Real Life: Speaking up for John: Citizen Advocates get things done for those who cannot help themselves. Angela Neustatter reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
JOHN is singing, smiling broadly at the sheer fun he is having. He is like a gigantic crow on a wire, shoulders hunched, head moving to the tune. Then he ends with an explosion of laughter, and greets the quiet young man, fashionably dressed in a beret, blue jeans and big boots, sitting opposite him. 'Hallo Dave.'

Dave, says John, is his best friend. 'We met in the office here at the hospital, didn't we? I liked him as soon as I met him. I found him friendly with his funny hair-cut - well, he's got no hair - he shaves it all off. I'm very fond of him, you know.'

Dave smiles. He is used to John's enthusiasm but he also knows the other side, the days when John is angry and depressed. Theirs is an unusual friendship because John, a man in his fifties, has been a patient in Tooting Bec mental hospital, south London, for the past couple of decades. He is a

voluntary patient, diagnosed schizophrenic. Dave, in his late twenties, works as a nursing assistant at the Maudsley Hospital, has his own flat, a girlfriend, and an impressive air of composure. Five months ago, wanting to 'do something with some sort of purpose', Dave volunteered to 'partner' John as a Citizen Advocate - a relationship which combines friendship with being a spokesman for John to help him get his problems sorted out.

The first Citizen Advocate scheme was set up 10 years ago. Today there are 100 of them, operating from hospitals around the country, with several thousand people involved in partnering. Sally Carr, who helped organise the original pilot scheme, explains that it is designed to empower people who have little power on their own - people whose disabilities make them unable to get things done for themselves; those in institutions (often mental hospitals) who are there because they are unable to cope by themselves. The scheme relies on ordinary people wanting to give time not on the basis of good works, but to build a rewarding friendship.

Advocates, who are not paid and who decide how often they will make contact with their partner, may do something as simple as helping their partner set up a bank account or get the state benefits they are entitled to. It may mean representing them on a tribunal to decide what kind of care in the community they may be offered. Or, says Dave Skull, in charge of the Tooting advocacy scheme: 'It can be about helping people caught in the 'revolving door syndrome' where they are forcibly hospitalised, then discharged back into the community, then hospitalised again. If you can find a way to help these people to cope in the community, you break the cycle.'

With the new Community Care Act, and the drive towards getting people out of institutions and into the community, advocates are needed more than ever. Yet the scheme is contracting. Government funding of pounds 10,000 a year, to keep its infrastructure intact, is to end this year. National Citizen Advocacy, the national resource centre, will only operate in Greater London (although they will advise on starting projects elsewhere).

The 1986 Disabled Persons Act stated that there would be advocates for all who needed them, but it is a promise that has not been implemented. Lawyer Luke Clements, who specialises in community care issues, says: 'If advocates tell

people about their statutory

entitlement and they start saying I want this or that, it will

be expensive. The Government doesn't want to put itself in that position. We're talking economics, not humanitarianism.'

As it is, advocacy schemes have to be financed through donations and, in some cases, local authorities provide funding. Not only does this make their existence very precarious, but it also means that advocates do not have the status of authorised representatives who must be listened to. This can make their task very difficult, especially when dealing with the private sector.

In the meantime, those involved with Citizen Advocates are enthusiastic about the way it is working. During their tea-

time meeting at Tooting Bec Hospital, which is soon to be closed, Dave has been discussing the kind of housing he hopes to organise for John. They have been joking about the height of ceilings - John is very tall - and decoration. Dave says it is time he was going, adding: 'Next time I come I'll bring you a hamburger or something.' 'Well, don't bring too much bread,' says John. Dave raises his eyebrows, bows in mock servility and says 'Oh no. I'll bring a dozen oysters, sir]' John, delighted, bursts into song.

The National Citizen Advocacy Scheme can be contacted on 071-359 8289. A Channel 4 programme about the scheme, 'Taking Sides', will be broadcast on Thursday at 8pm

(Photograph omitted)

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