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The Revolving Door -Three people to rejoice about – An update from the Night Shelter

The Revolving Door -Three people to rejoice about         by Peter Courtenay

When Julia asked me if I could write a quarterly article on local homelessness issues from my perspective as a Street Pastor and Deputy Manager of one of the Church Winter Night Shelters I thought it would be an easy task, but during the following week I had difficulty identifying which in the web of interconnected issues to with. But, it did not take long for God to focus me on three people whom I encountered on our Street Pastor patrol last Saturday night, as causes for rejoicing in their progress towards getting off the street. For the sake of this discussion, we can know them as George, Sally and Hugh but first: Why did I choose ‘The Revolving Door’ as a title?

Life for many of us seems like a series of revolving doors because quite often, no sooner have we got into the place we think we want to be; before we have even understood where we are and have anchored ourselves, than the revolving door has spun us back out again, perhaps to a different place and has left us bemused as to where we should move on to next. Homelessness is usually an extreme form of this experience because the underlying causes are seldom addressed adequately and particularly the support needed to get into or sustain a home is often absent or fades away too soon. Consequently, they are soon back on the streets. My three friends demonstrate this well:

  • I have regularly encountered George begging on the Street since I began going out as a Street Pastor and his take on a Saturday night has been estimated at perhaps £60 or even £80. One of his friends who deploys a pet dog to engender sympathy, is said to sometimes pick up £160. However, a large proportion of that is spent on alcohol and or a mix with drugs. The rejoicing on Saturday was about the fact that the local housing association contracted by Southend Council to engage with drug and alcohol dependent rough sleepers, is placing him in accommodation next week. However – and here is the potential ‘revolving door’, he had not been promised any package of support to enable him to sustain that accommodation.
  • Sally is another long standing rough sleeper who is has been on the streets for 8 years and who I have regularly argued with about why she should engage with H ARP to address the issues which have prevented her from sustaining accommodation. We were able to rejoice together about an opportunity presented to her for alcohol rehabilitation but astutely, she is questioning what support and where she will go when the rehabilitation placement finishes because she doesn’t want to end up back where she currently is, in an environment where alcohol is the only means of numbing her senses when on the Street. There is no indication that such support or accommodation will be available. The classic ‘chicken and egg’ situation!
  • Hugh’s placement gives the greatest cause for celebration in that, him having been one in a couple who presented as perhaps the most disruptive pair of difficult guests at last year’s Church Winter Night Shelters, he is now accommodated in one of two small local Christian-based hostels. There the hosts, whilst not making Christian faith a precondition of entry, do operate an ethos of Christian support within the accommodation they make available and sustain that from within the Fellowship.

A key challenge to/aspect of acceptance into a homelessness hostel is recognition that once a homeless person has been on the Street for more than a few weeks, he or she will relish the freedom to do what they want, when they want and how they want against the discomfort of sleeping rough. This may reinforce an ‘escapist’ mind-set adopted to balance whatever caused the homelessness in the first place – whether marital breakdown or ‘generation gap’ disagreements in a ‘broken’ family home or both. It is not surprising therefore, that the typical rough sleeper – particularly those in their 20’s and early 30’s, are prone to argument and violent rejection of the disciplines required in a shared hostel. And unfortunately, when a client ‘kicks off’ during placement assessment or during their stay in a hostel, they will typically be ‘kicked out’ or excluded. By contrast, the depth of support from within the Christian fellowship offered to Hugh may well enable him to recover his identity, composure and dignity so essential to the individualism we so treasure within the stable family environment most of us enjoy.

The second challenge that rough sleepers typically suffer is that the sense of abandonment which sets in on the street, undermines mental stability and compounds any mental condition which already existed. Indeed it is recognised that a mental health issue is often the causation factor. Resort then to alcohol as Sally and most rough sleepers do, entrenches the problem. Thus there is a growing realisation of a need for specialist mental health diagnosis coupled with the for alcohol and drug rehabilitation services – often referred to as ‘dual diagnosis’. However, whilst these are available separately within Southend the local NHS Clinical Commissioning Group do not see the combined provision as a priority. We must hope and pray that the initiatives recently announced by the government for additional funding into mental health will address this deficit.