Life in a hostel

Ever wondered what it’s like living in a hostel? If you are curiously curious, incurably intrigued, or just plain old nosey, I suggest you keep reading.

SamI can remember, quite clearly, that the first time I walked into the bedroom at Bethany House, I smiled. Bridget stood by the window with a pile of bed linen in her hands and informed me that I’d have to make my own bed and be responsible for cleaning my room because the cleaners only did the communal areas. She peered at me over the top of her glasses and gave me a stern look. In all honesty I was a little bit scared of her, but she reminded me of someone I once worked with at a care home, which was comforting. You know those people who seem quite strict and gruff on the outside but really they’re just looking out for everyone? She was like that and that was mostly what made me smile that day.

Moving into a new place is always going to be strange, but moving into a hostel is just that little bit more bizarre. It reminded me of living in university halls of residence… I would be sharing a kitchen, unlocking a million cupboards just to make a cup of tea, navigating my way through new rules and routines, picking up letters from the front desk - but that was where the similarities ended.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on why until I watched a film called "Girl Interrupted" which tells the tale of a girl in the 1960s who was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a year. The first time I watched it I was only interested in the portrayal of Borderline Personality Disorder, which just happens to be one of the things I was diagnosed with while in hospital. But as I was watching it I became more interested in what life was like for the girls living in that hospital and the advice of Valarie, one of the nurses (played by Whoopi Goldberg).

“Don’t drop anchor here, do you understand?”

And that line was like a lightbulb, and then it all made sense.

There’s a reason why I’m technically homeless. It’s because this place is not a home. It’s a place to rehabilitate and prepare for independent living. I have a keyworker who encourages me to figure out what my goals are and find ways to achieve them, and I have risk assessments to make sure I take care of myself and that I’m getting the right amount of support.

At first the amount of paperwork I had to fill in was overwhelming but as time went on it began to make sense. I never thought I’d see the day that I clapped my hands in glee because my ‘outcomes star’ had improved. The first day I had to fill it in I remember raising my eyebrows in disbelief and wondering how exactly this was supposed to help me find permanent housing, but three months later I felt a genuine sense of achievement - relief, even. Things would be okay. All I had to do was follow the rules and it would all be okay. Maybe it was just like university after all. Maybe in two years time I’d have ticked all the boxes and be declared ready for independent living.

But this is nothing like university. There are no guarantees that if you do everything right you’ll graduate and re-join society within two years. And you’ve got to be pretty clear and assertive about achieving your goals to avoid being distracted by the social aspect of living with 93 women. It’s not an environment that makes it easy to keep focused and be healthy (I don’t mean that in an angry way, it’s just that it’s a stressful place in which to live because so many people have a lot of things going on), but by no means is it impossible. Just more work than I thought it would be, that’s all.

I know what you’re thinking. What’s a typical day?

Sometimes I wake up at what my mother calls ‘an acceptable time’. I think she means something like 8am, but this only happens on a good day. I plod into the shared kitchen and make a cup of tea and then I go to reception to check my post and have a chat with whoever is on duty. The mornings are quite nice because quite a few of the residents are heading off to do volunteering or go to work or college and there’s a sense of routine and a slight bustle about the place.

At the moment I’m going to the Hanbury Project to study creative writing and woodwork and on other days I have outpatient hospital appointments to go to. I’m glad that my keyworker encouraged me to go to classes and get the right support so I could build up the confidence I need to get back to work. It was really difficult figuring out what I wanted to do because there was so much to choose from, but the Hanbury is a good place and I’m enjoying it immensely.

The evenings are the hardest times to be in the hostel, because it can be quite difficult to sleep in a place that gets a bit noisy, what with doors opening and closing and people talking in the courtyard. But there are staff on duty so there’s always someone to go and talk to if you need some support, or you have a complaint to make about noise, or if you just can’t sleep and fancy talking about the weather.

I guess when you look at things on a day-to-day basis it is quite a lot like university, isn’t it? Get up, have a shower, go to class, come back in the evening, eat, gossip, and sleep. But the reality is a bit more complicated than that and even though we all know this is temporary, nobody can really explain what ‘temporary’ feels like. When we move somewhere we want to make friends and settle in, get comfy and build a nest, unpack our bags and call it home. Physically, yes, we do have to do that when we live in a hostel. But mentally, this is all part of a journey and for the majority of us this isn’t where the journey ends.

In other words, it was a relief to move into Bethany House after being ill and homeless for a year…. but I am going to heed Nurse Valarie’s advice: I won’t drop anchor here.

Written by Samantha Ashleigh Hayhurst