One size does not fit all

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imagesP2OJJNRCLeeds GATE was set up ten years ago to improve the quality of life for Gypsies and Travellers in Leeds, and West Yorkshire.  To achieve this it has set objectives focused on homes, health, education, employment, citizenship and social inclusion.  The organisation is structured as a charitable company limited by guarantee with the governing documents ensuring that the Executive Board and membership are a majority of Gypsies and Travellers.  The membership includes over 670 people, of whom about 20% are from outside Leeds, and who live on private and local authority sites, in housing and ‘on the roadside’.

These communities have a tradition of extended family support, work ethic and an independent approach to interaction with the state and the majority community. As a small minority they are vulnerable to misunderstanding and racist exclusion – described by the organisation as ‘… akin to a square peg being dismissed for refusing to be pushed through a round hole or suffering the consequences of being pushed through a hole not designed for it’.  Public services are often not set up to meet their needs and aspirations, or are inaccessible due to literacy or cultural issues.

Their story was recorded in April 2014 by Bernard Davies.

The challenges facing Leeds GATE include ‘low levels of literacy; toxic or shaming experiences of education; poor overall education achievement and hence low employability; very poor health including co-morbidities and low life expectancy’. The communities experience significant bereavement and difficulties in maintaining mental wellbeing while their varying accommodation situations can result in isolation and loss of identity; stress and lack of basic amenities; unhelpful ‘protective strategies’ and peer pressure; and adversarial and exclusive planning systems.

Leeds GATE is a small organisation employing 8 full and part time staff, supported by volunteers and student placements. The bedrock of the Leeds GATE offer is one to one advocacy (drop in and outreach) for on average of 35 people a month, over 100+ contacts. The staff team work to link advocacy to development opportunities such as participation in the organisation and its governance, group activities such as a sewing group, work club, computer club and Community Health Educators. Participation beyond the organisation includes the Migrant Access Programme delivered by Leeds City Council which is aimed at breaking down barriers between communities and a range of opportunities to co-design and deliver workshops on cultural awareness, health and accommodation.  Each year community members are involved in delivering 12-15 cultural awareness session and other awareness raising activity.

In line with the objective of increasing social inclusion Leeds GATE seeks to influence policy locally, regionally and nationally.  Work done in 2005 resulted in The Leeds Baseline Census of Gypsies and Travellers  and uncovered shocking evidence of an average life expectancy of 50 years of age in these communities and led to a Service Level Agreement between Leeds GATE and local Public Health.  A film about the Baseline Census has been viewed over 49,000 times.  Leeds GATE use social media, a website, Twitter profile and Facebook page to raise awareness, communicate and promote their work. In 2013 the website had over 5000 unique visitors and a return rate of 32%.  Leeds GATE has published several reports including the toolkit ‘How to work with Gypsies and Travellers as part of your work’, which is endorsed by the Inclusion Health Board.

Past and current funding
Leeds GATE has sustained steady growth since its small beginnings in 2003, reflecting the need for the work.  In the last 3-4 years turnover has remained steady around £250,000 per year.  This funding is generated via a mix of grants, contracts and a small amount of earned income from training and publication.  Contracts with local authorities have, unsurprisingly, remained static for several years including a Children’s Services contract worth £25,000 and another with Public Health, now within the local authority, worth £40,000 annually.  Grants from the Embassy of Ireland (Emigrant support programme) and Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust have contributed significantly to the survival of the organisation, alongside the Department of Health (IESD) and several small funds.  Roughly 5% of income is earned from training delivery, consultancy and sales.

Future prospects
Recent years have seen an estimated drop in funding application successes from 75% to 30% and the organisation anticipates a growing struggle to make ends meet. A £20,000 funding ‘drop off’ will occur in late 2014, rising potentially to £200,000 by April 2015 if regular funding or contracts are not renewed or reduce in value. The organisation perceives the drive towards public sector commissioning as a threat, not only to its own sustainability, but towards the wellbeing of its membership.  The capacity of the organisation to compete against larger organisations represents a significant challenge as seen recently where a small commission to carry out specific health awareness raising has been awarded to a large organisation from outside the region despite the commissioning organisations’ awareness of Leeds GATE’s ability to ‘piggy back on its ten-years of relationships in the local Gypsy and Traveller community and carry the work on into the future’.

National policy, such as the Localism Act, is also seen to be having potentially devastating impact on Gypsies and Travellers, as well as other perceived unpopular groups including asylum seekers and sex workers.  Whilst ostensibly aimed a giving local communities local decision-making power, the Act can be seen to play to stereotypes and prejudices.  However perhaps the most damaging effect of the Act is to remove national government obligation to gather and collate data so that failures to provide local Gypsy and Traveller sites, for example, cannot be reported on.

Surviving independently
Leeds GATE describes itself as a value based organisation , including its value of being ‘brave and creative’.  Bravery, and the ability to take risks, is seen as a key characteristic necessary to ensure independence.  One example of this is its work to challenge Leeds local authority on the seriously disruptive and demonising effects on Gypsy and Traveller communities of its policies for dealing with unauthorised encampments. However, following work by Leeds GATE the authority has successfully piloted ‘negotiated stopping’, a policy of dialogue rather than instant removal which has both greatly improved Gypsy and Travellers’ community life and saved the Council up to £100,000 a year.

Despite the reputation of the organisation, established over years, as a well governed, pragmatic and collaborative local expert, the organisation still finds itself facing a considerable power imbalance when dealing with large authorities and institutions.  The organisation cites several examples where disproportionate time and capacity has had to be invested in defending itself or its members against groundless complaints or failures to act appropriately.  More broadly the organisation sees statutory bodies’ constant demand to bid for contracts as diverting it and small organisations like it from their radical goals of ‘self-development, power and voice’ – a process which, long-term ‘drip-drip’, will, it fears, undermine its independence by ‘putting the lid on us’; ‘making us the democratic scapegoats’.


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