It was nearly 6 years ago that I began my involvement with Doorway. I was slowly recovering from having been extremely ill, my hospital visits had reduced to monthly, and I had just got to the point where I was well enough to find boredom outweighing relief at survival and residual grottiness. More to the point, I had begun to consider that I might someday consider being able to work again, and even more pertinently, had realised that if I watched many more episodes of the Jeremy Kyle Show, my brain might fall out permanently.
So what to do? Voluntary work seemed to be a possible starting point on the long road back to my old day job of being a GP. I mentioned this when talking with friends. One of them (sadly no longer with us) mentioned that he had for a while worked at Doorway, and though he had had to stop for personal reasons, he could very much recommend it as rewarding work, helping with providing meals, and talking with the homeless of Chippenham and North Wiltshire. Not that I was aware there WERE homeless people in North Wiltshire……
It was more difficult to track down Doorway than I had expected. I knew the sessions took place in the Salvation Army building in Chippenham, but Doorway did not have then the internet presence it has now. However, I finally found a number which I hoped was the right one, and left a message. This was returned, and an interview was set up with Lisa and Karen. And then an embarrassing thing happened – the ‘mind fog’ to which I was still prone because of my illness descended, and I completely forgot to turn up. When the ghastly truth sunk in with Lisa leaving a message on my phone, I thought this would be interpreted as a terminal lack of commitment, but I’m so pleased she gave me another chance. I can’t remember too much about the first sessions, apart from being a bit surprised and embarrassed to find one of my old patients, whom I knew very well, was there as a regular guest. From the very start then, my past could not be forgotten or fully ignored… I was struck by the friendly atmosphere, how the guests, volunteers and staff mixed so well, but also how there was definite authority when needed, and superb organisation. While many things at Doorway have changed in my time there, those factors have not.
Initially I came only on Thursdays, as I had a commitment elsewhere on Monday mornings, but it was soon an appropriate time to finish with that, and so I started coming to Doorway for both sessions. In discussions with Lisa, we had agreed that my role would be likely to be usually that of a ‘befriender’ in the Hall, rather than in the kitchen. It was of course accepted that if extra hands were needed in the kitchen, I would muck in there. However, on the first occasion this happened, I managed a spectacular piece of breakage, and haven’t been invited back in there since! Honest, it wasn’t deliberate.
I really can’t remember when I started working on occasions on the front desk, rather than on the tea and coffee table. I soon discovered that there is much more to this than merely recording the “Where did you sleep last night?” and asking if people have drinks on them. Sometimes the first impression of a guest’s mood is different from the mask they put on to go into the Hall. At the other end of the visit, we get the throwaway but deeply significant remarks made at the very point of leaving when it feels more ‘psychologically safe’ for people. In between, we hear snatches of the phone calls, we see interactions outside amongst the smokers, we spot who is hovering around on the pavement outside weighing up whether to come in, or waiting for somebody inside. Nowadays, I am one of the team on the front desk most sessions that I’m there, more often than not, alongside the wonderful ‘Auntie Sue’. These are people I even trust with my black ink Pentel! If my mood is fairly stable…..
Earlyish in my time with Doorway, Helen was running the first pilot of a football drop-in for the guests. I remember thinking how nice it would be to take part, but I could not begin to conceive of being able to run, or even to get to Stanley Park, But when the concept was revived (the first, outdoor project had stopped once cold dark nights set in), I was fit enough, and definitely keen enough to work with Kev in getting it off the ground. I visited the ‘Streets Revolution’ set-up in Oxford, run by Jon Regler. I had got to know Jon through Twitter, and visiting his football session proved to be a real inspiration. We were really fortunate to be offered use of the superb indoor facility at Ladyfield Church, and though our numbers were small to start with, we kept plugging away every Monday evening. I was given extra belief by the knowledge that the thriving Streets Revolution project had started with similarly low numbers. Here we are today, with good numbers, having played in tournaments in our (ahem) distinctive pink kit, and with a team photo from a couple of years back which seems destined to haunt me for the rest of my days, given that it has become one of the ‘Gazette and Herald’s stock Doorway photos. Sadly, it portrays me at probably my fattest in adult life, and tight fitting pink synthetics don’t help the look. We have younger players on average than we had when we started – and I’m getting on for five years older… I pray that Steve will keep on playing with us so I don’t become the oldest. Although I’m already the least fit.
The other ‘outside of session’ activity I have been involved with was helping with the launching and editing of the Doorway blog site. For me to be involved with this was a fairly natural progression from my heavy involvement in Twitter (much less nowadays because of time constraints). Through Twitter, I had come into contact with all manner of people involved with homelessness issues, from the CEO of Thames Link to people living on the streets and in hostels, activists both UK-based, like Jon R, and international, like Mark Horvath, and bloggers like Homeless Girl and Aibaihe. The blog seemed a natural cousin of that, though I was hugely honoured to be asked by Lisa.
The initial hope was that the blogsite would principally be for the guests to have a forum to express themselves – there has been less of these contributions than I hoped, but judging by quality rather than quantity, particularly the series of pieces by guest ‘samsa.k’, ‘The Voice Inside My Head’, it’s been a resounding success. All I had to do with these searingly honest accounts of one man’s descent into alcoholism and homelessness, and his difficult steps on the comeback trail, was find web links and relevant title pictures, but it was a total honour to be associated at all with them, and to see the subsequent radio and Kindle exposure. Most important of all, to hear that they had provided inspiration to some people in their battles against their own demons.
Once I was advancing along my own personal comeback trail, there is no question that my involvement at Doorway helped to prove to the relevant professional people that I was fit and capable enough to fulfil a regular commitment, and with a decent enough problem-solving brain to cope (I realise there are those who may disagree with the last bit). However, once I was back in the world of paid work, time issues emerged – usually struggling to finish a Thursday morning work session in time to join the Doorway afternoon drop-in, and always feeling guilty that I had missed the Doorway ‘rush hour’. By now I was pretty much only doing the Thursday sessions, but trying to do all of them. However, about a year ago, I was asked if I could do a surgery at work starting at 7, and (notionally) finishing at 11:30. Perfect. For the moment, until the next work reshuffle……
I have already mentioned that my cover was blown from day 1, with my old patient being there as a guest. And word started to spread, but those guests who knew seemed to accept that I ‘used to be a doctor’ and that I had been ill, without asking any questions beyond that, and certainly without asking for medical advice. But as I moved back into the world of professional work more locally, there have been more incidents of people I’ve known with both hats on, past and present, and I have inevitably been involved in giving advice on medical issues of guests both to themselves and to staff. But I am always clear that I cannot prescribe, and I will not criticise treatment by others. Although I might sometimes suggest gently that they seek reassessment…… With one guest I saw him a few times at the drop-in, as it was easier for him to get there than to my surgery. And in one case I have recommended Doorway to a patient for specialist advice. So, the boundaries are a bit blurred nowadays.
What is undoubtedly true is that, not only did Doorway help me back to work, but it has also improved my practice. I am so much more clued-up now in helping patients with their struggles with housing and benefits, I have so much better a picture of the allied organisations out there –particularly as over the nearly 6 years I have been at Doorway, it has changed enormously, with a number of agencies sending workers in on Thursdays, with more assertive signposting to guests, with more time spent on helping guests more deeply and expertly with what seem like ever more complex issues. And I’m not afraid to tweak a few noses in the housing department, either, if it needs doing. No idea where I learned that from…..
And of course, I said earlier that I hadn’t been aware there WERE homeless people in North Wiltshire. I learned how many homeless, under threat of homelessness, precariously housed, marginalised people there are around here, hidden. Earlyish in my time at Doorway, I was walking down to town with my younger daughter, on my way to town, and she asked who were all these people who needed Doorway. And I was able to tell her that we’d passed 6 guests in the previous 5 minutes…..
As I said I joined Doorway mainly to start the process of getting back to work, do something useful with my time, and to avoid Jeremy Kyle. I achieved the first two, and then some; I have made great friends (Lisa even gave a reading at my wedding to Jen) and been privileged to share some inspiring moments; I have enjoyed sharing in triumphs and have wept with some losses (there have been rather too many deaths of various causes, for a start); but as for Jezza Kyle –
I’ve heard tales at Doorway that would be considered far too weird for his show, so he’s redundant in my life anyway!
All the time Doorway is around, and I’m still around, I intend for it to continue to be a major part of my life. I think we have a true symbiosis. May Doorway continue to thrive, but may we never take its existence for granted.