Last week's problem: the spare room in Janet's flat was designed for guests - but no one has come to stay. Guilty about having so much when others have so little, she wants to take in a homeless person for free. But a friend has warned that they might be disturbed or drunk ... and Janet is extremely houseproud. Should she follow her conscience or take her friend's advice?

Sharing a small space with even the most perfect, rent-paying tenant puts life-threatening stresses on any homeowner. When I let out rooms, it wasn't just the mess the lodgers left in the kitchen that enraged me; it was the humiliation when they ganged up and asked me to clean the bath after use, please.

But Janet is proposing to play Lady Bountiful, so imagine the emotional crises ahead when she returns from a hard day's work and finds that a homeless person with probably nothing to do all day has left an unwashed teaspoon in the sink - a homeless person whom kind Janet has rescued from the very gutter! How dare they!

Even Shelter, the charity that helps the homeless, had reservations about Janet's plan in the long term. It would only work, they said, if the lodger could be assured of privacy and some kind of power, which meant him or her paying at least some kind of affordable rent, met by housing benefit. "They should have some rights," said Shelter. "If Janet thinks she's doing someone a favour, the power differentials would be unequal and there is scope for abuse."

As for the idea that Janet's homeless guest would be likely to turn out to be disturbed or alcoholic, that is nonsense. Were she to find a tenant with a reference from a Shelter advice centre or a Citizen's Advice Bureau, she would probably be safer than with some potential maniac plucked from the small ads of a local paper.

But it's Janet's motives that give the most cause for concern. If she's driven by guilt, then won't the presence in her flat of someone far more broke than she cause even more, direct guilt? Does Janet know where a comfortable line could be drawn in the giving? How will she feel tucking into steak and chips and a bottle of wine while her houseguest picks at a baked potato? More guilty? Or more giving?

If her altruism is prompted by a genuine desire to help someone else, then she should go ahead, working out a fair agreement with an organisation like Shelter which could help to protect rights on all sides. But if it's prompted by a desire to make Janet herself feel less uncomfortable, and put herself into a better light, then she won't be giving at all; she'll be taking.

I suspect over-tidy people who are racked with guilt about the state of the world. They're often controllers rather than carers. And since her motives may be confused, far better to help the homeless by working for them, raising money for them, or giving part of her salary to them.

And if it's a warm personal glow she's after, she can always organise a soup run of her very own.

This weekend do yourself a favour and visit the local stately home or castle. Then go home and take a fresh look at your own "castle".

A spare room is not the same as an empty east wing or hunting lodge or redundant servants' quarters is it?

Living with a partner or relative can be difficult enough. Spare rooms up and down the country bear witness to that. But a complete stranger?

Unless your spare room is totally self-contained, allowing you and your potential lodger to live completely independent lives: don't lower the drawbridge.

Yours sincerely

T J Wells, Norfolk

Protect your castle

Vulnerable people could be harmed

I have done part-time voluntary work with homeless people over a number of years. I liked many of them, loved and trusted some and even fancied one or two, but I can't think of any that I would feel able to share my home with. They tend to be vulnerable because of their situation, and if Janet discovered too late that she couldn't cope she could be inflicting real psychological harm when the arrangement fell apart.

I would like to suggest a course of action which, though less spectacular, could be of real use. If Janet were to let her room, trying to find a tenant similar to herself (ie, responsible, houseproud), she could discover more about the pros and cons of sharing accommodation in general. If after six months she found it didn't suit her, no harm would be done. Meanwhile she could give what remained of the rent after tax to a charity for the homeless.

At the same time she could do voluntary work among homeless people, meet them as individuals and get to know more about their problems. I think she would then be in a position to decide for herself.

Yours sincerely

Anne Kirkman, Cambridge

Needs must be matched

Here in Burnham, Buckinghamshire we have a scheme for the young homeless. A person has been appointed to look for households in which young people may have accommodation. Basically it is the landlady providing "digs". The accommodation and the families are carefully matched with a young person needing accommodation. There is also supervision to see that both parties are satisfied with the arrangement.

This level of selection and supervision gives both parties a sense of security.

This scheme is run in conjunction with another scheme called the South Bucks Young Homeless Action Group. A model of its kind.

Yours sincerely

Elizabeth Smith, Bucks

Get rid of the guilt and enjoy your space: caring really doesn't have to mean sharing

Guilt is not a good basis on which to start sharing her home and neither is altruism, nor a social conscience.

If Janet wants to help homeless people, many charities and agencies working in this area would welcome her services as a volunteer.

Janet could also reflect on why her spare room has been so little used - were her expectations perhaps unrealistic? Could there be other ways of increasing contact with existing friends? Maybe Janet could think of other ways of using the room, (turn it into an extra sitting room, or study, or music room?) Redecorate it. Buy some glossy magazines and go fantasy-shopping. Enjoy your space and shed the guilt, which isn't helping you or anyone else.


Jan Elson

N E X T W E E K ' S D I L E M M A

Dear Virginia,

My boyfriend and I have been living together for 18 months and he's starting to drive me mad. He's nice in every way - intelligent, kind and he often says he loves me. But though he does a variety of freelance jobs, he never pays any tax and for some reason this annoys me - though he says it's none of my business and it's up to him how he manages his money. He's very forgetful, very charming, and very laid-back - everything I'm not, in fact.

The tax question obsesses me - and to make matters worse I've now got enraged by the fact that he leaves the lid off the toothpaste, his dirty towels on the floor, and the loo seat up. I never thought I would turn into this caricature of a woman, nagging and fussing about such little things; so why can't I stop thinking about them? My friends say I should just forget it, that all men are hopeless little boys at heart. One minute I think they're right - and then I start feeling furious again. My boyfriend, of course, says he's sorry and does nothing at all. What should I do?

Yours sincerely, Corinne

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send your comments and suggestions to me at the Features Department, the Independent, 1 Canada Square, London E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share with readers, let me know.