May 21 2013 Latest news:
Saturday, November 17, 2012
Ormiston Children and Families’ Trust prides itself on working for and with the people that others forget. In the fourth part of our series, MARK SHIELDS finds out about its ground-breaking work with Norfolk’s Gypsy and Traveller community.
Times are changing for Gypsy and Traveller communities.
The mounting difficulties in finding work, accessing benefits and securing housing that have hit the wider community in recent years have been felt even more keenly by Gypsies and Travellers.
Add the impenetrable jungle of local government bureaucracy, literacy problems and frequent prejudice towards their way of life, it can be easy to see why many people feel they are living in a world apart.
Ormiston Children and Families’ Trust’s unique work with Gypsies and Travellers aims to bring the two closer together.
By working alongside families, teams from the Ormiston Travellers Initiative Norfolk help them to navigate the system of red tape that can so often be a barrier, getting them the vital health, education and financial services that they need.
Mark Proctor, Ormiston’s services director, said the charity worked as a trusted link between travellers and authorities.
“Many families don’t realise the services that are available to them – the benefits, the healthcare,” he said.
“Our first job is to make sure they understand what’s out there; the second is to help them to access it.
“That could be filling out forms to register them with a doctors’ surgery, and helping them understand their prescription, or explaining what they are entitled to.
“The benefits system can be a complete nightmare for you if you can’t read or write, if you don’t understand it or if you don’t understand how long things can take.
“We give them the options, and they choose what to do.”
Housing is often the biggest problem for Gypsy and Traveller families, made more difficult by often hostile reception from the resident community.
Julie Mobbs, area manager for Norfolk, said housing issues were often not as simple as made out.
“A lot of Travellers and Gypsies don’t want to go into council-run sites,” she said. “It’s like trying to get people to move into council estates.”
That shortage of viable sites for travellers also means that many are moving into permanent homes, often reluctantly, as they look to improve their prospects.
“I think that they have recognised that things have to change,” said Mrs Mobbs.
“They don’t want to lose their cultural background, but a lot of them have had to move into houses.
“They want to access healthcare and they want to work. Things are different to how they were years ago.”
One thing that has not changed is the ingrained prejudice families encounter, which is still an obstacle to the successful integration of traveller families into their surrounding communities.
“It’s difficult to find somewhere where people don’t complain. As soon as they realise they are Gypsies or Travellers, they complain to the council – even though they have not met them and don’t know them,” said Mrs Mobbs.
The job of overturning those stereotypes has become more difficult recently, with the coverage of the evictions at Dale Farm in Essex and television programmes such as Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.
“Most of the families we deal with have worked all their lives, they’ve paid tax all their lives, but they haven’t signed on,” said Mrs Mobbs.
As well as helping them through paperwork problems, Ormiston also works with those who suffer with domestic violence in the family.
“There is a different culture among Travellers and Gypsies, but that is no reason for them to have to put up with domestic violence,” she added.
“We work closely with families, and have even managed to get people into safe houses in extreme situations.”
Slowly, the world of Travellers and Gypsy families is evolving, said Mrs Mobbs, and Ormiston’s aim is to support them through that transition.
“Most families want their children to go school now, they want them to learn to read and write.
“Years ago they would travel around working the land, but now that there’s hardly any work, it’s not the same.
“They want their children to be able to manage for themselves.”
Ormiston also works with young Travellers and Gypsies specifically to expand their educational horizons.
Youngsters’ time in school can often be disrupted as their families move around, and the proportion who continue to higher education is lower than in mainstream society.
The charity’s projects such as Life Through a Lens (see panel) aim to deliver the twin benefit of offering young people a recognised qualification they can build upon, and promoting understanding between Gypsy, Traveller and other communities.
Tomorrow, how you can do your bit for the Ormiston Children and Families’ Trust