The Man in the Doorway social exclusion and powerlessness by John Pateman

The Man in the Doorway: social exclusion and powerlessness


By John Pateman

The title of this article was inspired by a real situation which happened recently in a UK public library. It is the story of a man who started sleeping in the doorway of a public library and the reaction to this by library staff, the police and other agencies. It is a metaphor for a needs based library service – or not, as the case may be. The context is social exclusion and how this is being tackled by national and local government. That it still needs to be tackled is clear from some recent news stories, research and reports. The Morning Star ( 25 February 2006) noted that the government has a penchant for using ‘dodgy euphemisms’:

‘A minister responsible for the fight against social exclusion is a case in point, since the very phrase “social exclusion” is a classic piece of ducking and diving. For social exclusion, read poverty. The poverty of pensioners, 20% of them living below the official poverty line. The poverty of those who have lost their occupational pensions. The poverty of the 1.5 million elderly households in homes without adequate heating and insulation. The poverty of children growing up in bad housing. The poverty of the 1.54 million unemployed in this country. That is what Mr Blair calls social exclusion.’

There is a close link between social exclusion and poverty. Tony Blair pledged in 1999 that New Labour would reduce the number of children in poverty from 4.1m to 3.1m by April 2005. This was an ambitious target and the government missed it by 300,000. The government was accused on not doing enough to tackle the problem. Save the Children said the failure to meet the target was ‘devastating for the future of the poorest children’, while Barnardo’s said there was no justification for child poverty in the fourth richest country in the industrialised world. The government remains committed to eradicating child poverty by 2020. Sustained reductions in poverty and income inequality are central to the goal of improving social mobility.

There is a close link between social exclusion and class. A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research notes that ‘social mobility and equal opportunities have replaced social class in discourse on the route towards a fairer society.’ The chances of an individual moving to a different income group from the one they were born into are significantly lower in Britain and the USA than in more equal societies such as Canada and the Nordic countries. British people born into a manual worker family in 1970 had less chance of moving into a higher occupation than people born in similar circumstances in 1958. Social class matters because your position within the social hierarchy strongly influences the kind of life you can lead and how far you can go. Levelling the playing field in terms of social inheritance will also help to equalise life chances.

There is a close link between social exclusion and inequality. The government commissioned Equalities Review warned that persistent inequalities are costing Britain’s economy billions of pounds in lost income. Mothers, for example, were ‘by far’ the least likely to get a job – even less than the disabled and people from ethnic minorities. While women face an employment penalty of around 15% compared with men, mothers were a shocking 40% less likely to be in the labour market. At the present rate of progress, the gender pay gap would not be closed until 2085 and the employment gap between disabled and able bodied would never be closed. The review also noted ‘the lack of women’s voices in politics.’

There is a close link between social exclusion and power. The Electoral Commission has revealed a disturbing increase in political apathy across Britain. The third annual audit of political engagement by the Commission and the Hansard Society revealed that almost one in five people do not want any say in how the country is run. The study found that 17% of the British population do not want a say in politics. Some 12% said that they would not be willing to do anything to influence a decision by local or national government. The report also found that poor people are far less engaged in politics than those who are wealthy. But it stressed that merely creating more opportunities for people to get involved will make little difference.

There are close relationships, therefore, between social exclusion and poverty, class, inequality and power. If you are socially excluded you are most likely to be poor, working class, treated unequally and have no power. The ground breaking Open to All? report made it clear that ‘Social exclusion relates not simply to a lack of material resources, but also to matters like inadequate social participation, lack of culture and educational capital, inadequate access to services, and lack of power. In other words, the idea of social exclusion attempts to capture the complexity of powerlessness in modern society rather than simply focusing on one of its outcomes.’

Powerlessness, then, is at the heart of social exclusion. If people have no power in their own lives they are likely to be or to feel socially excluded. Having power is about being able to make choices. The case study I am about to describe is about a man who was completely powerless. His only choice was to sleep in a library door way at night, and seek shelter in the library during the day. This case study is also about those who do have power – the library service, police, councillors – but who did not choose to use this power to help this man. I call this story, The Man in the Doorway. The narrative is paraphrased from a staff incident report. I have kept the details anonymous because telling this story is not about criticism or blame but about learning from what happened.

The Man in the Doorway

‘On Monday staff began to voice their concerns about a man who was sitting next to the photocopier in the Library. He had his hood up and a cap pulled over his face which was barely visible. He was sitting cross legged and appeared to be asleep and was drooling. His chair was blocking access to the copier. I asked him to move and he awoke and became agitated. He began to jab his pen at the table constantly. He moved his chair to give access to the copier. I was preparing to contact the police when he left. He returned to the library on Tuesday and sat in the junior library for much of the day. I did not want him in the junior library but was unsure about approaching him after what had happened on Monday so I contacted the police for advice. My call was not reported as an incident because he was not causing a disturbance. We did not feel the man was a particular nuisance and had no reason to ask him to leave that day.

When staff arrived on Thursday he was asleep in the library doorway. He left a great deal of rubbish which staff had to clear up. A local councillor observed this and said that ‘staff should not be expected to have to deal with such things.’ She contacted the police who visited the library on Friday, along with a library manager. The police said that they had spoken to the man and offered help from Social Services or a phone call to family but he had declined. He came into the library and was no trouble. We were concerned about him sleeping in our doorway because the weather was exceptionally cold during the week. He continued to sleep in the doorway until Tuesday when I rang the police. I felt we had been tolerant for long enough but we were no longer prepared for him to sleep in our doorway. On Wednesday he spent much of the day in the library as it was raining. He slept in the doorway on Wednesday night.

On Thursday I phoned the police and explained that we could not carry on like this. On Friday I again contacted the police as he was in the doorway when I arrived for work. On Saturday he was in the doorway again and I rang the police to report he was still causing problems. It was not logged as an incident. On Monday the doorway was blocked again so I rang the police. They explained that vagrancy is not against the law but if there was a continuing nuisance then an ASBO (Anti Social Behaviour Order) could be imposed. The police also suggested that the library service should take steps to bar the man from the library. I told the police that we knew the local council were already aware of the problem. A library manager visited and sent a report to the area manager. The cleaner said she thought the man was not causing any harm and felt sorry for him, but she had seen some displays of temper and was becoming concerned for her own safety.

By this time staff were becoming very frustrated and feeling unsupported. We had a discussion and decided to make sure the doorway was very wet with soapy water when we went home that night. We did this again on Wednesday night and the man did not sleep in our doorway either night. We close at 12.30 on Thursday and had no chance to soak the doorway. The man was in front of the doors on Friday morning. Earlier in the week I had contacted the council’s Health and Safety officer. He was on a course all week but contacted me on Friday to discuss the problem. He was not able to offer any solution or support. He suggested that the library could employ a security guard. The local councillor informed me she had contacted the senior councillor for libraries and the ASBO team at South Holland. I told the councillor that I felt unsupported and that having to wake the man in the doorway was a risk to us all.

The man was in the doorway again on Monday morning. I sent the head of libraries a full report. Another local councillor also contacted the head of libraries and suggested that a security grille be put on the front of the library. On Wednesday the man was back in the doorway. On Thursday I left a call with the local council ASBO officer. My call was not returned. On Friday I was informed by the head of libraries that he had spoken with the area manager and that a multi agency approach should be taken to solve the problem. On Saturday the man was asleep in the doorway. A member of staff called the police. When the police arrived the man became very aggressive. Another three police officers arrived, the road was blocked off and the man was arrested on public order offences.’

So, what can we learn from The Man in the Doorway? How could the situation have been dealt with differently? Was the councillor right when she said that staff should not be expected to deal with this situation? Many different agencies became involved (library service, police, councillors, Health and Safety officer, ASBO officer) – how could better multi agency working have improved the scenario? Should staff have prevented the man from sleeping in the doorway by making it wet? What different roles could councillors and managers have played? What policies and procedures could staff have used in helping them to deal with this situation?

As I said at the beginning, the aim of telling this story is not to criticise or blame staff but to learn from it. This learning can take place at both an individual and organisational level. In other words, there should be a whole service response to the Man in the Doorway. The responsibility should not be placed solely on those front line staff and managers who had to directly deal with the situation. Front line library staff have a very challenging job and come into contact with all kinds of people and situations. As public spaces, libraries attract a wide variety of people, some of whom have multiple or urgent needs. Staff can be trained to deal with these situations and need the support of their managers. Staff should be aware of any policies and procedures which can assist and guide them in carrying out their duties. For example, there should be clear policies on Violence at Work, Working Alone, and Health and Safety for frontline staff. Safety of Staff public notices should be posted in every library making it clear that threatening behaviour is not acceptable. Staff should be clear what unacceptable behaviour is – for example, behaviour which causes staff to feel upset, threatened, frightened or physically at risk. Staff can be trained in how to minimise the likelihood of incidents by: listening to people; demonstrating empathy and understanding; showing a willingness to help without promising too much; finding appropriate ways to say no and demonstrate respect whilst being firm and understanding. Measures can also be taken to avoid the risk of incidents at work and minimising the consequences such as: design and layout of library; organisational arrangements; training of staff; provision of security staff; personal security devices.

Staff should also be aware of the values of the organisation, such as focusing on the needs of the library user and community. A needs based library service puts the needs of the individual library user and the needs of the community at the centre of all strategies, structures, systems and culture. Being able to identify, prioritise and meet needs becomes ‘the way that we do things around here.’ A needs based library service actively involves and engages the whole of the local community in the planning, design, delivery and evaluation of library services. As well as providing core services from library buildings and taking services out into the community via outreach programs, a community development approach is also required. As Brian Campbell has explained ‘The community development approach begins from the position of the individual and from the perspective of the community. It helps individuals or communities to articulate their needs and then investigates ways and means to work collaboratively to respond to those needs. Outreach begins by providing programs, while community development begins by building relationships.’

A community development approach to the Man in the Doorway could have lead to a completely different set of outcomes: for the man himself, for the library service, and for the other organisations involved. Until we transform our library services and make them more needs based we are likely to continue to respond in a similar way to that described by John Gehner: ‘When poverty routinely confronts us at our workplace – sometimes subtly, sometimes directly – the best we can respond with is indifference or, in some quarters, hostility. We continually overstate the way that a minority of homeless (and housed) people purportedly disrupt us in the library. Yet we underestimate the larger political and economic decisions that have created a ‘truly brutal public sphere’ for the poor – which among other things means a shortage of mental health services for the patron arguing with his shoe.’

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