Helping others to help themselves

The recent appointment of Lochalsh woman Maree Aldam as chief executive of the International Network of Street Papers is the culmination of several years’ work with homeless people — and a far cry from her childhood in Sallachy, as LISA FALCONER discovered…

Situated in the ‘Herald’ building in Glasgow, working amongst the hubbub of the newsroom, are an equally-dedicated if different media group.

The International Network of Street Papers supports and develops over 120 street paper projects in 40 countries across the world, such as ‘The Big Issue’, and over the past 20 years has helped more than 250,000 vendors change their lives.

Having worked with the network for six years, Maree Aldam was recently appointed chief executive officer — a position she didn’t envision when she joined the organisation.

The 33-year-old said: “In 2008 I really wouldn’t have thought I would be doing this job now. The staff at street newspapers and the people I meet are so unbelievably inspiring and the reason we are doing all this is to provide employment – if anything there is more of a need for it now.”

GROWING UP in Sallachy, on the shore of Loch Long, with her parents Irene and Fred and younger sister Gail, Maree’s childhood revolved around her friends and horses, although for many years the latter were of the imaginary variety.

“I grew up surrounded by best friends, really – Robin Haig and Dawn and Mikaela Lupton. We were all about horses, obsessed — me and Robin especially,” Maree recalls. “We used to pretend that we were riding and looking after horses until we persuaded our mums to get real ones for us. Life was pretty much horse-based up until I left to go to uni.

“It’s a great place to grow up, absolutely stunningly beautiful. It’s quite nice being away for so long and then going back and you see it all through slightly different eyes. My dad always says that when he first drove up there, when you go up the glen road and see the wee island and the mountains, he knew he was going to live there. I can now totally see that. Now it is my mission to actually climb those hills one of these days!”

When she did leave Sallachy it was for Inverness, where she undertook a degree course in social sciences at the University of the Highlands and Islands. After completing her degree in 2002 Maree spent a year working in a BT call centre, handling 999 calls, before becoming a support worker with the Highland Homeless Trust in the city.

“Apart from BT, every other job really has had something to do with homelessness”, Maree explains. “It’s strange, really — it’s just something you find yourself doing and then can’t imagine doing anything else. But it makes me sound like it was my calling! Maybe it was on some level, but it’s probably a bit more accidental and just the path life takes you on.”

Working with the Highland Homeless Trust, which at the time ran three temporary housing hostels, opened Maree’s eyes to the daily struggles of homeless people. “I was usually based in the one for young women, aged 16 to 25 and sometimes older. I guess the most shocking part for me was some of the really young people getting kicked out, or not in suitable accommodation at home, who had had a really tough time”, Maree recalls.

“I learned a lot in those first few years about how vulnerable young women are in that kind of situation. It’s quite scary. I occasionally did shifts in the male hostel as well, which was similar but with a different kind of atmosphere, a different set of problems. Both of them were eye-openers after Sallachy.”
Maree adds: “Inverness is a centre for the Highlands and the visible homelessness you see tends to be urban. In places like we grew up there is homelessness but it tends to be hidden – people not having suitable accommodation, couch surfing, that kind of thing.”

IN 2004 Maree and her future husband, Davy MacIver – they were married last year – took a year out to travel around Europe. She said: “You never forget travelling. No matter how long ago it was, you always remember little things.”

The couple had been friends since studying together in Inverness and went on to work in similar fields – “he copied me really, I think!” Maree laughs. “His job with Shelter is still much more connected with homelessness in Scotland whereas mine has moved on slightly. We do chat about a lot of housing-related things but try not to all the time! I have a lot to thank UHI for, really, a career and a husband!” she adds.

After they returned to Inverness Maree worked as a youth development officer with Highland Council before joining the Calman Trust.

She said: “Calman started out as a housing support service for young people but were developing homelessness prevention and different training opportunities for young people and I really liked the sound of them. I enjoyed the job with the council but did kind of miss working on the front line, working directly with people, because there was less of that with the council.”

After offering literacy and numeracy support for 16- to 25-year-olds who were homeless or were at risk of homelessness, Maree began an information and training programme which produced a magazine.
She had worked with the trust for two years when a development officer role opened up with the International Network of Street Papers in Glasgow, which Maree describes as “the perfect job at the time”. After 18 months she was promoted to development manager and last year was appointed acting director, leading to her being named chief executive last month.

“We are a small organisation. You can look at in two ways. There is the organisation, us, in Glasgow, which is a really small team of about five including me; or there is INSP, the network, which is huge.

“A huge part of my role now is to find money to keep us doing what we are doing. Up until last year we were fairly reliant on grant funding but it’s a risky strategy as you never know what you are getting or when it will dry up. We have moved away from that to 50 per cent from trusts, foundations and government funds that we apply for and 50 per cent that we generate ourselves. This is what most charities are doing now and it’s what funders want you to be able to do. The irony is they are more likely to give you money if you can prove you don’t need it!

“The recession hit in 2008 so I have never known what it was like to work for a charity before then — I don’t think there was ever a heyday but it is getting increasingly tricky. It’s a good challenge, though.”
Among the fundraising schemes the INSP have undertaken is the Big Sell-Off, which saw guest vendors take to the streets to sell the ‘Big Issue’ earlier this year.

Maree says: “The Big Sell-Off was perfect for us and also a big fundraiser with all the guest vendors raising sponsorship. The media coverage was great and helped us get a really nice message out to the public that it isn’t easy selling the ‘Big Issue’, and it is a real job.

“We had about 30 guest vendors, mostly media executives, big business types or celebrities — confident people at the top of their professional game — and the vast majority were really humbled by the experience and couldn’t believe the feeling of how invisible you are when you put on a vendor’s jacket. Some of them had friends and colleagues walking past them just because you naturally blank someone in that situation.”

She continues: “Vendors regularly report people saying ‘well, why don’t you get a real job’. It is! They are selling a product and doing something to help themselves. Homelessness and poverty around the world have an image problem and, depending on what is happening in the economy at any time, it can be worse. We can see that in the UK now with the way immigrants or people living in poverty are blamed for things and statistics are inflated, which doesn’t do ‘Big Issue’ sellers any favours. We try to chip away at that and the Big Sell-Off allowed us to do that and get a good message out.”

LIKE MANY working in Third-Sector roles, Maree understands that there can be a blurring of the lines between work and personal life but doesn’t see that as necessarily a bad thing – with the chance to collaborate on some projects with her sister Gail, who is festival manager for the Scottish Mental Arts Festival, among the bonuses.

Maree adds: “I get so much through the social side of things and get really inspired by some of the people we work with around the world. At the conferences we talk about work for the most part but it is very sociable too and lots of my street paper colleagues have become friends, to the point that on our honeymoon we actually went to visit the street newspaper in Lisbon. This was quite shocking to some people but we got to see a part of Lisbon that we wouldn’t have otherwise. Thankfully my husband is interested in these things too!”