Prison Breaks, Washing Machines & Getting Clean: Homelessness in the City

If you were looking to escape jail, what would be your first move? A covert rock hammer cached in your bible? Or perhaps a nail file under your mattress?

What if I was to tell you that sometimes inmates can simply come out in the wash?

In the shadow of the Cutty Sark, halfway through my chat with our friendly neighbourhood support worker, the conversation suddenly turns to prison breaks; “I was with a client and we were just having a coffee. I can’t remember how we got onto to it but we were talking about washing-machines. Anyway he said to me “Once on the inside, I was working with another inmate I’d become friendly with. We were constructing a washing-machine, and when I took it apart instead of putting it back together properly, I put him in it and screwed the back on. That’s how he escaped from prison!’”

Whilst this may not be the life story of the entire homeless population, it is certainly an indication of Emily’s* eclectic clientele. She goes on to explain that the hero of the story “knew he shouldn’t have done it and that it was wrong, but said his mate really wanted to get married so he felt like he had to help him get out.” In many respects, it’s the first washing machine love story and, if nothing else, it was certainly an alternative method of ‘getting clean’.

Incidentally, helping the homeless manage or overcome drug addiction is one of the many steps a support worker tries to help with. The job, in a nutshell, involves helping homeless people reintegrate and re-organise their lives. Finding accommodation and if possible, paid work, obviously top the list. But a support worker also advises them on everything from how to pay bills to budgeting for their weekly shop, and even accompanying them to doctors appointments.

Her buoyant attitude sometimes makes it easy to forget the severity of London’s housing crisis, though she’s quick to point out that “the overall housing trend is getting more and more expensive, people aren’t earning as much, and those with additional needs are barely being covered by mental health services.” So how has she remained so positive about the changes her charity is attempting to implement?

There is a refreshing humanity to everyone she meets. People who should feel an overwhelming resentment for the world are able to make light of some of the darkest moments. For Emily* it’s the chance to talk with those who have faced such adversity that makes her job so interesting. It’s the kind of insight that would break anyone out of their usual bubble. “I’m giving you a very rose-tinted view of the whole thing, because when I’m not at work it’s a lot easier to love it. Although it can be really stressful at times, the best thing about being on the frontline is building relationships with these people.”

One of the project’s aims is to break the stigma associated with the homeless. She tells me that “at the moment, the attitude that’s being promoted is one of criminalising homelessness. There’s a lot of rhetoric about how it’s a lifestyle choice. I don’t think you can ever say someone is making a free choice to live on the street in such desperate conditions.”

Interestingly, there is a stigma towards support workers from the homeless too. “Being young, being female, many of the guys I work with are in their 40s and 50s, big, burly, with tattoos. And I think quite a lot of the time they are a bit unsure about me beforehand. But, as with everyone, if you’re willing to give it a chance, you can always build that relationship.”

Before she sat down with me, Emily* had spent the day helping a gentleman she’d met at the very beginning of her job. Earlier that afternoon, he’d managed to land himself his first volunteer job at a local gardening centre, a position he was really passionate about. Just 12 months before he’d been picked up off the streets, like so many he was illiterate and untrained in any trade. Whilst support work is certainly no stroll through Green Park, for Emily* it is definitely worth the uphill pursuit.

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