A fictionalised account of my experiences supporting homeless people with mental health issues at a charity-run hostel in the Midlands. I learned a lot, about other people and myself. Much of it was good, sometimes it was distressing. And I had my preconceptions as a liberal do-gooder challenged, losing some innocence but perhaps seeing the world more clearly as a result.


11. MAMA

It took a few days working at the hostel to realise that Joe, the art student on the interview panel, didn't in fact live there. I was still getting used to the cast of characters, and assumed that Joe had a room since I saw so much of him around the place. In fact, he lived a few doors away. He was an ex-resident with a place of his own, and still received some support from us.

Then I found out the same was true of Terry, another panel member. He lived opposite the hostel, and fancied himself as a bit of a sleuth, taking licence plate details from the cars of men hooking up with working girls. Terry's moral sense was somewhat conflicted though, since a good chunk of his money was spent on the same women.

So, two out of three of the hostel residents who'd interviewed me turned out not to live there at all. Not only that, they'd been paid to do so. Carol the manager reassured me, using her  positivity like a cattle prod to goad me into her point of view. "The interviews were too early for most of the lads. Let them have their kip. Besides, Terry and Joe might not live here now - but they've both lived here in the past, so they know all about the place."

What Carol said made sense, I realised. The hostel residents didn't do much of anything. Some of them basically led nocturnal lifstyles, to avoid the staff. And night was the natural time for the world of drug dealers and metal stripping that some of them got involved with. They scoffed the opportunity to do part time work, which some of them were absolutely capable of, because of the poor pay. But get some amphetamines in them, and they'd happily spend the night nicking some electrical cable, and stripping the copper out of it just because they were awake and wanted something to do, for a rate that was a lot less than minimum wage.

Carol paid no attention to such capers. She viewed the men - which is what they were - as naughty boys, who needed love and affection. Which I agreed with: love and affection go a long way to supporting you. But if the goal of the hostel is to help people move on to live independently within 18 months, how was that going to happen when there's no sanction for blowing your money on booze and dope, and staying up all night indulging in crap crime? Carol's earth mother routine was sincere, but without strategy to guide it meant that the residents were indulged in exactly the same behaviours that had led to them being in a hostel in the first place. When I found out that Carol's two sons still lived with her, in their early 30s, I sensed that here was someone who didn't know the distinction between mothering and smothering.



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