Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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The Barka Foundation

May 21 2009
The Polish organization with a mission to support excluded groups is very much about giving people a chance to help themselves Four years ago, the Poles arrived on British shores. A trickle soon became a flood. They got off buses at Victoria, laughing and joking. Some had been drinking; others were carrying their meagre belongings. They were here because of the promise of higher wages, work and a better life. But from the outset, the ones who came through the doors of the day centres in London looked beaten. They had the look of being in crisis; some were lost and bewildered, and others looked angry and cheated. Many had problems with alcohol. Dignity, pride and denial have a very short shelflife and can shore a person up only for a while. Without food, shelter or money, but with a propensity to drink, and an inability to communicate wants and needs or to speak the language, any human being starts to unravel. I've seen people speaking to loved ones in Poland on their mobile phones, making out that everything is OK when the opposite is true. Since the Poles arrived, I've heard regular stories of them being ripped off, paid low wages and exploited. Their documentation and belongings are being stolen and many are sleeping rough. They sleep in parks, on friend's floors, in squats and doorways. They are littered across London. Day centre regulars have become resentful because they believed the Poles were taking over. Police have come under pressure to move groups of Polish rough sleepers on, breaking up the only protection they have - each other - on the streets at night. But, thankfully, there's Barka. The Barka Foundation is a Polish organization with a mission to offer support for the social development of excluded groups, and to help them rebuild their lives by creating a system of mutual help, education and entrepreneurship, in line with a citizens' society. It's very much about giving people a chance to help themselves. Currently, Barka workers help to repatriate Poles who have fallen into unemployment, alcoholism and homelessness on the streets of London. Before, I had very little insight into the scope and nature of their work in England, nor of the importance and significance of their work back home in Poland. Meeting them had a profound impact on my thinking and my understanding of homelessness and substance use. As an ex-service user and a Pole, born and living in England, the impact on me has been life-changing. In England, homelessness, alcoholism and addiction are big business. In a push by the government to get rough sleepers off the streets and into hostels, and drug and alcohol users into treatment, policy makers have made a rod for their own backs: they did not think through what to do with these people once they were in their services. Drug 'treatment' services have expanded to such an extent that they hang on to clients so as not to lose funding and jobs. In England, we have a situation of warehousing people, no exit strategies and no real social integration programmes. People are in an ecosystem that propagates dependency, and the only clients the clients see are clients "in the system". They have no role models and no real peer support. User involvement, for the most part, is under-funded and tokenistic. Staff in these agencies continually complain about too much form-filling, data collection and bureaucracy, and not enough face-to-face work with people. So for me, Barka's model embodies, in a practical sense, a vital component that has significantly shaped the way I view homelessness, alcoholism and substance use. Many of the people working in Barka were previously homeless and had problems with alcohol, reflecting the Narcotics Anonymous (NA) tenet: "the therapeutic value of one addict helping another is without parallel." The NA concept of "I alone can do it, but I can't do it alone" shows that people get well by seeing other people getting well. These processes, structures and philosophies engender a notion of wellness. Barka - as well as NA and Alcoholics Anonymous - shows that people can stay clean from drugs and alcohol, and lead happy and successful lives by following their tenets. I've been impressed by what I've seen of Barka - and that's a lot. Some services for UK nationals could learn from them.