My Week: Eyes down, paper hankies at the ready: Carolyn Whitehead offers advice and sympathy to the almost homeless and the already destitute

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Monday: Straight to a building society, to support a desperate client who is applying for a mortgage rescue package. This is a first for me, in spite of two years' advice experience. 'Head office will have the final say,' explains the manager, 'and the criteria are stringent.'

I walk back through town to St Mary's churchyard, the Housing Advice Centre's quaint address.

I'm on reception duty now, giving brief advice and answering telephone inquiries, many from people who hope that housing associations will solve their problem. I'll send them a list, but warn them of a likely three- to five-year wait.

Tuesday: Interviewing customers today (council policy makes them customers rather than clients). Most are young, single and seeking accommodation. As in many commuter towns outside London, homelessness is not immediately apparent, but hidden on friends' sofas, or in vans.

Usually the only solution is renting privately, if they have a deposit available.

Several 16- and 17-year-olds come in, straight from a dust- up at home. I have to advise one schoolgirl that yes, she can claim housing benefit at 16 to pay the rent, but she can't sign a tenancy agreement until she is 18. She may end up with an unscrupulous landlord, so I phone several newspaper ads, without success. Finally she says her mother will probably help.

Being near the M25 and a major railway junction means customers can come from almost anywhere, including abroad. Day ends with the 'flying Dutchman' - newly arrived, apparently without money, speaking almost no English. I stumble through Dutch social security documents over the phone to the embassy. (B&B tonight, back tomorrow).

Wednesday: A training course on 'Handling Difficult Interviews'. Through role-play, we deal with customers' grief and anger. I note down, 'watch for faster blinking, pupil dilation and leaning forward' as signs of customers' fury. 'Avoid eye contact, don't interrupt,' I scribble. Must buy a box of tissues for my office desk.

Thursday: Mainly mortgage cases, which can take up to two hours each to unravel. One unemployed man tells me that his wife's net earnings are pounds 550 per month, barely enough to cover the monthly instalment, let alone a regular contribution towards the pounds 6,000 arrears. Almost inevitably I have to suggest that she gives up work, so they can claim income support and have the mortgage interest paid.

In mid-calculation the panic buzzer shrieks. I gasp 'excuse me' and charge out of the room, to discover the source. It is a false alarm this time - a child in another interview room was playing with it.

Friday: I spend 15 minutes trying to raise the DSS by phone. Once, after failing, I called round, armed with files. 'Take a numbered ticket and queue up with the rest,' I was told.

Today's first appointment is a tearful one. My male customer is middle-aged, divorced and has to learn to cope with a huge adjustment to his previous lifestyle, having left the former marital home to move to a tiny rented bedsit. He thanks me for allowing him to cry.

Then a homeless 20-year-old man arrives. He has no money apart from his Giro. No, he could not possibly sell his car to raise the advance rent. When I warn him that income support will not give it to him, he decides to sleep in his car.

By three o'clock, all I can offer a 54-year-old man is bed and breakfast in a shared bedroom, the night shelter, or a hostel in London. He declines all three options. 'It's my dog, she goes everywhere with me,' he says, pointing to the black, shiny-coated mongrel slumbering at my feet.

My last appointment is a cheery bloke, 'passing through'. He travels from one night shelter to another, says the ones in Harrogate and Torquay are really posh.

'B'god you're an angel,' says he, kissing my hand, after I have booked him in. Maybe he should keep a diary . . .

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