I worry: is her misery my fault?: As the Government reviews housing policy, Geoffrey Shechtman talks to a council officer struggling under the strain of trying to judge 'deserving' cases

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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Pauline Brown (not her real name) began as a council housing advisory officer in an inner- London borough, she thought it was a marvellous job. She wanted to drag homeless people off the street and set them up with homes.

Five years on, she has been worn down. She retains the belief that everyone has the right to a roof over their head, but her sympathies have been fractured by the daily trial of selecting deserving cases.

Her job is to determine whether those who call at her centre have 'priority needs' for the temporary or permanent accommodation the council has to offer. But the Government's criteria for housing by a local authority do not diminish the anguish of the excluded, or their persistence.

'I've built long-term relationships with some people who won't get any accommodation because the resources aren't there to provide it,' Pauline says. 'Then I find myself thinking, get lost, you won't get anything. And I think, oh God, I've become sucked into the mentality of who deserves somewhere to live and who doesn't.

'I start to think, I ought to sabotage someone's application, because they have been so lousy that I don't want to help them. That's what has made me want to get out. I have to be involved in my casework, involved with people - and my own values are at risk.'

Pauline experienced rooflessness when, 20 years ago, she left home at 16 and lived on pounds 10 a week. Now in her first mainstream job, she has a partner, two children and a pleasant home in one of London's poorest boroughs.

Her idealism is taxed by her own self-sufficiency. 'I feel that the next 18- year-old who comes in pregnant, expecting me to provide her with a street property with a garden, I'll scream. Me, of all people] I'm sympathetic, a feminist. I understand how women get themselves into this position.

'But the job drives me completely mad - that a grown person can believe it doesn't matter what they've done with themselves, someone else will sort it out. This sounds reactionary, I know, but it happens so often - 30 times in the past year - although I don't think women become pregnant to get housed.

'It is the same with women fleeing domestic violence. It's hard for them to leave their partners. When they leave, they go back; they leave again, then go back. I can't stand it. If you're leaving, leave, and we'll give you somewhere to live. People want you to sort it out for them, and if you don't do it immediately, they'll punish you by running back to their partner.

'I feel responsible for people, and it's like being let down. I start to experience it in a personal way, which is unhealthy.

'People come in who are very angry, or upset, or not with it because of drugs. Homeless people have a right to be angry, but I don't like to be at the receiving end of it.

'If someone comes in who is not in priority need, and they are incredibly rude - 'What do you mean, you're not going to help me. Gissus a f****** flat. What do you know about it? You've never been homeless' - I think, tough. Yes, I do live in a four-bedroom house. And, no, I don't care. Go away.

'But someone who treats me in a way I can discuss with them - they're polite, they're OK - I'll try to work out ways of obtaining help for them. I judge people, which I have no right to do.'

Pauline finds the long-term homeless easy to cope with, apart from the fact that they tend to smell. In her area they are usually men with drink problems, drug addicts and young women who have run away from home, sleep rough and survive on prostitution. 'Usually they are not aggressive and are not asking for things. They're fine.'

Families who become homeless, such as those evicted from council accommodation over rent arrears, are grateful for whatever they can get. It will be what the council euphemistically terms short-stay accommodation - in reality, 'nasty grots where no one else will go'.

Problems arise with those from what Pauline describes as normal families - 'people who think everyone owes them something' - among them the children of council tenants in a predominantly white area of average income. 'Local working-class people who have done quite well expect their children to be treated in the same way they were. But many of the council houses have been bought up.'

The council provides housing for refugees, to which locals are antagonistic, especially representatives of tenants' associations. 'They don't like refugees coming. They don't like the homeless, full stop.' Recently the council accommodated a Somalian family of 12, who are now shouted at in the street. 'We're asked why we are helping them. There's no shame about it.'

Pauline is threatened at least once a week, and though she has never been assaulted, she feels that it could happen at any time. 'I accept it as part of the job. I have developed ways of dealing with people. I'm not rude to them. I don't laugh at what they say, or shout at them.' She gives the example of a single, fit young man, who has been coming in every week for the past 18 months.

'He's not a dosser, he stays with friends. I've tried to help him get a hostel, but if he can't do that, tough. There's nothing else I can do. Getting that across to him has been very difficult. He's always saying, 'I'm going to burn you, bitch.' In the office we laugh it off. But how do I know that he's not going to act on what he says?'

She reports aggressive behaviour, but says the management response is merely mollifying: 'Oh dear. Isn't that awful.'

She resents the low status of her job. It is not the salary, which at pounds 18,500 a year she considers reasonable, but the lack of recognition and support.

There are five managers in her office - 'all white, all men, all with short hair and white shirts' - and none of them, she claims, knows anything about working with the homeless. They have been promoted from estate management, the landlord function, which Pauline believes has greater standing because it brings in money for the council.

With managers under pressure, her recommendations go through on the nod, no matter the legal niceties of the case, or the judgement entailed when, for instance, someone who has no other claim to priority says they are suicidal. 'I might have written a load of rubbish. You lose pride in what you're doing.'

The council bases its service delivery on neighbourhood centres to provide easier access, but this contributes to Pauline's isolation, because it makes it more difficult for her to communicate. And the open-plan office obliges clients to discuss intimate matters in public, and jeopardises staff security.

Pauline does not favour the screens used to protect housing workers in other boroughs. 'Talking through a screen to someone who has just been abused is alienating. It's demeaning for them and for you.' Interview rooms with a panic button would be better.

Aggro has worsened, she says. 'Over the past year I've seen more and more people with mental health problems. Social services don't have enough places, so they are sent to Housing, yet I've never been trained to deal with them.

'I can't identify someone who is schizophrenic, whether they are a danger to themselves or anyone else. We put them in a B & B and try to find them a flat, but they can't cope without support. They go from office to office until they explode. Or they try to kill themselves, or wreck their place. They may then go to hospital.'

Her job is made harder by bureaucracy. The council has just evicted a tenant whom Pauline describes as an anti- social drifter, on the grounds that she had abandoned her flat. 'She's a prostitute and she has poor hygiene, but she would never hurt anyone. Instead of attempting to deal with her problems, she was sent a letter saying that if she didn't contact the housing department, they would get rid of her. Three weeks later they possessed the flat without serving a court order, which is illegal. But they knew she wouldn't challenge it.'

Pauline has no forum or support group in which to raise work issues, a position she contrasts with that of social workers. 'Sometimes I feel guilty, and I lie awake at night thinking I didn't help this person and it was my fault. If you've nowhere to discuss this other than in your own family, eventually you quit.'

(Photograph omitted)

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