Supportive climate gives new freedom to former patients: Staff at a hostel in west London fear community care will mean cuts. Ian MacKinnon reports

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UNTIL two years ago Yvonne Sowerby had lived in a mental hospital since 1961. Of eight attempts to transfer to a hostel, none lasted more than six weeks before she broke down and had to return to hospital.

Yet in the highly supportive climate of Lakeside Road centre in Hammersmith, west London, Ms Sowerby, 53, has found an undreamt-of degree of independence. 'I hope to make this my home for the rest of my life. I've had enough moves,' she said.

Three decades in a hospital had institutionalised her to the point were she made no decisions about her life and cared little. Her schizophrenia merely complicated already complex difficulties.

But with the help of staff who are at the home 24 hours a day, she and five others who share the two three-bedroomed flats cater almost entirely for themselves.

'We do our own cooking and buy our own food,' she announced proudly, a broad smile on her face. 'We take turns washing up and drying up. Sometimes I go out on my own, sometimes I go out with the staff.'

Such simple decisions should not be underestimated in anyone who has spent so long in an institution, let alone a schizophrenic. Ms Sowerby has come a long way through the efforts of a dedicated staff, one for each resident.

One resident had been in hospitals for so long it took a week to put him at his ease with modern telephones because the last ones he was familiar with were made of black Bakelite and had A and B buttons, Christian Halpin, manager of the centre, said.

But the fear at the Broadway Housing Association, which runs the centre with the help of money from the Department of Social Security, is that when cash is switched on 1 April to local authority social service departments as part of community care, there will not be enough to meet all the requirements.

Dudley Savill, director of the housing association, said that if cash was cut, that could mean a reduction in the staffing levels which could have disastrous consequences for those like Ms Sowerby who inevitably suffer setbacks from time to time. Over the past two years it has been the support of staff during these periods that has helped to keep her in the community. 'The thing is that if they don't pay enough now, they will have to pay even more later if some of these people end up back in hospital again,' Mr Savill said.

Alternatively, he added, some may simply fall through the net and become homeless after leaving hospital because they were not given adequate levels of support initially.

(Photograph omitted)