I quit my job working for a homelessness charity to live abroad for six years. Since my return in 2015 I have been doing agency work for a housing association as a floating support worker, and I’m shocked by how much this country has changed since I left.
Just a few months into the job, I have decided to leave the country again – overwhelmed by the lack of resources, levels of homelessness and increased risks for the people I work with.
As well as offering one-to-one support to those in temporary accommodation, I also worked a couple of afternoons a week in a privately run B&B, where single homeless people are placed by the council while it is assessing their housing applications.
Many of these people have mild and serious mental health issues, and often find themselves placed in the same bed and breakfast as care leavers, disabled and elderly people, as well as prolific offenders, drug dealers and alcoholics. In the particular B&B where I and a colleague offer four hours’ support on weekdays, these single homeless people are placed for anywhere between a few days and months on end. The B&Bs are not regulated or inspected because they are not offering 24-hour support. They are not hostels, though they accommodate many people that hostels have evicted.
Councils are placing people wherever there is a bed, without regard to the mix of residents. Giving a drug dealer the opportunity to live alongside a vulnerable care leaver or a drug addict, surely gives rise to the wrong opportunities?
Recently, we housed a visually impaired elderly man who had been discharged from hospital at 11pm to the out-of-hours housing service. His flat had burned down that day and he was left with no clothes but the ripped T-shirt and shorts he was wearing as he made his way over to the B&B in a taxi on a cold winter night. He went missing overnight, and the other residents said he had been confused and couldn’t find his room. The police found him back at his burned-out flat and he was, thankfully, then placed in more appropriate temporary accommodation.
Melting pot of vulnerable and dangerous characters
These establishments are cropping up all over the country. As the private sector steps in to profit from the increase in homelessness, councils are making use of similar unsupported and unregulated provision countrywide.
The B&B I worked in has nearly 20 rooms and it is a simmering melting pot of vulnerable, dangerous and sometimes suicidal characters all under the same roof. For just under £200 a week the residents get a basic room with a microwave and a fridge. Although they get breakfast there are no cooking utensils – not even a tin opener. An assistant prepares the breakfast, and a housing manager is “on call” at all times, and frequently called out after 10pm. Nights are unsupervised and no visitors are allowed; CCTV cameras give away any rule-breaking and culprits are warned once and evicted after a second offence.
The police and ambulance services are regular visitors. In the past three months we have had two tragic deaths in the building, and the housing manager was threatened at knife point by an angry ex-resident who had managed to get back inside. There is frequent disruption at night, from alcoholics, drug users and people suffering from psychosis. My housing association insists that we always work in pairs when we visit this building, due to the risks to our safety.
A cycle of debt and depression
Typically, the people I work with have a history of debt, eviction, mental health issues or addictions they are not always willing to address. Mental health services are so under-resourced that many fail to get a service or even a diagnosis, especially if they are homeless. All too often those in temporary accommodation get stuck in a cycle of debt, benefit sanctions and unpaid bills, which can lead them into deeper depression.
I worked with a man at the B&B who, after leaving care, had lived in a caravan until he left because he felt threatened by a neighbour. He found himself street homeless and approached the council. He had serious mental health issues and had previously spent time in a secure psychiatric unit. When he came to us he was confused and filthy, and ate cereal like he hadn’t eaten for a week.
We were so concerned by his self-neglect and incoherence that we asked his mental health worker to assess him, but she said he had full mental capacity. A couple of days later he was evicted due to the poor state of his room and for having guests overnight. Back on the street, he was soon arrested for breaching his bail and kept on remand for a week. He presented as homeless again at the council and was placed back in the same B&B, and evicted the next day for doing drugs. He then disappeared for several weeks, and when he resurfaced and presented as homeless again, the council refused to rehouse him. I don’t know where he is now.
Fewer places to go
Another young man with paranoid schizophrenia rapidly deteriorated while living at the B&B, because he failed to take his medication. He kept seeing evil spirits in others around him, and was finally evicted for doing extensive damage to inanimate objects in his room, believing they were spirits. He ended up sleeping rough. When the council decided a couple of weeks later that it did have a duty to house him, he was located by the street homeless team and put in a Premier Inn for several weeks, awaiting another move to a housing association place with support.
But there are fewer places to which people can move on these days: not many supportive housing projects will accept new residents who are failing to engage with drugs or mental health services. Meanwhile, the erosion of social housing has forced people to compete in the private sector housing market with students and those with a deposit, a healthier bank balance and a job. Time and again I see the extremely vulnerable batted between housing services, mental health, social services and learning disability teams.
Is this really the best our “care in the community” can offer?
by Megan Giles
(Originally published in ‘The Guardian’ on Saturday 12th March 2016)