Dare boldly

A blog by Louise Gallagher

Homelessness and the fear of being stuck in it forever.

8 Comments

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.

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Author: Louise Gallagher

I believe we each have the capacity to be the change we want to see in the world, to make a world of difference. I believe we are creative beings on the journey of our lifetimes. It's up to each of us to Live It Up and SHINE!

8 thoughts on “Homelessness and the fear of being stuck in it forever.

  1. Great piece … but the story is a little long/windy ..

    Risk/safety are flip sides of every coin.

    Having a home, a roof, does not insulate against anything really – but we perceive we are safe, perceive we are protected from bad elements of weather, people and circumstance. An illusion, but a comforting one.

    When I first heard about your ‘housing first’ initiatives I was a skeptic. I’ve recently read and watched a number of journalistic pieces from far and wide which are moving toward a similar recipe.

    Home/a roof, don’t solve anything – but the fears and risks they remove, even if many of them are an illusion, must take such incredible weight off weary shoulders …

    I don’t buy the notion ‘everyone is entitled to a home’ politics, but I do buy the notion that ‘a caring society needs to make sure there is an availability of a roof, a safe refuge, for everyone who needs one or it can’t call itself caring’

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great comments Mark — it is how we take care of our most vulnerable that measures our depth of caring as a society.

    Housing first makes a difference — awhile ago I interviewed a woman in one of our apartment buildings. She told me that when she was homeless her greatest fear was dying in a snowbank and no one finding her until winter was over.

    I don’t fear that anymore, she said. And thanked the agency that provided her supports in housing for their efforts to help her feel safe.

    The flip side of feeling safe is believing you’re not — and on that side, you’ll do anything to create a sense of self-efficacy in taking care of yourself and your safety.

    That’s the advantage of housing first — it gives people the opportunity feel safe — and the evidence shows, once they feel safe, interactions with police, EMS, justice system etc. drop dramatically.

    Like

  3. Louise I cannot imagine what it must feel like to be always sleeping with one eye open. Sad that a lot of youth choose this kind of life because it feels safer than what they deal with at home. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It is sad Kath. Several years ago I worked with a group of street teens. we were writing a play together and then they performed it for the public. One of the things the teens kept telling me was they wanted to do this because they wanted other teens to know — you may think the street is a good alternative. It’s not. Find a way to work it out where ever you are. Do what ever it takes to not come to the streets. Alas, teens still run from where they’re at because they see no other alternative. Hugs

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Louise, this is right on the money. The experience behind the Iron Curtain certainly gave you a tremendous perspective on that unsettled feeling and how it plays out with the homeless population. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Jim — it’s a lot of years since that experience, and still I remember those feelings! I think that too is a challenge for people exiting homelessness. No matter how far away from the darkness they travel, the feelings stir within their memory, causing on-going challenges and angst.

      Liked by 1 person

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