I recently read Michael Rowe's finely calibrated ethnography, Crossing the Border: Encounters Between Homeless People and Outreach Worker. It reminded me of my 'messy' professional encounters with Ali (not his real name) when working as a probation officer.
On arriving in the waiting area, I was alerted by an unearthly noise, which was in fact Ali expostulating with the receptionist about his lack of accommodation and wanted 'someone to sort this out now'!
After many fraught exchanges, I realised that he was reporting to see the office duty probation officer (it was my allocated duty day). He had been placed on supervision for a series of public order offences related to 'unpleasant outbursts' in which he had been evicted from the local housing office. As was practice at the time, I picked up his supervision and we agreed to a referral to emergency accommodation.
The requirements of regular reporting and agreed supervisory tasks became a demanding regime, so an informal agreement to offer supervisory flexibility was agreed. This would enable Ali’s contact with other keyworkers and joint meetings at the hub for mental health provision.
Ali's psychiatrist had an insightful grip on the multiple obstacles ahead to effective recovery, and offered a realistic pathway that would allay some of the earlier judicial concerns around his anti-social behaviour. Ali was well known 'on the streets' and would often socialise with known 'drug users' who would be periodically 'rounded up' and appear before the local court.
One of my home visits to see Ali was particularly memorable. He was placed in a hotel where the local authority had concentrated some of the most vulnerable of its homeless residents, and I found an atmosphere redolent of stygian abandonment. I was directed to the top of the hotel, and climbed many stairs to what I assumed was his room.
I was alarmed to realise that he was in what resembled a garret - a claustrophobic room that barely allowed for two adults to negotiate the space. However, Ali appeared broadly indifferent to my concerns on the suitability of his temporary accommodation. He wanted to talk about addressing his mood swings, and his worrying demeanour made me think that another mental health assessment might offer a way ahead.
I contacted my mental health colleague who agreed to relay my concerns to the outreach team. Sometime later, I responded to an 'urgent' telephone call from the mental health team to notify me that Ali had been arrested for an unspecified sexual offence, and all current interventions would be suspended because he was now in custody.
Following his appearance at the Magistrates’ Court he was remanded to a local prison and relevant links to the prison health care wing would now be of immediate concern.
I was disappointed that, having made strenuous efforts to collate the information needed for his next court appearance, very little mental health input seemed to be considered pertinent 'at this stage'. It appeared, perhaps unfairly, that an 'out of sight, out of mind’ approach was much in evidence, contrary to the partnership working beforehand. I made attempts to encourage my colleague to prison visit but this again proved unworkable.
Ali rang me from the prison to plead for some resolution as he was now fearful that his 'residency status' was likely to result in action to deport him after his sentence (he entered a guilty plea). The court imposed a short sentence of custody: available information from past pre-sentence reports was deemed sufficient to sentence. There had some tepid intervention from the prison health care providers, but before arrangements would be made to prison visit (his community order had been revoked), he was being held on detention pending deportation.
The final telephone call from Ali, before his deportation, was poignantly curtailed, as before I could speak an automatic response noted that 'the caller has hung up'. I contacted the caseworker in the deportation unit to clarify Ali's whereabouts and he offhandedly observed 'he's off your hands now'.
Before I had any further reflective space to absorb this information, I was called to see another client in reception who was 'kicking off' as he had arrived from prison and had nowhere to live!
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer