I saw another homeless person yesterday. I also heard Peter Bullimore at #peer14 (an independent trainer and campaigner about mental health and voice hearing) make a very important point about someone with a chronic mental health challenge. He said “what is the most important thing to create for someone to recover?” His answer was “Safety”. “And what is the most important way to help someone be safe?” His answer was simple, but hugely complex in reality. He said “a home”. A safe home, rather than somewhere where someone is easily targeted and ridiculed, robbed and tormented is a basic human need and right.
For many years I was a housing manager. For many more years I was a psychotherapist. My regular dilemma is thinking about how to reach people that are the most cut off from society, from very basic safety and comfort and from basic respect from the majority of people. Homelessness is complex. It can be seen as a downward spiral of deteriorating health, dignity, self-esteem, hope and worst of all, a decaying sense of being human. What happens to a person if they fall off or step off the ladder? Many people protect themselves from a duty to their neighbour who is homeless with statements such as “it’s their choice, they don’t have to be homeless”, “it’s of their own making” and “they probably deserve to be homeless”. Ghastly inhumane and un-thought through and un-informed, defensive attitudes, in my view, without knowing that person’s life and experiences and the very hard to access resources….. And if a person chooses to become homeless, is it really choice? Or a choice based on real options?
I recall a woman, I’ll call her Mary, who had experienced severe abuse as a young person, had then been subject to further abuse and domestic violence in 2 marriages and her own son was also abusive to her. Unsurprisingly, she had a diagnosis of several anxiety based conditions, very low self-esteem and felt a degree of paranoia about what her neighbours thought of her. At the age of 62 years, she could stand her internal and external torment no longer and left her flat to live on the streets, again. She had done this a number of times in the past. She said the people she fell among may abuse her further but they may also understand the complexity of her history and therefore the complexity of her dilemma in the here and now. When you know this about her, is her choice actually a choice as we understand choice? She had managed to get back into renting a home again through living with her sister and then being able to reclaim benefits that cannot be obtained when you have no address. Some people don’t have a family member willing to put you up, some people can’t get back on the ladder and into a situation that they can tell their story like she did. What happens to them and what was the reason for their “choices”? Chronic voice hearing as a consequence of trauma that torments them and stops them making contact with a safer world, behaviours that are not understood and contained with compassion, young people that fall out of the system, people using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate because prescription drugs don’t do it for them. Reason after reason. And of course there are those that want to screw a system and I came across those too, and they angered me because they stood between those that could help and those people that were truly homeless in the real world and in their psyche, with no sense and experience of belonging. Homeless in their capacity to attach to others. The fraudsters could be scooped up by cheap media and used to represent the whole complex real world of homelessness due to some form of trauma, and so allow an easy conscience quelling attitude to dominate that states it’s the homeless person's fault anyway or homelessness doesn't need to exist. And what if people don’t find a way to genuinely reconnect and find a safe place to live. The reality is that they get prematurely ill and die without dignity and without chances to resolve their trauma and a chance to heal at least some of their wounds and feel some compassion from a world that has damaged them and then further rejected, dismissed and humiliated them.
And is this a ranting in my head that sees victims as not capable of taking responsibility for themselves. Is that another way for me to dislodge my responsibility for my homeless neighbour who can’t be a neighbour right now? What if, like Mary, people do find a solace in rejecting a certain way of living in order to hunt for and find connection with the only people that can understand them? I believe that what she was saying was that from time to time, living amongst people who could identify with her provided some form of healing and connection, sufficient to come back and live in a “home” again. But how appalling that someone has to go to those lengths to recover a little. I also know that she was in danger, as an older woman with poor health, of many risks.
How do we as humans find ways of doing the right and best thing for people that need and deserve compassion? How do we respond socially, politically, ethically, philosophically and spiritually? I find it mind-bending, frustrating and distressing to think through. How do we, as humans, respect peoples choices about how and where to live, whilst knowing that people are at risk as a consequences of their choices, and are their choices, really choices? What if, like Mary, it’s the best they can do and the best thing for them, despite the risk of further trauma and physical danger? Is it patronising to assume that we have the right to take someone off the streets when they truly have made their choice because of their own particular life experience? Or is that giving in to the futility of the seeming circular argument of rights versus choice, because it’s so hard to find a solution?
A most vicious, vicious heart-breaking spiral.
image courtesy of exposingtruth.com