April 1, 2022
When I got my own flat just before the pandemic, after experiencing homelessness for over a year, I presumed that was it; everything was fixed and I could get on with my life.
No longer being homeless meant I had an element of safety back in my life that I’d never really had. However, that was only the beginning. Unfortunately, the reasons I became homeless did not magically go away.
Having my own front door didn’t get rid of the trauma that led to homelessness, the addiction that stemmed from both the trauma and the homelessness or surviving in a fight-or-flight mindset.
For a long time after moving into my first flat, I was stuck in survival mode. It wasn’t until I moved again in January 2021 that I started to come out of it. Whilst that was clearly a good thing - my brain registered that I was safer than I had been for most of my life - it meant my brain started to try and process things it had never been able to.
I’d stopped using drugs just before getting my flat, and the whirlwind I then found myself in along with the lockdowns meant that most of 2020 is a bit of a blur.
I am very lucky, and grateful that I am now being provided with specialist trauma therapy to deal with the reasons I became homeless. It’s scary to think what would be going on for me now without that. Many people are forced to wait months, or even years for NHS interventions. One question, and potential solution is whether organisations hiring people who have experienced homelessness should play more of a role in arranging this, as it benefits the whole organisation.
It became clear to me how some people get stuck in a cycle of repeat homelessness. If they’re housed permanently or provided with temporary accommodation and they don’t feel 100% safe, then any specialist support or therapy may not be effective. In my experience, not feeling safe means you can’t fully open up and get to the root cause of what’s going on. Without specialist trauma therapy, many people may not be able to deal with the trauma they have experienced, which could impact their ability to hold down jobs and maintain tenancies. We have to make sure people are given the tools they need to cope with the things they have experienced, until ultimately we can create a society which doesn’t force people to experience such extreme trauma.
Studies have shown that to create positive, long term results for people who have experienced homelessness, it is vital to ensure that social support is adequately provided for those who need it.
Without the tools that therapy has, and continues to provide me with, I might not have been able to hold down my job; I might have started using drugs again. Things could have been very different and I may have ended up homeless again. But it’s still far from plain sailing.
Having somewhere to live doesn’t end the sleepless nights, where the trauma replays on a loop in my brain. It doesn’t end the cravings for drugs or to hurt myself every time something, no matter how small, triggers me or goes wrong, because that’s how I’ve always coped.
Only a few weeks ago I slept in my van for the first time since having Covid. I woke up at 3am, freezing cold. It sent me into a huge downward spiral and it wasn’t until later that day that I realised it triggered memories of the hostel where I spent six months when I was homeless. The freezing nights with no money for the heater, wrapped in two duvets and shivering. I always saw homelessness as the result of the trauma I experienced previously, but recently I’ve come to realise that the drug use, violence, regularly seeing people overdose and losing my best friend to alcohol, all whilst being homeless, was in itself traumatic. No one should be surrounded by that, and it took me until now to realise it.
A house is not the same as a home. We cannot add a doormat that says ‘there’s no place like home’ and expect someone to feel safe. The trauma I experienced made the world feel incredibly unsafe. It’s only through finding a sense of community, new relationships and purpose that the world is starting to become slightly more secure. Roots aren’t just physical, they're psychological too. As found in previous research, the phrase ‘home’ can have at least six or seven dimensions, and includes things like ‘loving and caring social relations’ and ‘control and privacy’.
Many people who have been through the same things I have, don’t have access to the resources and support systems that I do. Even so, I still have an intense fear of paying bills, although I know full well I can now afford them. Just the thought of paying a council tax or water bill sends my brain right back to the psychological stress I experienced in the hostel.
The labels I was given when accessing homelessess, mental health or addiction services also stuck with me. I know from experience that when these labels are repeated over and over, we start to believe and internalise them, whether it’s ‘addict’, ‘complex needs’ or another. By the time I left the homelessness system, I believed every single label that had been put on me. Even now I have to keep reminding myself that their labels don’t define me, and I would urge all services to strongly think about the language they use when talking about people.
One of the things that calms me down is Lego, and I realised that you can’t build anything from Lego without a stable base. Just like we can’t start to work on our trauma without a home where most importantly, we feel safe. Without a stable base, it’s a recipe for disaster.
* Hannah Green is Communications and Lived Experiences Specialist at the Centre for Homelessness Impact (@homelessimpact) and Author of My Journey Home.