Overcoming homelessness and trauma
As a young person who experienced homelessness, every day was a struggle. One day I woke up not knowing where I’d sleep or where my next meal would come from. It was a constant battle to stay safe, warm, and fed. I was homeless for over a year, and it felt like a never-ending cycle of instability and uncertainty. Whether you’re living on the streets or staying in a shelter, it’s tough to stay positive but I was determined to make it through and find a way out of that situation.
I personally became homeless when I realised that the only way to be free of my abusive family was to flee altogether. I was 18. I had no friends, no money and nowhere to go. No one should have to live in fear and chaos in their own home but it’s still a harsh reality for many young people, including me. Even though it may not have felt like it at the time, it took a lot of courage to make the decision to leave, despite the challenges I knew I’d face. I felt a range of emotions – anger, dread, guilt and loneliness. I truly believe one of the hardest but most important things I’ve done was to remind myself that none of this was my fault. I did what I did to protect myself.
The hardest part for me was the judgment and stigma from society. People would look at us with pity or disgust, assuming we were lazy or addicted to drugs. But the truth is, there are so many reasons someone can end up homeless, and it’s not always their fault. We’re just people trying to get by.
It’s hard to overstate how dehumanizing it feels to be homeless. You’re often treated like you’re invisible or a nuisance, and that can be incredibly demoralizing. You’re often met with suspicion, or ignored entirely. You’re often denied basic services and amenities, like bathrooms or a place to sit down. You’re constantly reminded that you’re seen as “less than” by society. And you’re forced to live in conditions that are often unsanitary, unsafe, and uncomfortable. It’s a constant reminder that you’re not seen as a human being deserving of respect and dignity. I wouldn’t blame someone if they never had any change to spare – times are tough for everybody, even if you’re not homeless – but when people wouldn’t even greet you with a hello or a good morning, in the moment it often left me speechless but once I had time to process it, I was hit with feelings of despair, hopelessness, isolation and unworthiness.
Image ref BBC/news
A lot of people think that if you live in a shelter, you’re not really homeless. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Many people living in shelters are experiencing just as much instability and hardship as those sleeping on the streets. They may be fleeing domestic violence, dealing with mental health issues, or struggling with addiction. Many of the people I saw in shelters were often women with young children and from what I remember there were one too many times they left in a hurry because their husbands had found out where they were staying. Does that sound at all comfortable and stress free? And the reality is, shelters often don’t provide a long-term solution. They’re overcrowded, underfunded, and often only a temporary fix. I always had housing workers pressuring me to move on elsewhere because they had to make space for other young women and I was constantly reminded that my staying there was burdensome. The fact that people who live in shelters are often dismissed and devalued is just ANOTHER way that the homeless are de-humanised.
Another harmful stereotype that society have about homeless people is that they became homeless due to low intelligence. It goes without saying but homelessness has nothing to do with intelligence. In fact, many people who experience homelessness are highly intelligent and capable individuals who have simply fallen on hard times. There are so many factors that can contribute to homelessness, including economic insecurity, lack of affordable housing, mental health issues, addiction, and more. To assume that someone is less intelligent just because they’re homeless is beyond ignorant and judgmental. It’s time society start recognizing the diverse backgrounds and abilities of homeless individuals, and offering them the support and resources they need to thrive.
As someone who has experienced homelessness, I felt ashamed and embarrassed about my past and I feared being judged or discriminated against if I disclosed my history. This often lead to me having feelings of isolation and a reluctance to share my story, which was incredibly challenging. It feels like a vicious cycle, where the stigma perpetuates the problem and made it harder for me to find the support I needed to move forward. I felt the stigma around being formerly homeless and I was very reluctant to reveal that information about me to people in my ‘new life’ as I was afraid of what they would think or what preconceived notions they would make about me once I had told them. I believe there is an immense power in owning your story and never allowing people to make you feel as if you are inferior to them for having different circumstances.
It’s important to remember that homelessness is a social issue, not a personal failure, and that everyone deserves dignity and respect, regardless of their circumstances.
When I thought not being homeless anymore would solve all my problems…
Leaving homelessness brought up a whole host of new issues. Trauma from the experience was a big one, as well as the fear of ending up homeless again. The trauma can come from the conditions of homelessness itself, such as living on the streets or in unsafe shelters but for me it was from the experiences that led me to being homeless in the first place, like domestic violence and mental health issues. The fear of becoming homeless again became such a constant source of stress and anxiety it made it hard to focus on building a new life. It also prevented me from seeking help or taking risks, which are vital for success. It’s a difficult cycle to break.
Who is statistically more likely to end up homeless and why?
- Poverty: The lack of affordable housing and the increasing cost of living can force low-income individuals into homelessness.
- Mental health issues … such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD, can lead to job loss, strained relationships, and difficulty managing finances, which can contribute to homelessness.
- Substance abuse: People with substance issues are more likely to experience homelessness due to the financial and social impacts of addiction.
- Domestic violence is a major cause of homelessness, especially for women and children. Victims may be forced to leave their homes to escape abuse.
- Lack of social support: A lack of a strong support network, such as family or friends, can make it harder for someone to cope with life’s challenges, and can increase the risk of homelessness.
How I am learning to overcome my traumas and heal
- Seeking professional support was a huge factor in my healing journey. A mental health professional, specifically finding one that you mesh well with can provide a safe space to process your experiences and develop coping strategies.
- Practicing self-care. Engage in activities that nourish your mind and body, I exercise almost everyday because I love the mental clarity and the endorphins I receive from going to the gym.
- I cook atleast 2 meals a day and find that careful nutrition has not only helped my physical health but also my mental health. I am appreciative of being able to have edible food, appliances to cook with and the autonomy to pick what I want to eat instead of just trying to fill the void in my stomach.
- I have a diary that I write in first thing, every morning, for 5 minutes. It’s just pure stream of consciousness and I enjoy and am often amused by my thoughts when I go back and read what I have written.
- Reading. I became homeless when I was 18. That means when other people my age were in Uni, making friends, having fun and enjoying their new independence, I was sleeping rough. One of the ways I self educated was through reading. I felt as if it was the only way to nourish my mind and make sure that I wasn’t ‘falling behind.’ I would definitely say that I am now an avid reader. I have this method where I set timers throughout the day to take my reading break (intervals of 10 minutes) and it helps me get through books quicker!
- Last but definitely not least, now that I am not in constant survival mode I have had time to expand on my hobbies which include world history, art, politics and film. I’ve participated in curation of museum exhibitions that have won national and international recognition and helped curate immersive art pieces that have been in the local news.
- Build a support network: Surrounding myself with positive and supportive people who can offer emotional support and practical assistance. You should remember that if they make fun of your situation or judge you for having dealt with homelessness, then they are not your friends.
- Identifying strengths: Reflect on your strengths and accomplishments to build a sense of self-efficacy and resilience for example remind yourself how brave you were for leaving, how strong you are for having got through it and how determined you are for not letting it break you.
- Getting involved in advocacy or volunteering: Helping others can provide a sense of purpose and empower you to create change.
- Taking it one day at a time: Healing is a process that takes time, be patient with yourself and celebrate small victories. It may feel unnecessary at first. It did for me when I was given this advice, I felt as if all of things I considered ‘achievements’ were normal day to day tasks for the average person. It felt patronising but I had to keep reminding myself that I am building my life, my peace and my happiness from scratch.