Paid to be friends

James and I were having coffee when I said I had to go to see a friend, who was staying in emergency accommodation. I mentioned a little of her story, and how she had ended up on the streets.
"Did you say she's your friend?"
"Yes, that's right..."
"Isn't that sort of blurring the boundaries of your relationship?"

And it was a fair comment because, in any other professional setting where you are working with homeless or otherwise marginalised people, to become 'friends' with your clients is at best blurring the lines between your personal and professional life and at worst just plain unprofessional.

But of course, at Urban Seed, these blurred lines go to the very nature of our work. We aim to build relationships with people on the margins - not in a professional capacity, but one that is very personal. There are no 'nine to five' relationships at Urban Seed; people come and go as if they are, well, friends.

I have always struggled walking the blurred line. When I was a resident at Urban Seed, my job was to build relationships with people. But what kind of relationships were they? If it's my 'job', then there is a sort of contractual obligation to hang out with people. I was never paid in money, but had my rent and bills taken care of on the proviso that I would do this 'work'. I often felt as though the relationships I had with the homeless people around me somehow justified my living in the building.

Additionally, there is a real professional aspect to the work. We see ourselves as 'non-professionals' but we are also an institution, providing free meals and helping people sort out housing issues and the like. We are not just an ad hoc bunch of Christian hanging out in our neighbourhood, making friends with the people in our midst.

The occasional unease of our work reveals itself in the 'job' versus 'mob' tension, that is spoken a lot of in Urban Seed. Many of us have jobs attached to this kind of work - whether it be the nebulous role of a resident, or the strategic role of an executive officer. But it's more than a job - many of us are deeply committed to our work in a way that goes far, far beyond a contractual agreement. We are also a 'mob' made up of informal, personal relationships.

In other words, there are contractual aspects to the relationships we have around Urban Seed, and there are personal aspects as well. Holding the two together requires some skill!

I think that one reason I am happy living away from Credo is that I never really mastered this skill. Now, all my relationships with people who come into Credo are personal, because there is no longer any contractual imperative. I no longer feel like I have to justify my rent, but can spend time with people, cook with people and write with people (in the Credo creative writing group) because I want to.

It's not just at Urban Seed that the tension between the personal and the contractual is felt. James is studying to be a teacher, and talks about how some teachers go above and beyond their contractual duty to teach to a satisfactory standard, because they care so passionately about their students and their job. The problem is, says James, that this can so easily turn into exploitation. I can see how professional boundaries can be quite necessary at times.

I think that for any job to be fulfilling, the tension must exist. If you teach only to fulfill a contractual obligation, then teaching will only ever be a somewhat satisfactory means to a pay check. But if you are personally invested in your work, and you can believe in your work - well, I suppose that's called 'vocation'.