Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Intentionally Homeless?

When I first heard the phrase intentionally homeless I assumed it referred to that tiny minority of homeless people who are impossible to house due to their substance misuse, criminal behaviour or inability to engage with services. Recently a story closer to home made me rethink.

Paul (not his actual name) was the first young person to lodge with me and was a fairly gentle introduction to my role as a Supported Living Carer. He had no complex needs, he had never been in trouble with the law and he was in full-time education. He was no more than vaguely acquainted with soap and his bedroom bordered on an environmental health risk but they are fairly typical teenage issues and things went fairly smoothly during his two years placed here.

His story prior to placement was a lot less eventful than many; he had been in a long-term foster placement most of his life and at 18 he needed a bit more freedom. Two and a half years after his arrival he had outgrown my home too, he wanted to bring girlfriends back to stay and come in whenever he wanted at night and at 20 that doesn't sound unreasonable so he progressed to semi-supported hostel accommodation for young people. So far, so good.

At this point things wobbled a bit, Paul didn't really stay in regular contact so I'm unsure of the details but about a year later he was asked to leave the hostel and he moved in with a newly discovered family member. He lived with her for about another year and then they argued and he was asked to leave there too. Then there was a homeless hostel, a bit of help from the council and fortunately, due to his un-troublesome background, he was found a room in a shared house. Successful end to the story.

Well it should have been except he's 23 at this point and still young enough to make a bad decision. He and his girlfriend were getting quite serious, she lived out of the area and encouraged him to move in with her. After living at his new address for about 3 months he left without giving the required notice because 28 days may as well be a year when you have to wait that long for the promise of regular sex. He moved in with the girlfriend and then they broke up eight months later. It was her flat so he was back to square one. Except this time the council won't help him as much as before because apparently he has made himself intentionally homeless

Now many young people of his age still live at home because rent costs so much but Paul doesn't have family to fall back on. He has sofa-surfed at a few friends' houses but even the best friend gets tired of that arrangement fairly quickly. He has spent a night or two in the homeless shelter and a couple more in the doorway of a local department store. Through very little fault of his own, due to being young and a bit too impulsive, he has become street homeless. It can happen far more easily than I imagined.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Moments to be Treasured

Youngster returned from custody to live back with me two weeks ago and the adjustment has been challenging for us both at times. For starters his room doesn't look much like the picture here right now and the bed hasn't been slept in as often as I would have liked.

However there have been modest successes: a first bank account opened, Job Centre appointments attended, a place on a training scheme secured and most significantly no arrests.

Best of all there have been treasured moments, like this day spent together at a local bike museum. Next time I am pulling my hair out in despair please remind me to look again at this post, good memories last a lifetime when the stresses are long forgotten.

Saturday, 5 March 2016


5 letters

I had a letter from Lad the other day, a care-leaver who has lived with me on and off for the last three years. His news is that he moved recently. He is sharing accommodation with an old friend and they are getting on well with each other and have a good social life from the sound of things. He is enrolled on a course to improve his Maths and English and has a part-time job as a catering assistant; he has also earned a place on the local football team. I really couldn't wish for better news, except that Lad and his mate share a prison cell rather than a flat and he has another 7 months to serve.

The letter saddened me because reading between the lines he sounds content, it sounds like he has returned home rather than been deprived of one. From age 14 to 21 he has mostly lived behind bars and he knows the routine, the rules, how to make friends and keep on the right side of people; skills which overwhelm him in the outside world. When in prison he engages with education, work and sport; in the community he leads a life of chaos.

Discussing these matters with his Probation Officer we were both at a loss to know what else could have been done to support him when he was last released. He had a supportive home, help to organise himself, a college interview and medical appointments arranged. These advantages alone gave him better odds of success than most released prisoners but ultimately the end result was still a return to custody. We both agreed that at some point something would just have to click and he would have to want to turn things around for himself; alternatively we could see an outcome where a more serious crime is committed and he finds himself "back home" for years rather than months.

I hope for the first option but suspect I could be his penpal for a while yet.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Everybody Leaves

Supporting young care leavers who have become trapped in the revolving door of the criminal justice system has meant saying more than an average number of goodbyes. Occasionally they have been long, drawn-out, difficult goodbyes which the young person hasn't chosen to make, to a different placement that has been selected by a panel of people they don't know. Sometimes they have been dramatic, fast goodbyes made by the young person based on their feelings at that moment, to be regretted later. Frequently there isn't even time for a goodbye and the last moments of a placement are signalled by the knock of police officers at the door or a phone call from the custody suite. I am usually left with a nagging feeling of leaving the work I had started unfinished and never having the chance to help that young person close the door on a season of their life properly, before moving on to the next thing. I suddenly have an empty nest and a diary full of appointments arranged for someone who won't be needing them after all and the house feels very large and quiet. It is the nature of this job. Everybody leaves.

Of course it is much harder for the young people themselves, their lives are full of goodbyes. There are so many of them that they resist getting to know the new social worker, probation officer, teacher or neighbour - it's only a matter of time before they will move on. By the time they reach adulthood they have already seen countless family members, carers and professionals come and go so they resist trusting anyone; it seems easier that way. Consequently it is far more difficult to encourage them to engage with the support that they need. "Lad" who, between periods in prison, has been in and out of my life for the last three years is just like this. He trusts no one, he struggles to form a healthy relationship and he will not engage with any of the services which could help make his life better. Too many people have left, he has said too many goodbyes already, it is safer not to let anybody else in. Everybody leaves.

"Youngster", who I supported for a year but who has stayed in touch ever since, has been affected very differently by his experiences. He doesn't really ever do goodbyes because he is so sure he will manage to keep that person around somehow. He is confident that each person he is attached to loves him and he has somehow remained resilient despite the long line of people who have walked out of his life; myself included. Our goodbye happened suddenly and dramatically. The process of moving him on to a different placement had begun and he was very unhappy about the move; so unhappy that absconding from home became frequent and having a spectacular meltdown was an almost daily occurrence. In the midst of one of these, when he was angry, tired and upset, his social worker called him and he said a lot of things that he could not take back, things which he regretted just ten minutes later but which forced an early move and enforced lack of contact for some time. 

However he never lost that confidence that he was loved and wanted and as soon as he was allowed he re-entered my life; dropping in for a cuppa, staying for dinner, texting at all hours. Then yesterday, two years after he was rapidly moved out, I was approached and asked if I would house him again. His last couple of years have mostly been spent in custody or approved premises and accommodating him would be a challenge. I had taken a break from supporting young people; I was enjoying the rest and space and wasn't sure I was going to do it again but now that I have been asked I find myself thinking about it. Yes, everybody leaves; but sometimes they come back.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Be patient with teachers too!

Back to School

We are three weeks in to the school year and there have been some short tempers and tantrums as we all get a bit tired and overwhelmed with our new timetables, routines and homework. On Friday especially there was far more dysregulation, arguing and hyper behaviour than usual. It was mostly from the pupils of course but everything I just said is true of the teachers too.

Even in a secondary school which is making an effort to be trauma aware we sometimes mess up: as a school and as individual teachers.  Cornered by a parent on Tuesday evening, as I was rushing home to take my own Lad to a medical appointment, there was an expectation that I would have a very full knowledge of her daughter's needs. Of course this pupil's notes are on the system and I will have had a quick look but realistically I am learning the names and needs of over 200 children, all of whom are new to me, and the temptation to come out with a comment like:

"In the short time I have known your child I believe she is a girl with brown hair."

is huge. I will get there but we are only three weeks in.

Then there are the times when I make mistakes in the classroom.. Teachers, like parents, sometimes run out of empathy. Even those of us who are the most trauma aware get tired and stressed. We may react to a situation without thinking, we may get frustrated and raise our voices. I try to always model appropriate behaviour in my classroom but I have bad days when I overreact. If I realise in time I will apologise to the class and admit my mistake or if it is an individual pupil I have dealt with badly I will try to find them later and restore the relationship but I have a full timetable and it's a busy school - I don't always have time and then the opportunity is lost.

You know those days when, as parents trying to do it therapeutically, our children push us to the limit and we react in a way we regret? Teachers can be guilty of this too. We have 30 children in front of us and they switch every hour 5 or 6 times a day. We do mess up, that doesn't mean we don't care about your child. Please be patient with us.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Growing Up Too Late

After almost six months of living alone I share the house once more with a long-legged, football-obsessed, fridge-emptying 21 year old lad. The evidence is all around me in the casually kicked-off trainers, the discarded cigarette papers and unwashed dishes that seem to be an integral part of living with a typical, young, male adult - except unlike a typical person of his age almost everything he does is in response to fear.

A stranger would describe him as attractive, confident, streetwise, a bit of a charmer, someone who knows how to look after himself, the life and soul of the party....that isn't the side of him I see at home and he knows himself, and on a good day will occasionally admit, that it is a fa├žade that he has created. The real "Lad" is the boy who sat across from me at a picnic table, after blowing off his college interview, and while trying to wipe away a tear that I wasn't supposed to see he admitted ...

"I was in prison when I should have been growing up, I didn't get to do it. Now all my mates are grown-ups and I'm still a kid. I won't lie to you, I'm scared."

Think for a moment how frightening it must be to be an adolescent with the appearance of a large 21 year old. Imagine that for the last 8 years every single thing has been done for you and suddenly everyone has expectations. Try to envisage the people you meet every day - on the bus, at the shop, in the doctor's surgery, at the job centre - expecting you to be able to behave like a fully grown twenty-something and having no patience or understanding when you don't measure up. Then visualise keeping up the image of a streetwise, confident, charming young man when inside you are scared, confused and overwhelmed. Growing up is tough.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

That Green-Eyed Monster

Jealousy is a pretty ugly emotion isn't it? It signals insecurity and lack of trust; acted upon it can make us possessive, suspicious and obsessive. It is hard enough to be jealous of a friend's promotion, the neighbours' bigger salary, your partner's friendship with an ex; it makes us feel petty and we are ashamed of those emotions, we keep them hidden. How much worse it is to covet another person's child.

I will admit it to you, Dear Reader, because I can reveal nothing to the excited young man across the table who has recently received letters from his extended family. His face is lit up with joy at such an unexpected delivery and there is hopeful expectancy of restored relationships with relatives he hasn't seen since he was a little boy. I recognize the look, it is the same pure happiness I have seen when his dad makes the occasional effort to phone or he tells me his mum has invited him over for tea. I am pleased for him; more than that, I know that this is crucial if he is to come to terms with the rejection that has been a massive hole inside him for the last eight years. Nonetheless I am jealous.

I want to ask where the hell they have been for the last twenty years, when the world was falling in around him. Where was this family when the police called in the middle of the night? Where were they all the times he went missing? Why aren't they regulars in the visits hall? Why don't they know what his favourite meals are, what kind of music he likes, what position he plays on the football pitch? Where were they all those times he needed to talk something through? You see, I am insanely jealous because I know these facts, I have been there during the crises but the one thing I cannot do is give birth to him and when it comes down to it he may well need me but he wants them. I am glimpsing the future right now and I suspect cynically that his family will only be there for the good times, for the occasions when he is behaving how they want him to, for Christmas and birthdays. And me? I am always here for the daily mess, the meltdowns and emergencies, but will probably be spending those special days alone with one eye on my phone in case I'm needed.