A recent post on the Magistrates blog about a homeless, mentally disturbed alcoholic man and what society could or should do with him got me reflecting about my probation journey and supposed progress. Over the years many such men have come my way professionally and undoubtedly they continue to pose society a problem. When I started out there were people called 'tramps', but the state at that time had a nationwide network of Reception and Resettlement Centres or 'spikes' that were open 24/7 and accepted men in any condition.
They were run by the Department of Social Security and were the direct descendants of the dreaded Victorian workhouse. They had a dual role of receiving itinerant or workshy men and making attempts at resettling them into independent, useful lifestyles. I vividly remember visiting one in the 1980's and being shown the fully tiled isolation room where the drunk or lice-ridden were cleaned and sobered up and given fresh clothing before moving on to cubicles in a dormitory. Those able to work were engaged in either making large leather satchels for social workers and capable of holding their A4 notepads or equally bizarrely terrariums, also for social workers or probation officers. I still have one gracing my fireside. By the time the government decided to close them in 1985 there were still 15 dotted around the country.
The last such facility closed only around 1989, all victims of the growth in political correctness that labelled such places as demeaning and dehumanising, but in the process handily avoided the knotty question of how such people were to be dealt with in the brave new politically-correct world. The sad fact is that there was never adequate replacement provision in either quantity or scope. Some might be tempted to ask if they worked? My answer would be that even if they didn't, wasn't it a rather more humane way to try and deal with such people than the situation we have today? We simply don't have the right facilities anymore and no agency claims any responsibility.
In the 1970's when the Home Office was known for its pioneering experimental approach to social problems, they funded a Detoxification Centre in Leeds, West Yorkshire. The idea was to divert itinerant drunks from the Criminal Justice System completely and instead offer them a safe place to detoxify before being offered on-going support and accommodation. As an alternative to arrest and a night in the cells, the police could simply give the person a lift to the 'Detox' and hand them over. Sadly research apparently showed it wasn't 'successful' and the idea didn't spread. However Leeds continued to fund the facility for many years and it continues to this day, albeit in a substantially altered form. I would say that the original concept is as valid today as proposed all those years ago.
I happen to notice that the city of Leeds is recently reported as being proud of a new joint policy between the council and police in dealing with those people found sleeping rough in the city. They're arresting them. I'm surprised they haven't thought of ASBOing them. The man from the council is quoted as saying that "there's places available at the local night shelter and so no excuse for rough sleeping." He clearly knows little about the subject and why that isn't always possible. Or maybe he thinks that some people just choose to sleep outside on damp cardboard in sub-zero temperatures for the hell of it. Many have pet dogs for warmth and unconditional companionship and shelters or hostels do not accept them. Some fear violence and others are barred for one reason or another. I still firmly believe that one measure of a decent humane society is how it chooses to treat such people and arresting them is definitely not it.
As to helping the Magistrate decide on a suitable disposal for his chap, surely it has to be a probation order? Historically that's what courts have always done with problem offenders and it's what we were set up to do. He needs a mentor, an advocate, a friendly face, a person who understands. Yes I know it doesn't fit neatly into the ethos of the modern day service, but exactly which other organisation's remit does this guy fit? Answer there is none.