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.



Once Callum got over the shock of me recycling garbage into dinners, he was happy to help in the kitchen from time to time. Hostel residents don't do much for the most part, so the offer of assistance was welcome - more for the fact that he was willing to socialise than because his help made preparing a meal any easier.

Occupied with a task, it was a lot easier getting to know someone than by overtly asking questions. When you peeled spuds together, or stirred gravy, things just naturally came out in conversation. Callum was one of a handful of children, born to a loving and now sick mother he visited in hospital when he could, whose boyfriends never stuck round long enough to make an impression. Or if they did, not a favourable one. That kind of pattern is familiar to people who end up in hostels, and begs the question of whether a line can be drawn between mental health issues and social problems. More often than not, they coincide.

One of the things that staff first do with residents is to ensure they're getting maximum state benefits. That sounds like a healthy thing to do, so they've got money to get by, but in practice it can often have negative consequences. Many of the guys have way more disposable income than the staff, and nothing sensible to spend it on. In practice, that means you're giving people who are already vulnerable because of their substance issues a wad of pocket money to spend on exactly that. And sure enough, that's what happens.

That reality alone means it's difficult to work with residents. The idea is that we're there to support them to live independently within 18 months of coming to the hostel. In practice, it doesn't work out that way very often. And no wonder: if you're giving someone a couple of hundred pounds a week to spend on booze and drugs, then that's what they'll do rather than invest it in saving for a future that - very often - they don't believe is possible. That's a terrible thing to say, but it's a reflection of the lives they've led: if you come from a fractured home and move on a lot with support from social services, odds are you'll believe the same will happen to you again. And it does.

I remember one guy, Drew, telling us time and again that he wasn't ready for a tenancy of his own because the last time he'd lived somewhere he'd been intimidated into letting other people move in. He didn't have it within him to turn people away. Feeling needy and wanting contact, he'd let people in, and they just wouldn't leave. It's hard for most of us to imagine a situation like that, when the worst we've faced is an awkward party guest. But for people who are used to homelessness, knowing how to look after a place of your own is an alien concept. Sure, we've all got the capacity to learn and change...but when you're busy spending all your money on obliterating brain cells that kind of self-care is low on your list of priorities.

Feeling you've messed up, you want someone else to be responsible. And that's what the staff do, in theory. Meaning that the staff are just as dependent on hostel residents as the other way round. More than that, there's no real incentive to move people on effectively, since what would the staff then do? Hostel work isn't well paid, but it's better than the minimum wage jobs that some of the staff would be doing otherwise. If you're lucky, someone will be competent and caring in their dealings with residents. In practice, there's no guarantee that either will be the case. It can be a lot to ask for the staff to even notice what's happening under their noses...

So, Callum and Dez are firm friends, and one way that shows itself is in the money that changes hands between them. Never one to look after his room, Dez starts to pay Callum to be his cleaner so that everything is spic and span when the weekly room check is done. He could have hired a proper cleaning service for a fraction of the fee that he paid: Callum was £100 richer for sorting out Dez's room. I'd have done it myself for £20.

With all that money washing about, it's going to be spent on some odd things. If only because once you're investing some of it in drugs anyway, then you're likely to have weird ideas about what makes a good investment. Which is why we weren't altogether surprised to find a hunting knife hidden behind one of the radiators between Callum's room and Dez's. To be fair, there wasn't an explicit ban on hunting knives - but neither was there one on harpoons, elephant guns, or bear traps, which it would be easy to imagine the guys investing in given the opportunity. Besides, given the flippancy they regarded the notices about drug use, could we really expect them not to get tooled up?



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