MP’s view of Breakdown Britain

THE harsher side of life has been experienced first hand by MP Oliver Heald. The MP for North East Herts, last week encountered the toughest social problems facing Britain today. The shadow minister for social inclusion spent five days as a volunteer help

THE harsher side of life has been experienced first hand by MP Oliver Heald.

The MP for North East Herts, last week encountered the toughest social problems facing Britain today.

The shadow minister for social inclusion spent five days as a volunteer helping at a direct access hostel for homeless men.

The placement organised by the Centre for Social Justice brought him face to face with homelessness, addiction, unemployment and family breakdown.

Mr Heald said: "It's vital that MPs experience the reality of Breakdown Britain. These night shelters and rehabs are run by the men and women who are saving lives and healing our self-harm society. MPs and government need to get on their side."

He was involved in preparing meals, cleaning toilets and getting stuck into whatever practical service he could.

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And he will be in touch with the project for the rest of this Parliament.

Mr Heald kept a diary during his stint at St Anne's in Sheffield. Here are some extracts:

Day 1: My induction with the deputy manageress, Mandy, left me a bit nervous as she mentioned the possible risks of needle stick injury and violence, but in fact staff and residents have been very welcoming.

I started at 8am for a 12-hour shift. I spent some time working in the office where you meet residents, as they ask to borrow the Hoover, balls and cues for the pool table or for help with filling in forms.

The podiatrist came and helped a number of those with feet damaged by too long spent outdoors on the streets. One chap said that he would now be so comfortable he could walk to the village.

In the TV room, the most popular programme was Location, Location, Location. Obviously the residents retain their sense of humour.

Talking to those who use the service, there is huge gratitude to have been saved from the bitter winter cold so well known to the rough sleeper. They do good work here.

It's been a long day - back at 7.30am tomorrow.

Day 2: Patrick the needle exchange worker from Turning Point came to collect needles from the secure bins around the hostel. I went round with him to collect them. It was good to see Patrick again; I had met him before on my visit to Turning Point.

I also helped hostel worker Alma to clear a room left by a resident. We wore heavy protective gloves in case of needles. We did not find any - although there was a tourniquet.

The best thing has been talking to the residents, many of whom have harrowing stories to tell. They are very open with me and willing to share their experiences. As the weather becomes harsher, they are grateful to be out of the cold and in the safety of the hostel.

Day 3: It's icy, 7.30am and I am being briefed by Tracey, St Anne's cold weather worker. We are going out to the day centre where rough sleepers have breakfast, and then to visit the overnight spots for those sleeping out in Sheffield this February.

One man is pleased he has a good thick coat. Another wonders where he'll get enough cardboard during the day to make a shelter good enough for snow.

I return to St Anne's hostel for the afternoon. I play a few games of pool in the recreation room with two residents. They're far too good for me.

Days 4 and 5: My last stint at St Anne's is the night shift from Thursday 7.30pm until 8am on Friday with Helen and Julie. This involves answering residents' inquiries and monitoring the front door.

It is a more relaxed atmosphere with residents enjoying a few words with us as they collect soap for their washing or ask for the TV guide. The younger residents talk about their hopes for the future - for a flat, to do an NVQ or to set up home with their girlfriend.

I start to think about my conclusions from this week.

It has had a big impact on me to meet those affected by homelessness. Although some of their troubles could be described as self-inflicted, particularly the drink and drug problems, many here have had a bad start in life.

Mental illness, particularly depression, features with many. The problem of a lack of basic skills keeps coming up.

However, my main impression is that those who work in centres like St Anne's are saving and improving lives every day. They do a fantastic job and they deserve our strongest support.