Homeless but not hopeless

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

image captionThere is accommodation for 53 homeless people in this London hostel

What does a hostel for the homeless look like?

There might be expectations of somewhere institutional, Dickensian and bleak.

But the entrance to the hostel near London's Covent Garden is more like a European hotel, with exposed brickwork and a rather stylish reception area.

The hostel, run by St Mungo's charity, has accommodation for 53 people who might stay here for 18 months to two years.

Appropriately for a building that was once a school, this hostel is based around providing training, rather than simply putting a roof over heads.

This is the tough end of training.

"Homelessness isn't just a housing issue," says work and learning manager, Rod Cullen. "It's very rare that their only need is housing."

Many of the hostel residents have been out of work for a long time, many have multiple difficulties with drugs and alcohol. Two thirds have mental health problems. A number of them will have all of these overlapping problems - and might have come to the hostel after being in care or in prison.

Half of the people living here are functionally illiterate.

The profile of homeless people is getting younger - now more likely to be in their mid-thirties, says Rod Cullen.

image captionLearning manager Rod Cullen organises training for hostel residents

Drug problems

The homeless are also less visible, with a quiet success story in getting people off the streets. Anyone who remembers London in the 1980s would have seen the shanty towns of homeless people such as "cardboard city" beside Waterloo Station.

These have disappeared. On any given night there might still be about 260 rough sleepers in the capital - but much larger numbers are now in accommodation for the homeless. St Mungo's looks after 1,500 people each night.

But having brought these people indoors, what help can they have in getting back in to work and getting a place of their own? Or are they going to spend their adult lives in and out of addiction and living a life of dependency?

Work skills

In this Endell Street hostel, there is education and training alongside the accommodation, including using the renovated school hall.

There are classes in building skills, painting and decorating, music, creative writing and catering.

image captionHomelessness in the 1980s took the highly-visible form of "cardboard city"

There is an accredited gardening course called Putting Down Roots.

Apart from improving employability, Rod Cullen says such courses give a really valuable sense of structure to chaotic lives and give a sense of achievement to people with rock-bottom self-esteem.

A programme called Personal Best is training people to be volunteer staff during the Olympic games in 2012, with the aim of developing skills that will be useful in getting paid work.

The charity says there are signs of success from its efforts. Among those who have stuck with the courses, 13% have gone into jobs, 6% were in work placements and another 17% have gone into further education.

When the context is taken into account, these modest figures look more impressive. Years of drug taking, with spells in prison are not always the easiest ways into the workplace.

Crack addict

There is also self-help among residents.

Jerry, a former crack addict who has been in prison, has invented his own recovery project, called "10 times better".

image captionA room in the hostel in central London

The aim is to help people get off drugs without telling them - small step by small step.

This might mean a haircut and a move to start eating more healthily, rebuilding a sense of identity.

His credibility comes from having been there himself. "I've seen them crawling to give their money for drugs," he says.

"I can see that they can't see a way out."

As part of his own recovery plan, he has been working as a DJ and was about to leave on a trip for a gig in a club in Bulgaria.

The novelty wasn't going to be a club in Bulgaria - it was going to be the first time he'd been on a plane.

Jerry also says that not all hostels are as clean and safe as this one. He describes another as being like "Helmand".

'End of the world'

There are also services in the St Mungo's hostel that make a big practical difference, such as access to the internet.

Victoria, a resident at the hostel, in her 40s, is doing voluntary work in a cafe as a step towards getting a job.

When so much information is now online, being able to use the internet makes a huge difference to trying to return to the mainstream world of work, she says.

But there are no easy answers. She talks about the disappointment of job interviews that have gone wrong and then going back to work for nothing.

The donation of music recording equipment gives hostel residents a chance to express themselves.

For people who have been marginalised, music and songwriting can be a way of addressing some traumatic emotions.

"When I lost my flat, I thought my world had come to an end," says Esther, a softly-spoken woman who has recorded music while at the hostel.

"I'd never felt as vulnerable and exposed. There was such a loss of privacy. I couldn't tell my friends what had happened."

Should the homeless be given these kind of facilities? Or should they have to make their own way?

The charity says that getting a homeless person off benefits and into work means a substantial saving for taxpayers, estimated at £62,000 per person, according to a recent report for the government.

And ending up homeless is "not a lifestyle choice", says Rod Cullen.

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