Recently, a friend and I talked about loss and how it impacts our lives more, or less, depending upon how confident or safe we feel in our lives.
The challenge with homelessness, I shared, is that no matter where you are, you never feel safe in your life or environment.
Aren’t shelters designed to give people that sense of safety? they asked.
The simple answer is yes.
The reality is staying in a shelter is preferrable than on the streets. Shelters do everything they can to create a place of safety and caring. But it doesn’t change how the individual feels. It doesn’t change the perception of being unsafe, not because of the environment, but rather, because of this condition called ‘homeless’.
When I was in my teens, we travelled to Czechoslovakia. It was still behind the Iron Curtain and I remember feeling unsafe, at risk, compromised. My father was unpredictable and did not suffer fools easily. In a communist country, his quick to anger responses left us at risk, or at least, that was my fear. What if he said the wrong thing to the wrong person? Would we be stuck behind the Curtain forever?
We arrived late in the day in Prague and could not find a hotel. We ended up staying in a hostel. My father in ‘the men’s room’ and my mother, two sisters and I in the ‘women’s room’.
Our fellow travellers were nice but problem was, to get to the men’s room, men had to walk through the women’s room.
I remember sleeping with one eye open the entire night. I remember keeping my belongings, what few belongings we’d brought into the hostel with us, underneath my blanket, close to my body. Every little sound stirred me and my mother’s constant query of “who’s there” didn’t help. It also didn’t help that our suitcases were in the VW van we were travelling in and I was worried someone would break into it and steal everything while we slept.
I was angst driven and uncomfortable in my strange surroundings.
We only stayed two days in Prague, one day longer than intended because our VW van broke down and needed repairs. We were lucky. The day after we left the country, they closed the borders to both entry and exit and as my father worked for the government, we weren’t supposed to be there anyway. Then again, my father being my father, we were all travelling on our British passports rather than Canadian just so the government wouldn’t know we were there.
I remember the beauty of the city architecture, but it was overlaid with a pervasive feeling of dark foreboding fear. Everything was run down and shabby. It was a year after the Russians had rolled into the country and taken over control. People walked with their heads down seldom making eye contact. And they definitely didn’t chat with foreigners. I remember the tanks standing still in the middle of public squares and uniformed men with machines guns at the ready walking along streets.
And I remember feeling uncomfortable, at risk, far from home and unsafe.
We weren’t homeless, but we were definitely on foreign soil, far from our norm and out of our element. A few years later I travelled on my own to Berlin. The wall had not yet come down and crossing over into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie also gave me that feeling of dark, foreboding fear. Of being at risk, uncomfortable and unsafe.
Like living in an emergency shelter, I wasn’t truly unsafe. But, my environment and the conditions around me evoked a sense of unsettledness that all my thinking in the world could not disperse.
Homelessness by its very nature creates a feeling of unsettledness, despair, discomfort and fear. No matter the intentions of those around you, good or bad, the condition of homelessness is distressing. Like me sleeping with one eye open and all my clothes and belongings grasped beneath my blanket in the hostel that night, the condition of homelessness leaves you with no alternative than to be hyper conscious of your surroundings, holding on for dear life to what few belongings you possess.
In homelessness, your way of life is at risk, your past is swept away and all you have to hold onto is the reality of where you’re at and the fear you may be stuck there forever. And that’s scary.