TWO NIGHTS a week I do a 15-hour shift from 6.30pm right through to 9.30 the next morning. I work with long-term homeless young people who may have been sleeping rough for seven or eight years. I still think: 'Lucky me, I've got my own flat' when I arrive and find them already waiting outside the hostel.
We inevitably have to turn people away, which is the first frustration the night offers. Sometimes it's because they're drunk, but usually we simply haven't got room. By 9pm every hostel bed in London is filled. You have to develop an emotional resilience, but it isn't easy: they can get upset or threaten you. The hostel limits the number of nights that any person can stay to seven each month - and that's very tough. Some of them begin to cry when their time is up as they know they will spend the next night on the street.
Many of the kids left home because they were abused or their family broke down; we also get a lot of care-leavers who haven't been prepared for independent living and can't cope. It's frustrating to see people coming back to the hostel who had found permanent accommodation. Often it's because they can't budget and get evicted for not paying the rent; or they've been having great crowds of their homeless mates around with take-outs from the offie and the flat has been trashed.
We try to find out as much as we can about each young person while they are settled down to eat. We hear some very traumatic stories. They're so open to abuse: people come out of pubs really drunk and give them a kicking; pimps and drug pushers prey on them, especially the really young ones. Last winter a man who runs a male brothel was cruising around in his car outside the hostel picking up boys on their way to us and taking them away.
At midnight I say: 'Bed, folks,' and quite often have to patrol the hostel to keep them quiet. That's all very boring. Once everyone's asleep I go to the office and enjoy the sudden calm. I can hear the drunks outside and sirens going off and it's good to know that, for tonight, our young people are away from all that. I regularly check the dormitory to make sure they are not misbehaving or smoking in bed, and try not to be too affected by the terrible smell of feet.
Throughout the night, homeless youngsters who haven't found a bed drop in for a coffee and a sandwich. If they've got problems they can talk to me.
In my free time I update the file details we keep on every person that stays with us. We have regulars, but about 30 new people stay with us every month.
I have fallen asleep a few times while working at the desk, but usually I'm buzzing with adrenalin for the whole shift.
When I leave work at 9.30am I go to the gym, work out and have a shower. I feel dirty after I've been at the hostel and it's good to be squeaky clean and change into some fresh clothes. I don't go to bed until that night and the lack of sleep only hits me the following morning, when I feel incredibly lethargic and sometimes can't eat anything.
It's impossible not to take my work home with me. My first thought on waking is often about one of the kids. I've suffered insomnia due to anxiety: I'm haunted by cases of children who became self-destructive and slid into depression or developed an addiction. All the help and advice you've given them is useless.
Whenever I receive a threat of violence I can't sleep the night before my next shift because I'm worrying that the person will be waiting to attack me outside the hostel. Fatigue certainly exaggerates my paranoia.
I've been doing night shifts for a couple of years now and I feel that I'm nearly burnt out. It's time to try for a day job.
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