‘And another resident told me ………….’
There is more to coming indoors than shutting a door behind you. The physical act of leaving a period of rough sleeping does not necessarily mean that rough sleeping has been left behind.
There are certain physical difficulties that one wouldn’t necessarily anticipate. “How was your first night?” often elicits “My back is killing me. I’m going to sleep on the floor tonight”. Reportedly, such bed avoidance can sometimes last a month or more. There is the physical damage that rough sleeping does to a person which is sometimes visible and often shows itself by residents looking older than their years.
There are also emotional responses to finally having a home. For example:
The fear and expectation that it will be suddenly taken away without warning. I recall one resident who was with us for 3 years showing me that his sleeping bag and a few clothes were kept permanently packed in anticipation of such a moment because it had happened to him previously.
The feeling of unworthiness. “Why would you give me this room? Why would you do this for me? I don’t deserve this. This is too much, I would be happy with less”. An ex-resident once told me about sleeping in his walk-in wardrobe for the first few weeks after moving in, not feeling worthy of the room. It should also be noted than one new resident, who had slept in a doorway the night before, complained about the quality of his bedside cabinet!
A feeling of disbelief. “This can’t be real. I shouldn’t be here. They’ve made a mistake and soon they will notice”.
It always feels very positive when staff start to notice that a new resident is starting to ‘nest’. It seems to suggest that an adjustment has occurred and that this is now their room, their home and they want to make changes, to make it their very own.
N.B. Some residents never nest.
Roles of the support workers
The physical aspects are addressed by medical professionals whereas we focus a great deal of our attention upon the emotional adjustment, the relearning of social skills and the challenge of reacquainting oneself with societal expectations.
The next step after Wytham Hall is typically a return to full independence and therefore the redevelopment of social skills is vital to avoid future conflict with landlords and neighbours. With this in mind, we require of our residents the same standards of respect and politeness that we, as a staff team, expect of each other.
The need for and type of adjustment vary significantly from one resident to the next. There are those residents who insist on taking their turn to buy coffee and those that don’t even think to say thank you. There are those that express their thanks for our efforts and those who consider us as something akin to their employees.
As I am always keen to convey, to be homeless is situational and not a type of person. Our residents have often led full lives. Occasionally they have had careers that far outdo mine and frequently they have many fascinating experiences and tales to tell. None of the current staff team operated a computer on a ship in battle during the Falklands war, or exterminated rats on ships in Athens, we are not classically trained pianists, nor did we make 32 parachute jumps.
Over the last 10 years certain stories, observations and statements made by our residents have stuck with me and these, with their permission where possible, can be found below.
The Residents’ told me
One resident was often keen to explain that when one is street homeless, one sees a side to London that most of us are oblivious to: that as the crowds depart and the bright lights diminish, they enter a different world where things are other. He told me that he and his small group of friends slept in the doorway of a shop and that the shop owners were happy with this arrangement as the group provided excellent security, did not use the area as a bathroom and each morning would clean up the space before any staff arrived and so it appeared as though they had never been there.
Another resident told me of a period when the London Eye was being built. He said that as part of the construction process a coffer dam had been put in place and that when he looked at it in the dark he thought it was still full of dark and fast flowing water until he realised that he was looking at an extremely large plague of rats writhing in the moonlight.
A third told me that he slept on the stone steps under the portico of Marylebone church on Marylebone Road and, on waking one morning found a portable gas fire, a cup of coffee and a sandwich left beside him.
Another told that me that one day whilst sat reading, a well-dressed man came up to him and asked what he was reading. It turned out to be the first book in series that the man possessed, and over time he loaned him the remainder of the series.
An ex-resident who had been in the Navy, believed that his naval training had equipped him to live better outdoors than in a cheap Euston Road hotel, and decided to become temporarily homeless when between chef jobs, to avoid spending his savings. This he did well and with a degree of comfort. What he had not anticipated was that he was “never properly clean and never properly rested” and therefore not fit for the kind of work for which he was highly trained. He became stuck on the streets as a result.
Someone else told me that the patch of ground upon which he had set up home was directly opposite from where an all-night security guard sat and that each evening the security guard ordered two pizzas and brought him one over.
And another said that he would often leave Wytham Hall and walk the streets all night. If he came across any roadworkers he would pester to be allowed to help just so he could feel useful and occupied.
Another resident said “It is good that you are able to accelerate your mind and join me in my madness, but the difference remains that you can leave”.
I encouraged another resident to attempt to take on some voluntary work. This was quite a big request given the physical health issues in play. He agreed and as a first step it was arranged that, given his cooking experience, he would assist a church group in providing a group of homeless people with something of a dinner party. When I asked him about it the next day, he said that he had enjoyed the coffee and cigarette break most of all as it had been so long since he had done anything that merited a break.
In a conversation in which I mentioned the longstanding soup kitchen in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, one resident said “Of course, that’s your starter soup kitchen”. He then went on to explain that when he had first become homeless, he had been told to go there for a hot meal, but over time as he began to make friends with other homeless people, they told him about more ‘select’ soup kitchens that served better food and – if you like – for more discerning customers. He talked about it as if choosing a restaurant. He was very happy to have left that world behind, but he also missed aspects of it terribly.
I was told “I used to forget that I was homeless. It had become so natural. I was always shocked when someone made a comment that reminded me”.
Some years ago I asked a recently admitted resident what he was most enjoying about coming indoors. He said “When I settle down in a chair I can stay settled until I have finished being settled, without someone making me move on. I can have a cup of tea when I want one and when I go to bed at night, I can lock my door and there are not thousands of people passing through my bedroom, with some of them intent on harm”.