Neville House

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

W.B. Yeats

Not long after the laudable announcement that the issue of homelessness had been resolved as a result of COVID, I lost heart again as I read that the funding for those accommodated in Travel Lodges and such would come to a swift end.   Nevertheless, the government DID do it.  The success proved that having people live in abject poverty with no home and no bed is simply a choice a government makes.

Housing First was no longer the priority for homeless people again.

Lately (Nov 2022) I read that Office for National Statistics revealed that an estimated 741 homeless people died in England and Wales in 2021 – an increase of 54% since records began. Meanwhile, the figures in Scotland are even bleaker. There were 222 homeless deaths identified, although the real figure is estimated to be 250; roughly five homeless deaths a week.

What lessons were learnt from that golden moment when there were no homeless people?  Surely it was cheaper to accommodate people than rely on emergency services to deal with their crisis time and again? Surely lives were saved as folks were in accommodation and provided with tailored support?

It seems the lessons do not matter.

I remember my first night shift at Neville House in the Winter of 1993/’94 when I was working as a locum worker for St Mungo’s Association all those years ago.   Neville House has now been demolished and developed into some luxury private accommodation.  The featured image I have here is the new development since I cannot find any pictures of the old building I knew.  Even though the building has changed, the street scene looks the same.

My mother dropped me to work.   I was, after all, still only 17 or 18 and had no driving licence of my own.  We had allowed a little too much time for traffic.  Since the shift started at 10:30 pm, and we were heading into central London, but there was none.  I recall needing to go to the loo while waiting in the car.  A pup was nearby, and I went in to use the facilities.  To my amazement, the pub was all decked out with Star Trek memorabilia.  It was super cool!

I think the Paviours Arms closed in 2003 and has long since been demolished along with the Neville House building I worked in.  I recall that the hostel itself was something the charity was squatting in, probably lent to the organization by Westminster Council.  It was quite overcrowded when I worked there.

When I had been shown around, I was told by the chap who gave me ‘the tour’ always to remember to carry what looked like a policeman’s wooden baton.  Not for self-protection as you might assume, you understand, but rather to use it to move the blankets of various descriptions which were being used where doors were missing, so we could look into the various multi-occupied rooms.    Each room, former offices, had between three to ten beds, depending on their size.

I was informed that the place was ‘crawling’ since many of the rough sleeping lads had lice, fleas and scabies.  “Move the blanket slowly and try not to disturb anything which might fall onto you as you enter the room,” he said, deftly demonstrating a swift limbo as the blanket fell behind him.

Doing a night shift in Neville House at the time was quite daunting for a fresh-faced locum back then.  

I had cut my teeth in some lovely establishments, by comparison, registered care and mental health units at Shirland Road, Harrow Road and Chichester Road,  where the clients, although volatile from time to time, were either on medication or used alcohol more as an anaesthetic from a difficult life than anything else. 

They might come in late and need help up to their room a little worse for wear, but generally, they needed someone to make them a cup of tea and chat.  Two things which I have always enjoyed doing to this day!

Neville House was different.  I think it was an old government building built in the ’50s.  I recall the dark corridors and dorm rooms contrasted sharply with the fluorescent super-bright lighting of the communal areas.  Walking from one to the other in either direction was slightly disorientating enough to generate appalling headaches, and I had to only be there for 10 hours at a time!  

Too many were living there night after night and thought themselves lucky.  I guess they were.  It was heated, and outside, the frost was biting.  This was a demonstration of Housing First.  Getting folk off the street and addressing the issues that kept them there.  

Looking back, of course, it was an outage that this building had not been beautifully converted.  That the communal facilities could barely cater to the number of people accommodated there, but at the risk of repetition, the principle was a simple one; get them off the streets, give them food, a bed, facilities to shower and a change of clothes and the other needs would be addressed after that.  It was rough but a better option than death or frostbite.

The guys were nice enough in the main; I don’t recall any women living there.  After all this time, I think it was a men-only hostel.  I think, too, that although drinking on site was against the rules, it did not stop that heady mix of Dettol and ammonia commonly familiar in wet houses.  That kind of smell that one can taste in the air as a wall of stench hits you in the face as a door is opened and closed behind you.

It took me a few moments to remember to breathe when I first went in. 

Breathing in the midst of a bad smell (a bit like when you are at the dentist and start retching because of the wedge between your molars) is the only way to stop yourself from vomiting when the body reacts to a bad smell.  It seems counterintuitive, but it works.  You have to continuously breathe deep lung fulls of aroma until, in the end, as if by magic, the smell disappears.

I quite liked night shifts.  They were a part of the rota where old hands with little or no aspiration within an organisation might hide, with plenty of time and tales to tell a person keen to learn. 

Given the right person to work with, hours could pass quickly.  Suppose you worked with someone who had aspirations outside the organisation. In that case, they might have told me about their dissertation, their chances of standing as a candidate in the forthcoming Governor elections in a province in Nigeria, the business plan they were writing on the computer, some random website which required a dial-up modem found only in the manager’s office or something else.  All were thoroughly interesting and equally as interesting to me as the clients to whom I was being paid to supervise and provide service.  I greeted all and listened to all.

Some of the other night staff were charitable and had a calling for the work.  These people provided an example I followed.  They systematically toured the building every hour, checked communal toilets, cleaned the tea stations and emptied bins.  ‘Doing’ was another way to make time pass quickly!

 Others were lazy ‘good for nothing’ thieves essentially who slept when they should have been working, or they shouted at the old drunk failed accountant who had pissed himself in the foyer and couldn’t get upstairs rather than simply help an old man to his bed.

I will revisit some of these earlier memories with you from time to time since they did have a formative influence on me and my character.  I was involved in the fight against the effects of poverty in various capacities, either on the ‘front line’ or directly influencing the work carried out there for almost twenty years before I found myself at a crossroads in 2009 when my life once again turned upside down.

About Rev Lloyd Hobbard-Mitchell

Rev. Lloyd Hobbard-Mitchell, an Englishman deeply connected to Thailand, was ordained to the Sacred Priesthood on 28th May 2023.

In addition to his religious journey, he has worked as an online English teacher and pursued a career as an artist. He has also operated a tour desk business with his wife within international brand hotels.

Lloyd has extensive experience in the voluntary sector, specifically in addressing homelessness and social welfare.

He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and embraces opportunities to meet new people, see new places, explore cultural similarities, and celebrate differences.