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.



You couldn't help but be caught up in Carol's aura. Maybe that was a hippy word for it, but there was more than a hint of the hippy earthmother about Carol. An ever-present smile was framed by a frizz of blonde hair, and she was energised seemingly all the time...but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The moment I'm wanting to capture is when I first saw Carol, on an open day at the hostel she managed. The hostel housed a dozen homeless people with enduring mental health problems, and the building itself seemed to be a good example of those difficulties. It was two big Victorian buildings knocked into one, without the budget to do so properly, on a terrace of similarly big properties either side of an area of green space, and it was a disaster area of mismatched wiring and clunky pipes, wonky brickwork and drip-drip-dripping.

There was something inescapably metaphoric about the setting too: nice as the grassed area looked, it was somewhere you'd be ill-advised to let children play without checking the area first, boobytrapped as it was by discarded syringes and empty bottles of industrial strength cider that had never been near an apple. Wannabe hardmen swaggered their beat, if only to defend themselves from other fake-gangsters, but all that posturing had the effect of raising their testosterone levels and increasing the prospect of violence. Perhaps it was good that most of them lived on a diet of skunk and chicken nuggets, which meant any actual aggravation was likely to fizzle out with no bodily energy to sustain it.

Amid that simmering tension and sense of fractured lives, Carol stood out like a blonde beacon, a care bear of a woman in her early fifties, her personal radiance making up for the general lack of energy among the local residents. She was the star of the hostel, the presence you were naturally drawn to, and she was also its manager. The open day was a typically generous way of doing things, as a group of interviewees turned up and mingled with hostel residents, and shared a lunch of pork pie and pasta salad, spicy chicken wings and coleslaw, flapjack squares and bananas. It was like going to an aunt's place on Boxing Day, an impression heightened by the look of the hostel.

Normally, you go for a job interview and it's pretty clear that you're at a place of work because of the office equipment there, or the deep fat fryers, or whatever else signals that this is a working environment. The hostel wasn't like that. No, the room we mingled in was carpeted, and had stuffed chairs and photos on the walls. And while you could tell who was an interviewee often because they'd dressed for the occasion, there was pretty much no distinguishing staff and residents. Just when you'd got one of them down as clearly being a resident because of some kind of eccentricity of dress or dotty behaviour, they passed a form across to Carol for her approval and you realised she was giving it the OK and they were actually a member of staff. It worked the other way round, too. One guy in a jacket and tie talked to me in a formal fashion for a couple of minutes before I realised he believed I was his doctor, and that he wanted to discuss the medication he was taking.

All of this made the hostel a fascinating place to be around, and I hoped I'd get a job there. By now, an hour into the open day, it was clear that some of the attendees were not so enthralled. Where I was captivated by the warm chaos around me, others were confused. What intrigued me left others cold. I wondered if Wellington Terrace was somewhere I could become part of, a member of the team working with its residents...

But first, the interviews. And there's a plural there because there were two. One with a couple of the staff, which was straightforward enough. More interestingly, and - I thought - telling me something about the culture of the organisation, there was another interview with hostel residents. A great idea, getting the people I'd be supporting involved in the selection process. And, it was the first time I was with some of the residents without staff being there too.

There were three service users on the panel. Joe had a goatee, and with a charity shop grandad jacket customised with a constellation of bright thread had the look of an art student, which turned out to be the case. Terry's teeth were broken and tobacco-stained, his hair waxed into lifelessness. Alf was oldest, with genial eyes, a vacant smile, and - sorry, but it's true - smelt like a hamster cage. Maybe he had a rodent in his pocket?

"What would you cook for dinner?" Terry wanted to know, with something of a bark in his voice.

"Oh, I'm pretty handy in the kitchen. I can do a Sunday roast or a decent curry, a fish pie or a big fry-up, so I'm sure I can conjure up something edible."

That answer seemed to go down well, and there was a pause as the others looked at Alf. Meekly, he looked up and asked "What activities could you do with us?"

"I could maybe run a writing group, take people swimming, or do a relaxation class."

Again, my answer won approval. Joe scratched his chin before asking "Someone comes to you and says he wants to kill himself. You can see fresh marks on his arms. What do you do?" As he asked, Joe's left hand poked out the arm of his jacket and faced me. There were scars on his wrist.

Three pairs of eyes on me, three people breathing in synch and awaiting my response, I knew there was only one answer to this question. And it involved telling them my own story.





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