Service user group B3’s name stands for ‘be heard, be motivated, be free’. DDN’s David Gilliver hears from project manager Ossie Yemoh about the importance of autonomy
‘We’re not owned by anybody – the commissioner isn’t keeping us under the thumb,’ says Ossie Yemoh of B3, a rapidly growing organisation that’s the official service user council for Brent DAAT in north-west London.
B3 offers peer support and advocacy services alongside training and awareness-raising. It celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, while its weekend centre B.Safe (Brent Social Access For Everyone) has now been running for three years. Yemoh has been involved in B3 for more than four years himself – becoming project manager last year – but it’s been a long journey to reach that point.
‘In 2010 I was diagnosed with a major clot, which was so severe that apparently we could have called it a day,’ he says. ‘I could barely walk or breathe. As painful as it was, it was like I was given a sign to get it together and I did, but it wasn’t easy.’
His addiction had ‘kicked in relatively late’, he says. After school he trained as a hairdresser, going on to work for some of London’s top salons and staying very close to his brother, four years his senior. ‘I was in my 20s and I looked up to him – he was always hustling and doing his stuff to make ends meet. I always knew there were drugs around but I never knew what they were. I knew about hashish and weed, but not this white stuff.’
He’d take his pay cheques to a local shop to cash but as time went on he’d wake up to find the money gone. ‘My brother and his missus would have been through all of it. This went on for months and it was always, “we’ll pay you back”. I never understood.’
However, he slowly became intrigued by what he now knows was the aroma of crack smoke. ‘I thought, “that doesn’t smell too bad”. Then came the day when he said, “do you think you’d ever try smoking a pipe?” I remember just replicating what they did – I didn’t know what I was doing – but it was so intense. From that day I went rapidly downhill, chasing the highs. The so-called enjoyment factor was very shortlived, but the addiction kicked in quite quickly – not wanting to do anything else other than smoke. I was around 26, 27 and I’m 43 now, and until about four and a bit years ago my addiction never really stopped.’
He spent long periods overseas – in Amsterdam, the US, South America and Africa – eventually ending up in prison, he explains. ‘I was trafficking on all different scales. I was in prison in South America, Holland, a short sentence in America as well. I would make a shedload of money then that would go, possessions started going, my appearance, all the usual.’
The clot then put him in hospital for several weeks in 2010 and when he finally came out he ‘knew something was different’, he says. ‘My brother had come out of jail and got himself together, so I went with him to Addaction and got a keyworker.’ It was during those initial sessions that he learned about B3 and their plans to start a Saturday service. Curious about volunteering, he went along to find out more.
‘Two or three of them really took me under their wing, and that first Friday meeting turned into every Friday without fail. I got involved very quickly because I was committed and turning up every day. My input was being valued so I thought, “maybe I can do this”. Members came and went but I just stayed with it and eventually I inherited the chair role.’
He volunteered in that post for around three years, going through the basic training while also putting himself through college, and all the time developing more and more of a rapport with the local commissioner and other managers. ‘I was finding that managers were actually calling me by name – I was paranoid and thinking I’d done something wrong,’ he says. ‘Senior people from the Met, from the DAAT would say, “Ossie, what do you think?” and I’d be, “are you shitting me?” Some of it was tokenistic, I know that, and there were times when we only had a skeleton staff of volunteers, but by now I had full understanding of what user involvement meant and what it meant to empower service users.’
Part of this also meant coming to terms with his own issues, he explains. ‘I can’t carry the guilt and shame forever – I have to lead by example. Yes, I fucked up many times and did things I’m not proud of, but it is what it is. It’s done.’
B3 became a registered charity at the end of last year, and he’s been project manager – a paid post – since last June. ‘It’s been a slow journey, and at times very hard, but I love my job. It’s frustrating, but the outcomes and the self-worth you get out of it are priceless. If you’re getting involved in user involvement for the thanks you’ve picked the wrong thing, but when you see people evolving in their own way it’s incredible. And you can be a part of their development and support them.’
When B3’s B.Safe facility started three years ago it was only on Saturdays, but since last year it’s been a full weekend service, taking on a momentum of its own. ‘We didn’t plan beyond a year to begin with, but now on a busy weekend we could have 70-plus people come through the door. It’s for people who are struggling, people who are doing well, people who feel isolated or lonely – they know they have a safe space to come. Recovery isn’t nine to five, Monday to Friday. It’s about picking up people’s morale – just a social, safe space and it works because of the simplicity of it.’
B3 is also involved in training recovery champions – almost 50 in this financial year alone, spread over three groups. ‘The dropout rates have been the bare minimum – one or two at the most – and that’s phenomenal, even when you compare it to training for professionals,’ he says.
The course covers areas like buddying, outreach work and personal development, but B3 is adamant that the focus isn’t just on drugs. ‘It’s about how they take what they’ve learned to support and advise people, but it’s also about recognising that not everyone who does the course necessarily wants to go into the field,’ he says. ‘People who’ve been through treatment have the tendency to say, “I want to give something back”, which is brilliant but it doesn’t necessarily have to be related to drugs and alcohol. You may want to do young people’s work, go back to studying or just back to something you’ve got love for. Whatever you choose to do, it’s OK.’
Partnership is central to B3’s work – with Addaction, CRI, WDP, EACH, Junction and Lift, alongside GPs and housing providers – and the organisation is now involved in developing a new version for people living with HIV, ‘BPositive’, as well as looking to do something similar for mental health. Both the weekend service and the recovery champion course, meanwhile, are funded by the DAAT. ‘We’re very, very lucky in Brent with our commissioner, Andy Brown. He’s phenomenal, very hands on, and I’m very aware that peers and colleagues in other boroughs – in the current financial climate – don’t have what we have.’
However, while partnership with the DAAT and others is key, ‘I always make it clear that we’re not under the umbrella of any other organisation,’ he states. ‘When I see literature that says, “our project” I say, “please change that – we’re not your project, we’re your partners”. It’s about arguing the point in a professional manner.’
One ambition now is to develop ‘a clear package of user involvement so that if you want to get involved in that you can come and see what we do’, he says, as well as, hopefully, part-time funded posts for committed volunteers and forging links with boroughs that don’t have such a strong user involvement structure, ‘approaching them to see if they want to buy us in. We’re not keeping all our eggs in one basket, and we’re trying to bring in additional funding. The more funding I can bring in the more opportunities I can give to volunteers.
‘I don’t think anyone really saw what was coming – how evolved B3 has become,’ he says. ‘Challenges come up, but it’s about staying firm. What we’re doing works.’