The reality of being homeless

‘The most important thing you can give someone is your time.’ Social work student Michael Tolland reflects on his experiences of supporting people who are homeless, the impact on self esteem and health, and what may help.

Having worked in homeless services, in both the statutory and voluntary sector for 18 years, I have a varied experience of homelessness and what this can mean for people. The term homeless can often conjure up an image of someone sleeping on the streets and having nowhere to go. Whilst this image is often presented in the media, this is not the only version of what the reality of being homeless can be for everyone. Ending up on the streets can occur due to your family network completely breaking down, for a variety of reasons and that’s if you are fortunate enough to have them in the first place.

However, not everyone who is homeless sleeps on the streets. Shelter Scotland define homelessness as a situation where you do not have your own home. This can mean situations where you are staying with friends and family, living in accommodation that is overcrowded or staying in a property that is in poor condition. Other examples such as fleeing domestic violence from a partner/family member of fleeing external harassment from neighbours can also result in you becoming homeless. Sometimes you may end up staying in a hostel or a temporary furnished flat until you are rehoused.

Despite the many factors that can leave you homeless and with nowhere to go, I do not believe that enough attention is paid to the impact of what homelessness can be like and what this can do to your self-esteem and sense of identity. Homelessness is a traumatic event and should never be underestimated, regardless of what age you are or how you got there. I often find (granted, different service providers have their specific agendas) the priority seems to be to simply try and solve the problems that have been identified. This could be a homeless service providing temporary accommodation when you are roofless or a local authority offering you permanent accommodation to resolve your homelessness. I personally do not think there is enough time and support given to help people with their emotional wellbeing given what they are going through, it is more about attaching a solution to a problem.

An individual’s health and wellbeing can affect their life in many ways. Poor health, both physical and mental, can have an impact upon your ability to look after yourself as well as your ability to sustain a tenancy. It can also affect your relationships as well as employment. These factors can influence the security of your accommodation and lead to homelessness. Such situations can further impact your mental health which can lead to depression, anxiety and the feeling of failure and hopelessness. Add into this mix the additional issues such as substance misuse, trauma or history of prison or care and you have a situation where the thought of trying to get through the day could simply be unbearable. Just housing homeless people may seem like an answer but it’s not as simple, everyone’s journey is different.

For people who are homeless and have complex needs, it is no wonder that some people may turn to substances, both legal and illegal, to try and cope. The painful existence just to survive can be so intense, however, for people in the grip of addiction, the substance or substances that are doing all the harm may also be the only factor that seems to take away the pain and reality. This situation can also bring the additional constant demonisation within society, with the stigma of being to blame for your situation and that everyone is the same. This is not true. Despite homeless people having many similar stories and issues which they face, everyone has their own unique story to tell.

Having met and worked with many people in my time whilst employed in homeless services, what I have found is that the most important thing you can offer someone is not found in any material value. Helping people out with accommodation or benefits or signposting them to a service may appear to be what they need to solve a problem; however, the most important thing I feel you can give someone is your time. Having a chat and showing some interest and compassion to vulnerable people is something which can never be underestimated. Calling someone by their first name and showing respect during the simplest forms of contact could well make a massive difference to someone’s day. It is from here that you might be able to create some trust which could lead to an increase of hope and aspiration within them. Despite their circumstances and identity and how they got there, it is essential to never give up with vulnerable people and believe that change is possible.

About our blogger

Michael is a social work student at the University of Strathclyde, having worked in homelessness services for a large number of years.  He also has a particular interest in addiction and recovery.

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