Those of us who live in London or other heavily populated urban areas will have become only too aware of the exponential rise of people who are street homeless. As the weather becomes increasingly inclement we may feel increasingly concerned for the physical as well as psychological wellbeing of those who are living on our streets. We who are fortunate enough to have money in our pockets and a roof over our head face a dilemma – do we give money? engage people in conversation? buy food or a coffee? get the Big Issue? Or, conversely, we may decide that people who ask for money have made a life choice and should live with the consequences of that choice. Anyway, any money we gave will just go on drugs, right?
SurvivorsUK and Westminster Homelessness Projects have created a partnership arrangement to deliver therapeutic services to people who have experienced trauma and live the history of that trauma in the context of homelessness. This unique project brings therapy to those who would not be able to access traditional services.
I am a counsellor at SurvivorsUK and the Emotional Support Worker for this project. I go to see people where they are, buying them a coffee and sitting in a cafe, sitting in a doorway, visiting them at their hostel. I see people when they are drunk or high, I see people who have violence in their backgrounds, who are judged ‘too chaotic’ for mainstream services. I see people who are turned down by the mental health team because their drug use is too out of control but who are unable to access drug and alcohol services because their substance use is their only way of coping. It is absolutely apparent that trauma, particularly sexual trauma, and homelessness are inextricably interlinked. A trauma informed approach looks at ‘downstream’ problems in the light of ‘upstream’ adversity and the clients in this project have all experienced multiple and compounding childhood adversity which led to ‘survival behaviour’ which has caused homelessness further downstream.
And to be street homeless is itself traumatic. It is cold, you get attacked, people hurl insults, you are vulnerable to sexual, physical and emotional abuse, and certainly a sense of shame and of being ostracised by society. So the trauma becomes further compounded while the protective factors and resources available to cope are commensurately reduced.
Here are some of the clients from this project (details have been anonymised):
A young man, sexually and physically abused within his family as a child, runs away from home at fifteen and, already feeling his body is not his own, engages in sex work in order to survive. His sense of shame is so great he blocks it with the drugs given him by his tricks. His looks fail, he has to do more for less money, he becomes HIV+ and his crack use spirals.
A middle aged man, groomed and abused by a friend of the family, grows up with a fear of trust and intimacy. He marries in an attempt at ‘normality’ and holds down a job for a while but his struggle with relationships continues and his wife accuses him of being unavailable and cold. When his first born child reaches the age he was when he was abused, he starts experiencing uncontrollable flashbacks. He drinks to blot them out and to sleep, loses his job and his wife chucks him out of the house. He sofa surfs for a while but runs out of favours and ends up on the streets where his worst fears feel confirmed – he can trust no-one.
A boy was taken into care because his mother was addicted to heroin. He lived in a number of children’s homes and was finally placed with a foster family where he was sexually abused by one of the older children of the family. He serially ran away and was brought back by social services but once he was sixteen he was deemed an adult. He started living on the streets and engaging in petty crime to fund his increasing addiction to heroin. He was caught and spent time in prison, went back out onto the streets where one of his companions killed himself. He is absolutely alone and starts smoking spice.
In this Christmas season in which, whatever our beliefs or lack of beliefs, we orientate towards love, hospitality, togetherness and generosity, what is our response? It is a challenge to us all as individuals and collectively as a society. I don’t have answers but I do know that these are people who deserve, as do we all, to be treated with dignity and respect, to be seen as the complicated, funny, resourceful, hurt, colourful, thoughtful, loving, scared, strong, intelligent and insightful people that they are.
Katherine, Counsellor and Groupwork Coordinator, SurvivorsUK