This care worker tried to stop drugs being sold in a homeless day centre. Now she faces prison

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The Independent Online
TODAY, RUTH Wyner, who for 20 years has worked with the homeless, expects to be jailed. Her crime is that eight people were caught supplying drugs at the day centre she runs.

In the first case of its kind, Wyner, 49, along with John Brock, the manager of the Wintercomfort day centre in Cambridge, were found guilty of "allowing the supply of heroin on their premises". Today they are being sentenced in Kings Lynn Crown Court, Norfolk, and Wyner is preparing herself for at least two years in prison. But it could be longer; there is a maximum sentence of 14 years and/or an unlimited fine.

The conviction last month has far-reaching implications for those who run homeless centres, night shelters and even prisons because drugs usage does happen, despite efforts to prevent it.

Wyner and Brock banned suspected drug users and dealers from the premises, as do many places - including the St Martin-in-the-Fields homeless day centre in central London, visited earlier this week by the Prime Minister - but fell foul of the law because they were deemed not to have taken all "reasonable" steps to stamp out the problem.

Wyner, who has run the centre for five years, said that when she was arrested in May 1998, she was bewildered as she thought the centre had a good relationship with the police. She was told that officers had been running an undercover surveillance operation.

"They told me they'd arrested eight drug dealers as a result. I was still quite calm and said `Great, well done'. We see 120 people a day in the shelter and I knew then I had missed some heroin pushers. I never imagined it would all rebound on me," she said.

The police gathered more than 300 hours of video evidence between February and May 1998, from cameras overlooking the centre as well as from two police officers, posing as homeless people, who carried hidden cameras.

Eighteen months later, Wyner and Brock were in court for a seven-week trial. "Homeless people are very off-putting. Yet I have hardly ever met one who didn't want two things: their own front door and a job. The homeless are the new untouchables and because of my work I am guilty by association," Wyner claimed. "My remit was to become high-profile and publicise their plight. I stuck my neck out and got my head blown off." Wyner said that she had been expecting to be convicted after she heard the judge's summing up. "When it came, the verdict hit me like a 10-ton hammer," she said. "I swayed and momentarily my vision went. Afterwards I noticed how people's attitude to me changed - as if I should be exhibiting some kind of shame for my deeds."

During the trial, it emerged that Wyner and Brock had, in accordance with the confidentiality rules of the Wintercomfort charity, refused to hand over names of people they had barred from the centre. Paul Craig, Detective Inspector of Cambridgeshire police, said it was "entirely justified" but it was "very sad" that the two would probably go to prison. "We would do it again, if evidence came to light that there was widespread use of drugs on any premises, be they a public place or a private home. That is the duty of the police," he said.

Dr George Reid, senior bursar of St John's College, a former Conservative mayor of Cambridge and a trustee of Wintercomfort, said he was "devastated" by the convictions. "This drugs policy was agreed on by all the trustees and modelled, indeed, on that of the Citizens Advice Bureaux," he said. "The two have been criminalised for doing their jobs in good faith."

The policy of confidentiality is used by many charities dealing with vulnerable people who may be involved in illegal activity, both to build up a trusting relationship with their clients, as part of the rehabilitation process, and to protect staff from being attacked.

Roy Wolford, the governor of Park prison in Bridgend, South Wales, said the conviction set a dangerous precedent as it was impossible to keep jails drug free. "If these people are guilty, then prison governors should be brought to book because technically, with the level of drug- taking there demonstrably is in prison, we are failing too. It should come down to reasonableness. Is it reasonable to expect someone to exclude all drug use among a user population with a high drug-user content? No it isn't," he said.

Wyner said: "This is a cruel process. It has destroyed John Brock, my co-defendant. He has had a breakdown and hasn't worked since the arrests. The punishment is for our families too. My daughter is only 16 and missing her will be the very worst part, the bit I am dreading. She is not old enough to be without her mother."

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