Homelessness doesn’t start with not having somewhere to live: it starts the second you don’t feel safe in the place where you live. It doesn’t stop when you have a roof over your head: it stops when you feel your home is somewhere you can rely on physically and emotionally.
It’s a social state, of course – but more significantly, it’s a psychological state. I say ‘more significantly’ not to understate the impact of being forced to sleep on the street, or sofa-surf, or move into a hostel at no notice while you try to figure something out, which of course can be enormous. But I would argue that what makes it enormous, is what it does inside your head.
Do I not deserve to be safe? Do I take up too much space in the world? Do I hurt people? Would everyone be better off if I just wasn’t here?
Many people that we recognise as ‘homeless’ have these thoughts every day. But so do many children in dysfunctional family homes. So do many partners living in fear of violence. So do many disabled or elderly people whose needs are being neglected.
Meanwhile, some people (though it’s hard for most of us to imagine it) choose to have no fixed abode. No rent to worry about, no landlords and neighbours to argue with, not tied down to one street for years and years, no paperwork, no politics, no pressure.
The reason I’m labouring the point isn’t to make you stop feeling sorry for the next person you see sleeping in a tent. It’s to make you think about how to decide who you feel sorry for – and what you’re going to do about it.
I realise now I was homeless for at least the first 28 years of my life, since which I have been ex-homeless-in-recovery. (I just turned 30 a few months ago.) For most of the first 21 years of those, I lived in a family home of two parents and two kids in nice suburban parts of London – vicarages, in fact – when I wasn’t away at uni.
The attempt on my life, therefore, came as a bit of a surprise to a lot of people. As did the sofa surfing. As did the eventual mental health inpatient unit admission. By the time I was put in an emergency hostel, most of the people who might once have been surprised about what had happened to the golden vicar’s daughter had lost track of things. By the time I was put in a housing association property just down the road from where my father’s ‘other woman’ lived – the woman who had enabled his abuse of myself and my mother throughout my life – I was pretty relieved to be invisible.
Because when that psychological state of homelessness is perpetuated by not only the people who set it off in you in the first place, but also by the very services that exist to support those in need, it feels ‘right’, like invisibility is what you deserve. Worse than that, when it gets really ingrained, it actually starts feeling safe: “I can’t be in the way, I can’t hurt anyone, if no-one can see me.”
I was lucky, in several ways. I have a deeply ingrained need to create, writing and performing my work is like breathing for me, and that helped me stay connected to my own truth even when nothing in the world around me made sense, as well as giving me communicative tools that to an extent helped me defend myself against psychiatric streamlining and bureaucratic gaslighting. (It didn’t do me all that much practical good in the short term, but at least it forced some acknowledgements that what I was being put through was inhumane).
I also had a handful of people who kept asking and kept listening. And finally, I was lucky that someone fell in love with me. Someone who stayed determined that his life was a million times better with me in it, no matter how hard I tried to warn him the exact opposite.
95% of the time, these things didn’t feel like good luck. They felt confusing, punishing, and terrifying. The other 5% of the time was utter bliss – but even the bliss was exhausting and unsustainable. This was the crucial time in which the state of homelessness that had defined how I perceived the world my whole life was being challenged, emotionally I was reduced to standing and falling and standing and falling again while relearning how to walk.
That is such a crucial time in recovery from homeless trauma, and it’s exactly the time at which most support services leave you completely alone: they’ve put a roof over your head and a few pennies in your pocket, job done. In fact, any enormously brave attempt to re-socialise is punished through all-or-nothing benefits criteria and intrusive questions about who’s visiting you in your home.
Through persistence in taking practical and emotional risks, over several years the balance between my homeless brain panicking and my healthy brain celebrating has slowly shifted from 95-5 to more like 60-40, with the lows being more bearable and the highs being more measured. It has been and continues to be exhausting, but it is my exhaustion and I am proud of it.
I can’t create all the conditions around which I was able to make this progress for other recovering homeless minds. But I can bring them together into a safe, creative, playful space and offer some of the artistic tools that have helped me begin to take charge of my truth, I can start communities built around affirmation and validation even if I just have them together in a space for a couple of hours. And I can tell them with authority that the struggle is worth it.
And that’s what I am doing with the outreach programme. I am building around my autobiographical solo show, NoMad. I hope that seeing the show will help other survivors of systemic exclusion to feel somewhat represented in a cultural sphere, and that the workshops I offer them will help them find their own voice in that conversation with society, whether in the arts or in their everyday lives.
I am also running workshops for social and mental health service providers: the people who hold that duty of hope for people in desperate circumstances, who have to be the face of bureaucratic inadequacies and box-ticking neglect, who far too infrequently get to celebrate the successes and far too frequently get personally blamed for the losses. No wonder we hear so many stories of these workers blowing fuses and losing patience with their clients – but in doing so, they are most likely to end up perpetuating their hopelessness, lack of self-worth and misery. If these workers can find ways to maintain their empathy and humanity and still look after their own wellbeing, then they can continue reinforcing “you deserve better” to the people they are trying to support – and make them so much more able, when they are finally able to re-socialise, to take control of their own futures with ambition and excitement, rather than confusion and fear.
There is a brighter future for the people our society has failed, and that starts with a set of keys and a bank account but that’s nowhere near the end. If you aren’t secure in your own mind, no locks are ever going to suffice. Because security isn’t just a place where you can be safe: it’s a place where you can thrive.
I hope NoMad can be part of a wider shift from thinking of safety as the end goal for those ‘in need’, towards thinking of security as the bare minimum, for ourselves and for others. And that shift needs to happen in wider society as well as within services, because only by being truly, humbly and humanly connected with each other will we ever be able to identify in a meaningful way where need lies.
About the Author
Nell is an actor who has previously experienced homelessness, a writer, a theatre-maker and a facilitator living, laughing and loving with complex trauma. She started her career from an emergency hostel seven years ago, and if anything has gotten even less sensible since then.
Her company, Response Ability Theatre (R.A.T.), represents and supports people whose lives have been derailed by trauma: telling their stories on professional stages in collaboration with them, engaging audiences’ social awareness in visceral but compassionate ways, and working directly with survivors and their service providers to find creative routes to their renewed self-respect, ambition and hope.
Links Nell would like to share
You can find Nell on Twitter @nomad_nellhardy
Find out more about NoMad Arcola