By Ted Wachtel
Stockholm City Mission, a 150-year-old Swedish private institution, uses restorative practices in its homeless shelters to engage clients in addressing their own behavior problems, instead of staff-imposed punishments.
“We have a big empathy issue in Sweden,” says Mija Bergman, manager of Bostallet (the Homestead), a halfway house for homeless men and women.
“We are so understanding. It’s in our self-image and our culture, and in our history as a social welfare state. The problem is that we feel so sorry for these poor homeless people, so we figure out very good plans of how they should deal with their problems, and then we inform them, ‘you should do this and you should do that,’ and they get furious!”
The appeal of restorative practices for Stockholm City Mission was that it encouraged staff to do things “with” clients, rather than “to” or “for” them. In doing so, it reduced the burnout for staff members who no longer tried to solve everything for their clients.
In 2000, Klaragården, the Mission’s day center for homeless women, began using restorative practices. With the new approach, Bergman explains: “As soon as you do something that violates the cardinal rules—if you are threatening, use violence, if you’ve taken any drugs—you have to leave. But you can book an appointment to come back.” The process is about reintegrating people into a community, instead of excluding them. “No matter how mentally ill they are, we always hold clients accountable for their behavior and their actions,” says Bergman.
Two women stole some cash from the Mission to buy drugs, and rather than being banned from the shelter, they were asked to participate in a process to decide what would be done. They were shocked when they were asked how they were going to repair the harm they had caused.
As an act of contrition, the women offered to clean Klaragården’s heating system radiators, which proved to be a formidable task. It took them the whole summer to complete. Interestingly, the two women were extremely proud of their work. Despite their mental illness, they have been able to stay at the shelter and for years afterward, boasted of their “very good reparative work.”
Bergman commented, “I think it was the first time that they had actually been able to repair something, and it made them feel good. It’s about pride, I think. They restored my faith in them and my trust in them. But they also restored their own pride, in taking responsibility for what they had done.”