Outline of a house

 C A T H E R I N E   G R A Y

Catherine Gray  18 Outline of a house

I think I first used the phrase ‘social work’ when I was writing my first job application back in 1989. At the time, I didn’t know what a social worker was but social work seemed an appropriate term to describe the voluntary work I’d done as a teenager with disabled people, first at a riding-school and then at a primary school. I’d also just begun volunteering for Crisis, the homelessness charity. For a series of 12 Christmases, I stood in the cold of a central London warehouse and understood first-hand the importance of hot food, a roof overhead and a listening ear for people whose lives had been shattered by the loss of their home and everything connected with it.


I chose Outline of a house because …

… Social workers work with many forms of outline, diagrammatic and verbal. Some are descriptive in function, some serve the purpose of an agenda or checklist. I like the outline of a house because it encapsulates both human need and human aspiration. It appeals to our sense of the universal. In outline form, a house symbolises what Gaston Bachelard calls ‘our corner of the world’ – a place we can be ourselves in and to which we can always return. It also invokes the material space of people’s lives. Walls, floors and furnishings all carry the traces of our actions and relationships – whether marks and worn patches made by movement and usage, or choices of objects and furnishings influenced by need, taste or budget.

Typically, a house is one of the first things a child might learn to draw. So the outline of a house can be a tool for social workers talking to children about the significant figures and events in their lives, what makes them feel safe or scared. Indeed, the idea of a house speaks powerfully across the life course: to young adults aspiring to have a home of their own, families on the move across continents fleeing bombs, hunger and terror, or old people fearful of giving up their houses to go into care or struggling with isolation living alone. Of all the professions, social workers understand the secrets of houses, what acts of love, care, violence or neglect can be hidden behind their walls.

As a publisher (and I’ve now been publishing in the field of social work for over 20 years), I deal with outline ideas all the time. An outline is just a beginning. It is an idea that can be subjected to scrutiny and interrogation, a plan that can be adapted and revised. An outline of a house allows us to ask whether what we are talking about is suited to the person and their circumstances. It does not, for instance, suggest a community with neighbours looking out for you. Its conventional features show no understanding of a disabled person’s needs. In the mouths of politicians, the idea of a house sounds like a promise aimed at a certain sector of the electorate. In our age of insecurity and crisis, we may be constrained by resources but not by empathy or imagination. So I propose an outline of a house as a symbol and a tool for social work, a form of aspiration and a call for social change.

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