The experiences of a worker with the homeless in the voluntary sector

The city of origin and writer’s name have been withheld because of the likelihood that the writer will lose their job if identified.

For the last 2 years I have been a support worker in a Homeless Hostel, and I have observed first hand the struggle of dedicated staff trying to provide a service for homeless people, often with chaotic lifestyles in a capitalist system. I wish to highlight some key areas of concern and some ideas to improve things for those who find themselves homeless.

Jack of all Trades

Firstly, I have to say that my colleagues are caring professional workers who – despite a huge case-load – work tirelessly to move residents into supported accommodation or mainstream housing or access professional services in addiction or debt. In short you have to be a jack of all trades quite literally, because service users may have drink / drug or learning disabilities or all three . This, plus the daily risk of assault from service users, means that this job is not for the faint hearted. The staff range from out and out Christians to a humble republican communist like myself. There is a great camaraderie amongst us and we support one another through thick and thin. In fact it is one of the best groups of people I have ever worked with. As support workers we are at the bottom of the heap. We are encouraged to think of our job as a vocation (where have we heard that before) – therefore we accept all the crap that management throw at us such as shift changes at the drop of a hat or double shifts when colleagues are of sick (usually with stress). Recently immense moral and emotional pressure was put on me, whilst on leave, to cover a shift in place of a sick colleague.

Normally, when a member of staff is off we use relief staff who may be untrained individuals. This puts further pressure on the staff on duty as we are now responsible for someone we have never worked with bumbling about an unfamiliar building. Training for these individuals is generally done whilst on the job and I am very uncomfortable with this added responsibility particularly if things kick off (I wonder, how are they going to react when I need help?). But we do our best to get them up to speed and hope that we get through the shift without harm to them or ourselves. Occasionally, we can count on trained and regular bank staff that have been with the organisation for some time but we have difficultly in retaining these individuals.

Battered and bruised

Many of these bank staff use the experience gained as a springboard into other jobs – such as social work students beefing up their CVs or simply people wanting to change careers giving something new a go. What then of staff training? In theory we should have an SVQ3 in Care. However, for the last 14 months I have been asking when my training will commence- all to no avail. It appears that they will only train 3 staff members at a time (we employ 100 personnel, company wide, but this is enough training to comply with statutory legislation). The limited training is because the company has learned that staff leave after completing this course. Nothing to do with our poor wages or working conditions or the total lack of self worth that the company engenders of course! It is a wonder that staff manage to help any one, but we do, and of course the residents are unaware of this situation. In fact they are in a worse position than us and that is a key motivating factor for me and my colleagues to stay at our post. Battered and bruised the vast majority turn up at work with a smile on their face and hope that the day will be uneventful and we can all go home with our own teeth.

Speaking of teeth, health care for the homeless is a great concern for me, and one that is ever so slowly being tackled on a piecemeal basis by the NHS and the Scottish Executive. We now have a GP (hurrah) who visits all the city’s homeless units regularly, but we recently lost funding for the Homeless Health Outreach Team (being reduced from 5 nurses to 2 nurses) which was an essential and valuable resource. The Outreach Team filled a huge gap in service provision that we could not offer. With 33 residents and usually 2 staff on duty at one time staff accompanying a resident to an appointment to ensure attendance is virtually impossible. Nor are we qualified to give on the spot treatment and advice to people who traditionally don’t use NHS Services. The Outreach Team had a profound affect on uptake of health services by our residents. In particular the psychiatric nurse who would give us and the residents the best way of dealing with a condition. We could use this team to short cut waiting lists for professional services for potentially dangerous residents. Clearly, you would assume, such a valuable and necessary resource which saved money to the NHS would be protected – but no. Short termism is the rule of thumb in dealing with homelessness. They are willing to fund pilot schemes that are beneficial and have proved themselves many times over but won’t commit to funding these projects on a full time basis.

Criminal shortfall

Add to this the criminal shortfall of addiction after-care. I can get someone to dry out fairly easily but where can I put them after the treatment? Straight back into the hostel with the same peer group of drinkers or drug users they left. Even when they are clean, I can’t keep them away from the dealers in the Hostel, the staff have a standing joke – the only thing you can’t buy in the unit is a paracetamol, they come to us for that. This lunacy means that we have residents that need a ‘wet’ hostel in a ‘dry’ hostel and clean ex-users, exposed to temptation from the minute they walk in the door. During interviews for a room, in fact, I often explain to excusers what they are letting themselves in for in the Hostel – and that if possible they should stay with family or friends rather than stay here. Sadly, despite their confidence in their ability in saying no and staying clean only about 2 to 3% manage to stay drug free. But perhaps saddest of all is those with no habit that suddenly develop one whilst staying with us. They quote boredom as a contributing factor in doing drugs. This is why all our staff try very hard to get residents to fill their day with activity. If they are occupied, preferably out of the building, then they have less involvement with the general hostel population and therefore, more chance of staying drug free.

Why don’t you stop the drugs coming in? I hear you cry. Well folks this is their home and they have rights. We cannot search an individual coming into the unit. I can ask to see in a bag or I can take an obvious item from resident such as a three litre bottle of cider (hidden down a trouser leg) – but their human rights would be infringed if I searched them. Clearly, I don’t want to have to stick my hands into another person’s pocket – they may have exposed needles or blood traces. Some residents have Hepatitis A, B or C and I am not willing to risk my life for someone who will not and cannot give a toss for my safety or that of the other residents.

We find needles hidden every where. Recently, the environmental health came round our building and removed over 200 syringes many of which were uncapped and therefore dangerous. This, despite residents having a ‘sharps’ container in every room, and a guarantee that no action will be taken against residents who ask for a fresh sharps container when theirs is full. It is particularly dangerous for staff when we clear out residents rooms. We are under pressure from management to free up the room quickly so another homeless person can join the magic roundabout. Speaking of roundabouts, this is a phrase used for someone who has been through the system several times, homeless hostel to supported accommodation to mainstream housing and back to being homeless (perhaps because of rent arrears or drug/ alcohol addiction or just an inability to cope).

Out of sight

Homelessness can happen to any one but why should society care? After all the residents are out of sight and away from general society. At least they have a roof over their heads. Yes that’s right, but what is life really like in a hostel? It is very much like prison. We have the strong and the weak, with staff enforcing rules. The strong intimidate and bully the weak and steal their benefits or beat them up under a claim that they owe them money. Most staff only deal with the after effects, the bruises, the cuts or the tearful resident at their wits end because someone is chasing them for money. Despite having cameras everywhere we cannot protect them (unless they tell us but that makes them a grass in the other residents’ eyes).

In addition, we have the vultures that hang around outside who make a living from protection of the weak. We know what they are and what they do; but have no direct evidence – ergo we can do nothing. We have the pimps that hang around looking for females that need to feed habits. One striking thing about homeless females is that within a hour of them entering the unit they have paired up with someone for protection. This is sad to see. When we have a high level of females in the unit, it is a sign that the unit is considered safe. This side of the Hostel is difficult to deal with as a republican communist and a human being – seeing young women going out to sell themselves for a boyfriend’s, or their own, drug habit. Truly it is a sad sight and one that society should not tolerate. Further, we need a change in attitude by the general public to make buying sex unacceptable in today’s society. I welcome the steps taken by the SSP towards ending this culture of tolerance in Scottish society.

So lastly, let’s speak about toleration. Why do we tolerate this situation? Because we don’t know or understand the situation that residents find themselves in. We need to build 100,000 new homes in Scotland, but we also need an immediate raft of measures. These include:

  • All female hostels – No woman should feel the need to pair up with a male for her own protection. An all female hostel would be more beneficial, for reasons of safety and help can be targeted more effectively for their specific needs.
  • A general debt amnesty for rent arrears and council tax arrears – this is one of the greatest barriers to moving someone into mainstream housing. Councils can be draconian in how they deal with debt. It is very common that paying off huge amounts of debt mean that eventually most people lose their mainstream tenancies. In some cases we have residents that have lost housing – because their benefits do not keep pace with their debt levels. This means is that the longer you are on benefits, the more chance you have of falling into debt.
  • Smaller units – no more than six residents with similar problems, wet hostels for drinkers etc. The days of the large Hostels must be numbered, for the safety of the residents.
  • Housing people with like problems together – this allows for more effective staff intervention.
  • Youth hostels for Under 25s, and full entitlement of benefits such as Housing Benefit and JSA. Under 25s tend to ‘sofa surf’ their mates. They don’t get full benefits until they are 25 years old. Equally, when they move into a hostel they do not get full housing benefits – meaning they have to pay the shortfall. I once had a resident who was left with 50p a week to his name, after paying £32.55p (the set rent charge for full board, including breakfast and an evening meal) and his Housing Benefit shortfall.
  • Old style hostel for those that cannot access these smaller units immediately. Many released from prison for go straight on the streets. This despite the fact that they must be released to a bed – councils get round this by stating they offer 28 days accommodation for everyone by Law. The only problem is that they can take a week a month or a year to fulfil this statutory obligation – because the Law states when practical. Bed and Breakfast is no longer supposed to be an option but it is still used for families – at least that means no children are removed into Care or on the Streets because of the parent’s misfortune.
  • Units must be dispersed in the community and after care support must be for as long as the resident needs it. Generally outreach support is only for six months. All too often residents moved into mainstream housing lose their homes after 6 months, just when most outreach services withdraw. This area needs more innovative support.
  • More positive police involvement around the Hostel to prevent intimidation, drug dealers and pimps. This needs to happen without criminalising the residents. This is vital. When we have problems at the unit it is generally from those outside the unit, those that I have mentioned before. But it is usually the residents that get lifted and Police often start with our unit when something happens in the area. Many residents get several visits from the Police during their stay with us. Although they are no angels it strikes me as offensive that we are the first port of call in any inquiry. Whenever there is a mugging or street robbery in our vicinity. Don’t get me wrong when we call for help the Police respond well and I have been glad to see them – on many an occasion, it is just I think they could deal better with our residents and not see us as another holding cell for them.

If we only achieve a small fraction of these measures then we will achieve something significant. We can show the homeless that society really cares; hopefully this will be the start of a debate on this subject. Try not to think to ill of the support workers who pick up the pieces of the shattered lives of the homeless day in and day out – it is a thankless job but a worthwhile one.