By Lee Dale, Expert Citizen
You would be forgiven for thinking that once you become homeless it is straight forward enough to bounce back. You should even be forgiven also for thinking that those currently experiencing homelessness are doing so through their own fault.
The thing is it is a very progressive slide from staying with friends, staying in temporary accommodation and then running out of options until you find yourself ultimately sleeping rough.
Often these destinations are put forward to us by way of a prompt from local authority. Usually after taking part in some form of assessment in which you are scrutinised on past choices, or grilled into submission where insinuations incur that your situation is self-inflicted. For example “intentionally homeless” or “lifestyle choice”. If you do manage to get past the guardians your fate yet again is in the hands of the local authority on where you end up.
Bed and breakfast establishments are usually the first port of call, where you can be put up on a day to day basis. When I say a day to day basis, you are literally there for one night. Then you have to be out the very next morning for the cleaning of the room. Your plight yet again starts, spending all day waiting for a call from the local authority. Hoping they call you at all, the preferred outcome being they give you permission to stay at the bed and breakfast once more. Or even better informing you that there is a property with your name on it. The latter never ever happened at all for me.
I finished my last blog “the art of doing nothing” by touching on the facts prior to my first hostel placement. In fact I was arrested for a drug possession charge while being street homeless, and it was in that police cell where I deliberated that I needed to get some advocacy and change my circumstances or I was probably going to die or end up in gaol. At the booking desk I had noticed a poster for a local drug service, I knew it would be imperative to my survival that I contacted them.
Promptly the very next morning after making an initial call the evening before, two workers visited me at my make shift home. I think it was important to them that they saw how I was living. By calling my name they managed to coax me out of my slumber. I remember the male worker’s reaction well when I told him about my life for the past 6-8 months, and he immediately invited me for breakfast at the nearest supermarket café. Once there the pair got to work by ringing around for some sort of emergency accommodation, and arranging an appointment to see a GP at the drug service so I could get onto an opiate replacement treatment plan.
I am going to skip the whole referral process and the knockbacks I received by temporary accommodation providers, and jump right into the first day of my hostel experience. So here we go, what can I say really. Intimidated, anxiety ridden, uncertain and doubtful all words which can be used to describe how I felt. I suppose I was fearful that once I stopped moving all the grief and negativity I had accumulated would catch up with me. Until that moment I had wrapped myself up in other people’s chaos which was a welcome distraction from my own difficulties. The very first night in the hostel was an opportunity for me to use a bathroom, the room was further down the corridor from mine. I remember being quite anxious manoeuvring myself and my stuff down to this facility, being around others had become difficult and trust was a huge issue.
The environment I found myself a part of was busy to say the least, it seemed everywhere I looked there was potential for an altercation. Looking at someone in the wrong way could lead to a full on verbal assault or so I thought. And then there was meal times, 7-8am for breakfast and 5-6pm for dinner. And there was no haggling on these times, if you miss them you go hungry full stop. Your service charge factored in the costs of meals, but management were rigid and would not allow you to opt out of them. Simply you put up or shut up, charming of course. Frankly I was too intimidated to attend the canteen at meal times and didn’t for the first week. In fact all I did was stay in my room or went out walking to pass time. Of course one hostel rule was if you didn’t come down and show your face by mid-morning a member of staff would come to your room for a welfare check. I would often answer my door to a member of staff who looked really pissed off because they had to grace the stairs up to my room (or that’s how I perceived it). Another rule I should mention is that every time you are to leave the hostel you have to hand in your key, on return you are to look sober otherwise you are not to get your key back. In the eventuality of this occurrence you are to sit in the day room while being monitored until you are deemed fit enough to receive your key back. Quite demoralising to say the least. You can imagine the fun and games that this created, a sort of cat and mouse like palaver. I later found out that this was due to a previous resident’s death caused by intoxication, so I can’t really blame management for this procedure. This was something frustrating to watch as it took a lot of staff time to police, time I felt could have been used more productively for other residents.
Initially I tried to keep myself to myself as I knew it was important not to get involved with anyone, or anything that could affect my future housing prospects. So I kept up this mentality for about a month until one day I felt the need to create a positive alliance or two. Being human I have found this is a necessity and not just something I wanted, by isolating myself I was causing damage to my mental health which was already impaired. Several people had made themselves known to me during my stay so far, but I was finding it extremely difficult to muster up any sort of trust. What I did have though was my zopiclone and diazepam prescription which helped me to get into a welcomed state of unconsciousness, this then gave me the confidence to get out of my room and gave me the ability to associate with others in the day room. This is when I realised that actually the attitudes which I saw expressed by many were common to my own. When you have lost everything and have no hope left in the tank you become detached from any sort of obligation to act normally. I witnessed this frequently and eventually adopted the very same attitudes and behaviours laid before me. Apathy is something very inherent within these constructs and any sort of optimism is quickly stamped out of you, negativity was apparent and omnipresent.
I really must mention here about a policy that the hostel had adopted, we were told from day one that outside the hostel we were not to speak or acknowledge any of the staff. There was probably a valid reason for this, yet at the time I was totally dismayed. It made me feel subhuman and unworthy to be any part of a normal society.
What was wrong with us? Why were we not worthy of being acknowledged by staff? These questions circled my mind and began to grind me down. I yearned for connection, the desire for an intelligent conversation was smouldering within me. All my attempts to suppress these feelings was causing me damage, damage which would catch up with me later in my life. My self-worth had become non-existent and because of this I was finding it increasingly difficult to make eye contact with anyone. My mental ill health had reached a peak, my automatic thoughts were all negative. For example I would think all members of staff would be talking negatively about me every time I entered a room, and this would make me defensive and sometimes aggressive in the way I would communicate. In fact I still have to bite my lip when I hear “the homeless” or “those sort” in conversation.
The thing is being in that situation under those circumstances you can’t see a way forward. I must highlight this because in current times of austerity it’s easy to assume without funds we can’t help people. But actually what we can do is give them hope, and this can be done in many ways and is free. For example two years ago I was given an opportunity to volunteer for an organisation who has given me a platform to be able to tell my story. In that time I have achieved numerous qualifications and made many friends in the process. And in the next few months I move out of supported living into independent. I never thought this would happen to me back then has it seemed all aspects of life were out of my control. You see when hope becomes present magical things happen and I can vouch for that. One last thing I think needs to happen is a shift in attitude towards those who experience homelessness and rough sleeping, we need to recognise that individuals have skills to offer society and as a community we are simply missing out on these. You see the issue of homelessness and rough sleeping isn’t just terrible for those concerned it has profound effect on community as a whole. What I’m trying to say is that combatting homelessness and rough sleeping should be everyone’s priority, and not just an after thought.