Priority, and priorities

Sagar Gupta gives us a glimpse into life at a North London homeless hostel

Often, it’s serendipity that precipitates profundity.

So when a Somali resident thumped on the staff door, shouting: “priority, I’m a priority!” I was interested. Interested because I’d regularly interacted with this resident before. We’d smiled, head-nodded, and were progressing to the hallowed fist bump. But, prior to this, our conversations were primarily non-verbal.

Now, his plea rung through my ears: ‘‘I’m a priority”. It ricocheted off the corners of my cerebrum: “I’m a priority”. It became louder and more oppressive: “I’m a priority”.

For someone with a limited grasp of English, his use of ‘priority’ particularly piqued my interest.

Sagar is placed at YMCA hostel for homeless young people in North London.

Sagar is placed at YMCA hostel for homeless young people in North London.

I’d seen it before in Government legislation relating to people who are homelessness. To get any help from local authorities, you must be in ‘priority need’. It’s supposed to prioritise children, vulnerable people with mental illnesses, and pregnant women.

But, 49.7% of homeless people that speak to local authorities are turned away; returning to violent relationships, crammed housing, or, the streets. Often, it’s single, young people. Often it’s single, young people like the Somali resident standing in the door. They aren’t priorities.

Fortunately, this resident was considered a ‘priority’. He was housed at the YMCA where people learnt more about his ‘complex needs’ and his harrowing past. He’s on a support programme that’s tailored to address some of these problems.

So, as I opened the door with trepidation, I feared the worst. In an irrational system of bureaucracy, where life-changing decisions are made arbitrarily, I feared that something serious had happened.

He stood in front of me: perspiring, hair dishevelled, Arsenal shirt hanging limply over his skinny frame.

He spoke. “Emma! Priority.”

His inscrutable utterance confused me even more. I prepared a shrug and an upside down smile. But, behind me, a caseworker stirred. Jane walked over to Emma’s desk. She picked up a strange looking object and came to the door. The resident’s eyes proverbially, and literally, lit up. He took the gift with an irrepressible smile and almost did a little curtsy.

Jane turned to me and said: “He’s been banging on about that bloody loofah pad for ages”.