Choice, control and connections: Preventing Trauma in the COVID-19 crisis
Many homeless people who until lockdown were sleeping on the streets have suddenly found themselves with a roof over their heads. However this does not necessarily mean their problems have been solved. We have to ensure that during times of crisis, such as the current pandemic, we support the wellbeing of these individuals as best we can. One of the priorities should be avoiding the possibility of re-traumatisation.
So how can frontline services ensure they are not causing more unnecessary trauma, while also ensuring they are not putting individuals who have previously experienced trauma in potentially triggering situations?
From my experience, it comes down to three things: Choice, Control and Connections.
As trauma can be both a cause and effect of homelessness, and as traumatic experiences may affect every aspect of someone's life, it is vital for professionals to look at the bigger picture. They really need to take into account service users’ history when trying to plan their care.
Often when we experience trauma the ability to make any form of decision is taken away from us. When you are suffering from abuse or domestic violence, you have no choice. When I speak to individuals who, like me, have experienced either sexual abuse as a child or sexual violence later in life, they almost always mention choice as one of the things they really value now in their recovery.
Former rough sleepers have gone very quickly from choosing where they sleep each night and who they associate with, to being stuck in a hotel room and perhaps having meals delivered to them by outreach teams. In normal circumstances, rough sleepers have no control over their external environment, but they still have other choices. In many cases, these have now been taken away.
In December, when I was moved from the hostel where I’d been for months, I was not given a choice in when, or where, I was going. This was re-traumatising, as it brought up many emotions related to my childhood, where similarly my choices had been taken away from me.
When those currently in hotel rooms look forward to life after lockdown, and moving towards more permanent forms of accommodation, choices need to be given so that potentially traumatised individuals can start to feel back in control of their lives.
As people, we need to feel a certain level of control to feel safe. When you take away control from an already traumatised person, the feelings and emotions associated with the initial trauma are likely to resurface. This can be extremely damaging.
Last year I was moved into a supported lodgings placement with a local charity. The situation was completely out of my control. To begin with it was great, but when the landlady started accommodating male students of a similar age to me (specifically one of my triggers), it sent me spiralling. Looking back it would have been more appropriate to keep me in Nightstop - the emergency accommodation, until something more suitable came up where I wouldn’t be surrounded by triggers.
Similarly, a temporary flat I was moved to after the hostel caused me to feel extremely out of control. It was a big block, constantly loud with parties and most of the other tenants were either taking or dealing drugs. Knowing I had no control over the environment left me feeling extremely vulnerable. Now it is clear to me that no one already suffering from PTSD should have been moved to that flat.
Anyone who is currently in a hotel room because of lockdown needs to be made to feel in control of their own situation as much as possible. This could be in the form of getting a say in what type of accommodation they would like to move into more permanently, or what kind of support they think would be beneficial to help them move forward.
When you have experienced trauma it can feel safer to disconnect. You think no one else could possibly understand what you’re going through, so you shut yourself away. For me, becoming homeless forced me to reconnect.
When I was homeless and at my lowest, I started to build relationships with staff at Scarborough Survivors. Then once I was staying in Nightstop and the places that followed, I was constantly surrounded by other people. In the hostel, this could be up to 17 other young people along with staff and security. Although at first it was extremely difficult to be amongst so many people who, at times were very chaotic, I quickly got used to it once I was able to build up trust with staff and get to know the other residents.
Now for most people sleeping rough pre-lockdown, being surrounded by people would be their normal and they may be completely thrown by solitude. To then be told you will be staying in a hotel room for the foreseeable future, completely alone, must surely reinforce any prior feelings of abandonment.
During the lockdown, connections are more important than ever, with social distancing leaving so many people feeling disconnected. Obviously this guidance needs to be followed. But for someone who hasn’t had human contact for a few days, the value of a chat, even from a few metres away, or a video call, should not be underestimated.
There is no doubt that without certain services, I would not be where I am today, if here at all. However it’s not only about the services, it’s about the people who work for those services who have constantly gone above and beyond in ensuring I always felt connected.
We are all in the same storm, but the life jackets aren’t one-size-fits-all and not all of them self inflate. Homeless people deserve to be seen as human beings, with varying needs.
Hannah Green is a freelance writer and activist. She writes about her lived experience of homelessness and PTSD and these experiences drive her passion to change things for other young people. She recently took part in a fascinating Covid19 Talk, which you can watch below: