the next person and the next one after that and so on for the remainder of the afternoon. After all, I'm a big guy, I can take it (that's the general attitude in the office - and people wonder why I snap at times and yell at them out the back when they add to our stresses).

I filed a report eventually. Our middle level manager is right behind us and wants the reports done so she can throw them all at the big boss. I can't help but feel that it'll have no effect. Nothing will be done about our personal security until someone gets seriously assaulted. Me? I was looking over my shoulder walking home that night and I'm now again looking at options of other employment, only this time I'm deadly serious. That's one death threat too many for my liking.

So whoever controls the funding for places like John Knot House and the Aragorn, thanks a lot. Perhaps you want to come to where I work and work the counter one day and see the results of your handiwork. Perhaps I'll send them all to your office and say, "Your money is with that guy there." Won't happen though as people in high places never get their hands dirty. They're happy to just tell people what's happening to them in the workplace with no idea of the reality.

*John Knot House - not it's real name - sends chills up my spine. My alert level was about 6 out of ten when he walked in. Say John Knot House to me and my alerts hit ten instantly. John Knot House is a high-security mental health facility where people with serious social issues and criminal behaviour are housed, or used to be. It provides assessment for people referred by the courts and psychiatric treatment when required for people who have been released from custody. It's a hell hole of a place - something I've learnt from listening to people who've been there. In 2005 it was revealed that some people pretend to be ill just to get in there in order to rape and steal from those who are in genuine need within the facility - something that has been denied by various politicians who've probably never gone to the place. So when someone mentions they spent a lengthy amount of time there I'm on full systems go alert.

**Aragorn House - also not the real name - is a halfway house for those who can't find housing anywhere. Again, mainly for those who've been released from prison or have serious social issues. Again, the stories we hear about the crime levels within the walls of The House are amazing. Assault, rape, theft, drugs - you name it, it was happening, but again no-one would admit to it in the higher places.

The House is about to be emptied - releasing more people into the general public - and rebuilt. This means around 30 to 40 people who have serious social problems are now back into the general public. Not a great issue you might think, but guess who has to house them now that every other boarding house has said they don't want them and they can't find private rental? And guess what houses we're going to be using? Don't be yelling at us when your new neighbour moves in.


Zaphod Beeblebrox said...

Maybe, just for a laugh you could put up a sign which reads

Abusive clients will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.

Seriously, I know you well enough that you do your job properly, and you help people wherever you can, but some people just need the excrement beaten out of them a few times before they get the message that being a dickhead doesn't get you anywhere.

The Regional Support Clerk said...

Sadly some people feel that being a dickhead is the only way to get anything done. If they scream and pound the desk loud enough then we'll cower in fear and give them anything they want. As I wrote, it makes me wonder how they behave in banks. Do they scream and threaten the staff there and demand money?

Well, we know what the result would be if they did...

Zaphod Beeblebrox said...

Exactly, they would be shot, if they survived they'd be shot again.

I'm all for it. After all, the level of intelligence on this planet is a constant, the population is rising ....

Anonymous said...

Maybe, just maybe, the mayor can spend a little of the 33 million dollars allocated to the tram extension of some other safe housing facilities for these people, and the hundreds on your waiting list.

The squeeze on the rental market, the exploitation of tenants and the greedy landlords are holding the power.

Housing SA and all agencies that service these clients know it - why cant the local government see it?

stephen clark said...

I think you are amazingly calm to deal with this day after day.
I get a couple of callers every week(most of whom are not so abusive) and they disturb me quite a lot...but then I don't have a big counter!

RowliRowl said...

Policies and procedures can create abusive customers. I'm usually quite mild and very willing to wait my turn. Getting hung up on, getting misinformation and being totally disregarded tends to get my goat up. That's when I lose my temper and become aggressive. That's when I start getting answers, and it encourages me to deal aggressively with that particular department next time.

I think organisations need to ensure that they are encouraging the correct behaviour, through the application of sensible policies and procedures.

It is quite clear that this doesn't apply to the type of customers that the regional support clerk here is talking about. But it does apply to a few, who would otherwise be quite well-mannered.