'I've never felt particularly threatened, but a lot of the men do have an alcohol problem and sometimes there is aggression,' Fiona explains. 'Usually, it's a lot of shouting and swearing, but they're not allowed drink in here, and if we find any, it's taken away. With so many men all together, it is quite a loud place and noisy arguments do break out, usually over a television programme or someone having more meat than somebody else. There's certainly the potential for violence.'
The Bondway Night Shelter, housed in an old warehouse in central London, used to have a reputation that even some of the homeless found off-putting. No privacy, an all-pervading stench and an open door policy that frequently led to thefts and physical attacks. Today, following refurbishment and with a security camera watching the entrance, the atmosphere is described as 'generally better'. Those who sexually harass other residents, are violent or have very heavy drink problems are banned from Bondway, in some cases for life. These days, many of the residents are regulars.
Despite the 'more homely environment' created at the night shelter, some tasks undertaken by those in a caring role are no less daunting. Part of Fiona's eight-hour shift is likely to be spent dealing with those on the high-
care list who are particularly vulnerable because they are old and frail.
'One of them is doubly incontinent, and when clothes have to be changed it does smell pretty terrible. But when you're coping with soiled sheets, or pairs of urine-soaked trousers, or bathing some of the old men, you know them as people who have names and it can hardly disgust you. In this job it's very important to realise that different people live their lives in different ways. You realise that whatever your standards of personal hygiene in your own home, you can't force your judgement on others. A lot of the men are capable of looking after themselves, anyway.'
Fiona was well grounded for her relatively new role at Bondway. While studying for her degree in social policy, she worked in the community at a day centre for the homeless in Nottingham. She has also looked after the elderly in a rest home. These days, when a resident arrives and is noticeably scratching himself through his clothes, her genuine and positive regard for other people is put to an even greater test.
'Occasionally, men do turn up infested with body lice. We have to get rid of their clothes before sitting them down in the bath or a shower and covering them in a delousing lotion, which they have to keep on for the next 24 hours. It's a myth that everybody who lives on the streets turns up like this, but when some do, dealing with the problem is not very pleasant.'
Fiona lives in her own flat, provided free on top of her weekly wage. On night shifts she patrols the 30-bed dormitories for fire checks, as well as to ensure that nobody has been taken ill or is misbehaving. There are two beds to a dormitory space, each bed with its own locker, and the partitions are now high enough to give some measure of privacy. For the dozens of men who have sought a sanctuary from the discomfort of existence on the streets, and for those who watch over them, there is the inevitable exposure to the sounds of other people's disturbed sleep, or of their self-inflicted physical pleasure. In the daytime, it is a matter of being able to overlook the less-than-attractive eating habits of some residents, or the state of the lavatories being regularly used - and abused - by nearly 100 men.
Quite a number of those paying pounds 4 a night for bed and breakfast ('and anything on offer in between') are former psychiatric patients who may require skilled handling to prevent general disruption. But if ever there is a problem that Fiona feels she cannot handle, or an incident which is the source of some personal distress, there is always a supervisor on hand to talk to.
'Sometimes we get people brought in from the nightly soup run who've been found in a dire state. They may have a face that's been badly beaten, or be very frail or very ill, or very, very hungry, so you can't exactly say there's any joy in this job. But there is a communal spirit, not least from working as a team, and you do get a lot back.
'To the people who come here, you're part of the family in what is, after all, their only home.'
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