On the Frontline: One Night Working in a Homeless Shelter

Local writer Gareth Rees gives a personal account of his meeting with Roddy, a recovering alcoholic he met while working in Portsmouth’s homeless shelter in the Eighties.

I worked nights, seven in the evening to seven in the morning, at St. Petroc’s Home for Homeless Men in the old Poor House building adjoining St. Mary’s Hospital. There were some menial jobs to do, mopping floors, vacuuming, washing up dishes, and I did these after the inmates were abed. Bed-time was at ten o’clock and I used to get maternal feelings when I served up the milky drinks, hot chocolate or Horlicks. Unlike the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, I didn’t whip the inmates before I sent them to bed.

I gave out drugs instead.

Looking back, it was a job of considerable responsibility. There were about fifty men in varying degrees of desperation and only two staff at night. We had no certificates of training. We had no training at all. The people who did have certificates, degrees even, worked only during the day. Some of them had fine offices with their own showers and bathrooms while well-equipped workshops for the inmates went unused because there was no money for instructors. The inmates played pool, watched The Darling Buds of May on TV and smoked roll-ups.

When inmates with alcohol problems were deemed to be successfully freeing themselves of their dependency, they were sent to another residence to get ready for release into mainstream society again. There were only a dozen residents in this place and it was reckoned a single worker was a sufficient presence overnight.

I was sent there one night and at about two o’clock in the morning it seemed everyone was asleep. It was certainly quiet in the building although it was raining heavily outside. It felt cosy in the office and, although I was meant to be alert and awake all night, I began to fall into a doze. But then my repose was destroyed by a long, drawn-out ring of the door-bell.

Because I only occasionally worked in this residence, I hadn’t had a chance to get to know the inmates. So, when I opened the door, I didn’t recognise the wild-looking man who stood there, blood, mixed with rain water, streaming down his face and a strong odour of alcohol on his breath. Although I was satisfied he was a resident, I knew it was against the rules to admit him after ten o’clock and especially so if he’d been drinking. For the recovering alcoholics inside, just the smell of alcohol on someone’s breath could trigger a relapse.

But it was three o’clock in the morning now and all the other residents were asleep. I decided to let him in. Part of my decision though was influenced by fear. He looked a desperate man and I was unsure how he would have reacted if I’d tried to refuse him entry. I said to him, ‘Go and clean yourself up and then, when you come to collect your room key, I’ll have a hot drink for you and some toast and Marmite.’

The wild-man look and the blood were gone when he came back. I put a small plaster on the cut above his eye whilst he explained how he’d tripped over on a roundabout. It made me laugh and he did too.

He told me about himself.

‘I repaired helicopters by day and listened to ‘Pink Floyd’ at night. The day-time job wasn’t long-term creative though. Not like making wrought-iron gates.

‘I got bored and went to Amsterdam. Worked in casinos and then shipped dope back and forth between Amsterdam and London. Got caught, of course, and did three years in a Dutch jail. It was a case of rot or read. Dickens was great. That was a mine that didn’t run out. Being locked up, it’s not hard to work out why I got interested in astral navigation. And that led to mathematics and the Ancient Greeks. I rode with Alexander all the way to India and Hindu holy books. I’m a Catholic but I don’t go to mass. The guilt clings on though and I felt guilty reading about Krishna.

‘The education department was all right. I’d ask for a book and they’d always get it for me even if it wasn’t in the prison library. By the end of my time, I was helping the teachers mainly with English language but also maths. I loved it. I’d work one to one.

‘When I got back to England, I felt something had changed. I’d been bitter towards the world, the injustices and the authorities who let it all carry on. But then I started thinking I was using this to avoid my inner state. I was bitter about myself. I hated myself. I can do little to change the world, I thought, but I can do something about myself.

‘I joined the Travellers, not Roma but the people you used to see on television in old ambulances going to stone circle sites and getting pulled over by the police for having bald tires or something else. I met a woman who told me she didn’t trust me. I laughed and said I didn’t trust myself so how could I blame her. Underneath I was hurt though. I liked her a lot. We had a baby. Ann didn’t trust me, I didn’t trust myself but it felt like God did when that little girl was born.

‘Farmers used to give us work. I liked mucking- out in the yard after the cows went in for milking. I like to work. Working in casinos or carrying drugs, that wasn’t work. It wasn’t making the garden grow. There was a lot of negative publicity in the media about travellers in those days though and the farmers didn’t seem to want us anymore.

‘It’s bad not to work. Take this place, for example. Blokes don’t even toast their own toast. And it’s you, not us, who mops the floors. It’s like we’re meant to mooch about without anything else to do except think about our own Great Big Problem.

‘The Great Big Problem’, the demons inside screaming for a drink, the drink more important than anything, more important than Ann and my baby. I lost them, drifted. Got sober. Got drunk again. Got sober mixing cement for a Cistercian monk builder on an island near Tenby. The quietness was hard to take at first but when I left for Bristol, the noise made me mad. Even advertising billboards seemed to scream. It was like being run down by trams in Amsterdam.

‘I got a job pick-axing topsoil and then laying a concrete foundation. It didn’t last long. Got drunk. Got late for work. And then I woke up in hospital without knowing how I got hurt. When I was ready to leave, they arranged a place for me here. ‘

Roddy went off to bed. I opened a window. The rain had stopped. It was still dark but I knew dawn wasn’t far away because I could hear the city hum starting up, thousands of people turning on electricity, turning on lights and putting kettles on to boil.

I got grassed-up for letting Roddy in that night and I got a massive bollocking by management. Little gods abed and way behind the front-line in their suburban chateaux.

Photography by Tamorlan – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons