Friday, 10 December 2010

An Enduring Problem

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.       


  1. Thanks for an interesting and informative background to 'Spikes'

    You suggest a community order, but I am fairly sure the answer from the probation court officer will be that there is nothing to offer the offender as they will be found unsuitable for all available probation interventions.

    Nonetheless, next time I will ask again!

  2. Very interesting post. I am particularly interested in areas of policy in the 60's , 70's , 80's which were paraded as liberal and progressive but were based on so many flawed assumptions that they eventually resulted in more harm.
    Today for instance I spend my whole 8 hour shift dealing with a chap with severe learning difficulties. He was tricked into giving his money to a local miscreant and became one of the millions of victims of crime in my city. He lived alone and on one of our toughest estates , surrounded by the fickle , lazy and violent, a target for those who pick on the weak.

    In the past our victim would have resided in a state run home and would have been looked after by the professional and compassionate. A safe environmental would have been provided for him to enjoy his life. Instead now he has a one bedroom flat in a prison without wardens , and a benefit cheque every Thursday.

  3. London PC - yes I think it's another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. One result of the whole 'Care in the Community' policy was the closure of the large institutions that would have cared for the learning disabled. That did have to change, but as you infer, there has never been adequate community support for the vulnerable. Your chap should idealy be housed in a cluster of flats with adjacent support available 24/7 and have an allocated advocate/mentor. Sadly it still won't stop such people falling prey to the criminally intent, but a balance has to be struck as the old institutions were pretty much just warehousing people. Thanks for commenting.

  4. I ended up with a probation career after a sound grounding in voluntary night shelters during the 1970's. Lots of "homeless, mentally disturbed alcoholic men" there, most of whom were no trouble at all but prone to loud off-key singing and swearing etc when drunk. I believe the word for them was "eccentric". Many had spent too long in burning Lancasters or in Japanese prison camps. On the rare occasions that they crossed the line and ended up at the local Magistrates Court we would raid the donated clothing store and ensure that they appeared fully suited, booted and bemedalled. Where did tolerance go?

  5. "Where did tolerance go?" Damn good question.. I remember times at school the likes of which would be better if liberalism had not meant 'turn a blind eye'! Later, times on the streets being lucky I had the sense to evade the brutalities of strange men who would predate on lost teenagers alone at night in any number of ways. I evaded death several times, glad to have the wit to do so without guidance, or having to hurt anyone in turn.

    Things became better in recent years, but now I start to wonder where we're headed when the government bring in G4S to compel people into work. Not only do we now have a hint at the return of the workhouse, we now have a mechanism that only a halfwit can ignore!

    The 'bad old days' are returning fast. A hint of hard times, and new foreign wars get launched to distract from local troubles, and all this is happening not because so many care, but because they do NOT care. If they did, we'd not be sleepwalking into this, would we?

    Most of the larger institutions came about as a result of government being made of leaders willing to take responsibility. Right now we;re seeing 100 years of work undone in 10!