She first came through the door about six weeks ago. Sometimes our front door is opened with considerable drama. It literally crashes open and rattles the wall. Usually the violence of the opening is down to several hours on the Special Brew or handfuls of blue Valium or both. A crumpled food parcel slip is brandished like a winning lottery ticket and the whole reception area is awash with the all pervasive reek of cheap booze.
She wasn’t like that. She couldn’t have been less like that. The only evidence of the door opening was a hint of breeze from the world outside. A gentle lift in the volume of the sounds of the street. A hiss of a passing bus splashing puddles. Distant yells of school kids out and about on their lunch break.
She eased the door closed as quietly as she had opened it. The lightest of careful steps and there she was at the counter. Tiny. Terrified. Bemused. Like a mouse.
She had her food parcel slip and held it out hopefully. I said no problem and clocked fact that the address at the top of the slip was from a local hostel. ‘Supported’ Accommodation. In theory a safe place where the team at the Homeless Department could send those who were vulnerable.
Yeah well that’s the theory. Lots of things look nice in theory. The practice is all too different. The practice means that on any given day there are almost always more homeless people needing a roof than there are available roofs to put them under. So it is a case of any bed, anywhere, anyhow. And the hostel in question has plenty of beds which means that there is invariably a rainbow range of humanity housed there. There is always a fair selection of the vulnerable. The ones cut off from their families with various mental health issues or learning difficulties. And the young ones. The ones not really able to get the hang of the requirements of life.
Then at the other end of the scale there are always the ones who are world class experts at preying on the vulnerable. And my word, what consummate experts they are. Within ten minutes they will have managed to extract all the information they need from their target of the day. So when do you get paid? That of course is the all important date. The moment in time when a bank card goes live as benefits are electronically transferred from the tax payer to the person couched in the much vaunted safety net of the Welfare State. And on that day the vulnerable one will have some company. There will be no need for them to walk through the streets to the cashpoint on their own. Absolutely not. They will have an attentive escort all the way. And the escort will be charm itself. A new best pal. Interested in everything. Making plans. Mapping out the hours ahead.
Some go from Jekyll to Hyde the very second the machine spits out requested cash. They will simply snatch it away and take off for the nearest Smack dealer or cheap booze promotion. But to be honest, these are the rank amateurs. For you will only pull that particular trick once. Sure, it is highly unlikely that the victim will beat a path to the nearest police station to cry foul. That would be too big an ask. For of course the robber is staying under the same roof, just a few short paces down the corridor. So the victim will scuttle back to their desperate, dismal room to switch on the TV and watch mindless game shows through eyes filled with tears of despair. But the next time the cash machine day comes around, they will make sure to stay well clear of the new friend who has proved to be so false.
This is why the real experts avoid such a blunt strategy. Instead they patiently work on a more subtle approach. Why don’t we get a couple of cans and go sit by the river? And then more new friends will appear to share in the bounty. And such a good time is had by all. When the carrier bag is empty of cans and bottles, the owner of the newly drawn benefits will eagerly return to the shop to get some more. In many cases this will be the first time in years that they have ever been anywhere close to the centre of attention. They are a king or queen for the day. All of a sudden people are interested in what they have to say. People laugh at their jokes. People want to know them. More, they are suddenly part of a group. Not alone any more. Not passing the utterly endless hours of the day channel hopping from dross to dross.
And of course by the end of the day there isn’t a penny left and the dismal reality of thirteen days of no money whatsoever sts in. But the experts know better than to leave their prey hanging out to dry. They keep them under their wing. They take them on a guided tour of the places where free soup and toasties are served. And they introduce them to kindred spirits. They make them feel a part of a new and exciting world. And when the thirteen days have at last passed into the greyness of history, the victim is a willing victim. The cash is drawn and spent. And for a few magical hours it is party time and all is well. And with time come new experiences. Take a couple of these pal, they’ll chill you right out. Yeah? Couple more? Oh and by the way, you could help me out a bit, I need a wee score like, just this once, you ken how it is…
The slippery slope. The slide. The well trodden road to rock bottom. The heroin zone. An a few months later the victim really cannot remember how it had all started. It just had. It was just down to being lonely and not fitting in and being scared of their own shadow.
Which is why my heart sank when I saw the address at the top of the page. My heart has been sinking at the sight of that address for nine long years. The gateway to all the bad places. That all together too well discovered bourn from whence very few travellers return in one piece. The place where broken people go to be smashed up into tiny little bits.
At first I hardly heard her. A truly tiny voice. Almost a gasp. She said that she had seen me at her school. Just a year earlier when we had visited to describe the bad places waiting for youngsters sucked into a vortex of drink and drugs.
I asked if she had enjoyed the presentation. She nodded. She said that she had read the book we had handed out at the end of the presentation. And had she enjoyed the book? A nod. A small voice. She said that she had found it scary.
When she had read ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, it had given her a glimpse of a world she never expected to live in. She had grown up well clear of that place. She had been at the top of the class and university was always the final destination on the itinerary mapping her ordered life.
But everything had suddenly gone to hell in a handcart. There had been an explosion at home. Bad things had been happening for years. Behind closed doors. Just like always. And she had indicated that she was no longer willing to keep the secret. And so she was thrown out. Like a refuse sack. With extreme prejudice.
So it was the Homeless Department and all the forms filled in. Eighteen and completely vulnerable. In need of 'Supported' accommodation. And so it was.
I asked her how she was getting on in the hostel. She shrugged and said she found it scary. She was just staying in her room. She didn’t dare do anything else. But it was hard. She had no money at all and the Job Centre couldn’t really understand what was wrong with her benefits claim, but it was going to be a few weeks yet. Hence the need for a food parcel.
I told her to come in if she needed any help with anything and she said she would. Then she left. Quietly. With a shine of helpless tears in her eyes.
She was back a few days later. The Job Centre had worked out where the problem lay. Her mum and dad were still cashing the Child Benefit cheques. And the DHSS won’t pay out dole to anyone whose mum and dad are cashing Child Benefit cheques. Oh the idiocy of the state. One department had signed off on the fact that she was cut adrift and homeless. They had committed the tax payer to £40 a night of 'Supported, accommodation. They had spoken with the parents on the phone and had the story confirmed. However another department continued to cough up £20 a week for Child Benefit for the very same parents to feed, clothe and cherish their daughter. Which meant that a third department was shaking a sorrowful head and saying no benefits would be possible. Could the three departments possibly talk to each other? Fat chance.
I asked her if life in the hostel was getting any better. She nodded and said it was. Just a bit. She said she was sleeping better. And was she seeing any of her friends? No. They didn’t want to know her any more. Not now she was in a hostel. Not now she had dropped off the map.
A week later I saw her from across the street and she was no longer alone. She had company now. New pals. Two lads I know well enough from food parcels issued over a number of years. Not bad guys. Long term heroin users of the better kind. Polite and somewhat confused as to how their life has come to such a full stop. But they are both in their forties and she is eighteen. They have managed to completely trash their futures whilst hers should theoretically still lie ahead of her. And of course they were leading and she was following. They were headed to the place by the river where the town’s alcoholics gather to pass the time of day and work their way through whichever bottle happens to be the cheapest.
A week later I spotted her again. This time the group was bigger. There were seven of them and two were long term heroin users of the poorer kind. Experts in the exploitation of the weak. Not averse to some low level intimidation. Pondlife really. She stood slightly apart from the group in a damp anorak. A slimy rain was easing down from a leaden sky and the streets were quiet. No doubt her benefits are in place now; she certainly hasn’t required a food parcel for a while. Were those benefits her ticket to her new group of pals? Probably.
Maybe the sad ending isn’t predetermined. Maybe she will stay on the edge of the group like a tourist. And when she is granted a tenancy of her own, maybe it will be a little job and slowly but surely, a new group of friends. Friends of her own age whose life does not revolve around the next bottle or fix. It would be nice to be optimistic. But that would be rather naïve and foolish, because those are not the kind of endings that don't happen very often when the vulnerable are dispatched into hostel-land.
More likely we shall be seeing more of her over the years. And her face will grow harder and her voice will grow harsher. And sometimes she will no doubt crash the door and stomp up to the counter completely off her head and hold a conversation at full volume.
It’s like watching a slow motion train crash.