Three years ago, I answered a call to work for a London-based homelessness charity called Evolve Housing + Support. It’s a cause close to my heart because of my own personal experience with it. My mother and I both experienced homelessness, although separately, each at a different stage in our life. Neither of us ended up sleeping on the streets. She divided her nights between women’s shelters, friends’ homes, and local churches. I found myself sofa surfing, sleeping in my shop and briefly living out of the delivery van I used for work as a florist. At the time of our experiences, neither if us referred to ourselves as “homeless.”
15 years later, I’ve had the privilege of managing a small Fundraising and Communications Team. They work to dispel the myths around homelessness and raise much needed resources and awareness to tackle the problem.
When we hear the word “homeless,” many might imagine someone bundled up in doorway in a soiled sleeping bag, their face hidden and back turned while trying to catch the last moments of sleep before the streets begin to bustle again. The flow of footfall in and out of shops will force them to find another secluded part of the street or congregate with others in similar situations.
That is what I used to think, too. However, I’ve since learned that homelessness is far broader than that. It is commonly defined by four key categories: rough sleeping, temporary or emergency accommodation, hidden homelessness, and at risk of homelessness. When we understand the wider context of what “homelessness” means, we start to understand how pervasive this issue is. This is the first step to tackling the problem.
According to the Great Britain Homelessness Monitor Report commissioned by Crisis, an estimated 300,000 households will face homelessness in 2023- a sharp rise from 227,000 in 2021.
But, how does anyone get to this point? Common misconceptions are that it’s due to poor life choices combined with drugs and alcohol. The truth is, it is rarely one factor, and rarely because of bad life choices and substance misuse alone. Instead, homelessness is often down to a noxious combination including a primary relationship breakdown, loss of job, limited or no family support, and childhood trauma. No-fault evictions are increasing, and in the case of women, domestic abuse can be a common factor.
According to Shelter, “domestic abuse is the third most common cause of homelessness” as women scramble to escape increasingly untenable conditions. However, these same women admit feeling stuck, and that they couldn’t “afford anywhere decent to live if their relationship broke down.” At the time of Shelter’s report in December 2021, 2.7 million women reported feeling this way.
Substance misuse alone isn’t the cause of homelessness, despite what many think. Instead, the use of substances begins as form of self-medication to numb feelings caused by a traumatic life event. In the same way that pain relief eases acute physical pain, drugs and alcohol can ease acute psychological pain caused by life events. Experiences of violence, emotional or coercive abuse, loss of job or relationship, and then the loss of a home are deeply, psychologically traumatic.
It took professionally researching and writing on the subject, coupled with psychodynamic therapy to finally understand and admit that I was writing from a place rooted in my own experience. Yes, I wrote about homelessness and trauma for a living, but I always saw it as “someone else’s story.” The truth was, it was my story, too.
In my case, the destructive combination was the loss of my flower shop, an emotionally abusive and at times violent relationship, and being an only-child caught in the recent dissolution of my family following a bitter divorce. It felt like I had nowhere to turn to. I was too ashamed to admit my circumstances to others. I didn’t believe I qualified for a domestic abuse shelter because I didn’t have bruises across my face. I didn’t believe I had a right to seek homelessness support because I initially had a flower shop to sleep in, one person who offered temporary respite, and a delivery van I could resort to if all else failed.
An acquaintance (who I’ll refer to as Bee) knew my partner, and his history of controlling and aggressive behaviour. Bee gave me a key to her apartment and said, “if you ever need to use this, no questions asked.” That day finally arrived following a violent argument. To evade my partner in a heated moment, I attempted to jump out of a moving car.
That was the point of no-return: the moment I realised that I was about to harm myself irreversibly trying to escape a place where I felt the walls caving in. That night, I packed an overnight bag and my key possessions. I was prepared to live without everything else. Shortly after my partner went to work the following morning, I left that house for the last time and went straight to Bee’s. This was the start of a seven-month journey in hidden homelessness.
According to the UK homelessness charity Shelter, “In the past decade, the number of homeless women living in temporary accommodation has almost doubled from 40,030 in 2011 to 75,410 today – a rise of 88%.”
In March 2022, the Evening Standard reported that across 32 London boroughs and the City of London, that “almost twice as many women [were] impacted by ‘hidden homeless’ in the capital as there were men.” It is a huge problem that many don’t know exists because of its very nature of being “hidden.”
I lived with Bee and her roommate while trying to make ends meet. I often opted to sleep on the floor of my shop to stay out of their way only returning to shower and say, “hi.” Then in October 2007, I was forced to close my shop for good.
To express my gratitude to Bee, I regularly cooked meals, tidied the garden, did housework and a bulk of the shopping, in lieu of rent. When I wasn’t doing freelance work, I’d spend time in the basement, in the guest room, or sit for hours in a café to prevent becoming a burden. I was heartbroken, emotional, scared – a mess – albeit a high-functioning mess. I took on every bit of freelance design work I could get from former shop clients. However, my earnings were not enough to cover the cost of moving, first and last month’s rent and a deposit on a studio or small one bedroom.
By March 2008, Bee informed me that I’d need to start paying $500 a month to stay on and would give me a week to decide. A flood of fear came crashing in. I knew we were each battling our own demons and challenges and that this gave rise to increasing tension between us. However, $500 was too high and too sudden. When I explained this to her, her last words were, “Pop the keys through the letterbox when you leave.”
It’s no surprise that this friendship didn’t stand the test of time. Still, it was her home and she owed me nothing. Soon all my belongings were swiftly divided between a local storage unit and my delivery van. I searched Craigslist for additional work and living arrangements, even considering a remote job working as a housekeeper in a male stranger’s home in a remote part of New Hampshire, in exchange for room and board. Thankfully, it never went further than a consideration. For another month, I lived with my belongings divided, in a search for somewhere to call home.
According to The National Online Resource Centre on Violence Against Women, “Homeless women — including the ‘hidden homeless’ — are particularly vulnerable to multiple forms of victimization including forced, coerced, or manipulated sexual activity.”
Here in England, the youth homelessness charity Centrepoint reports that “young women (16-24) are falling through the cracks.” While women comprise 51% of England’s general population, it turns out that 60% of the people in a temporary accommodation are women. Women make up a staggering proportionof those in need of housing support; yet only 10% of homelessness services are women-centric , according to Centre Point.
Evolve Housing + Support offers women-centred health and well-being care. They also offer a Women’s Opportunity Network to engage staff and those staying in their supported housing services with specific needs and initiatives. In south London, they offer supported housing for teenage parents to enable young single mothers to build new pathways into independence. Financial independence and overall security are vital building blocks in this process, as I learned through my own journey.
In 2008, there seemed to be no choice but to go back to my ex for help. There was no “family” to help break my fall. My mother’s mental health was deteriorating, my father remarried, and I had no siblings. Plus, I saw this as my mess and so believed I had to “bite the bullet.” I “made-nice” with the very person who was a threat to me. It was the price I thought I had to pay to keep my shame a secret and have a home.
My ex partner owned an apartment on Beacon Street in Brookline, Massachusetts that would give me good transport links to any new job I could find. However, there was one catch, this apartment was unlivable. A faulty sewage pipe leaked into the closet and bedroom, rotting the walls, and soiling the floor. This once belonged to me, too. To financially untangle myself from him and my floral business, I signed over my half of the apartment to ensure that he or anyone, had no claim to my future earnings. Mind you, I had just lost my business and was in economic dire straits. However, I knew that whatever I was about to rebuild would have to be mine and mine alone.
He lived in his other house in the Boston suburbs. As for me, it was either finding a way to make these literally – toxic conditions work – or sleep in my delivery van. I chose the van briefly, which was neither comfortable nor warm in the late Boston winter, when temperatures still dropped regularly below freezing.
Choosing between safety in the home and safety on the move is not uncommon for women at risk of homelessness. It becomes a question of survival. You don’t think about what you have to do to survive, you just get on and do it. My psychologist described me as “learning to operate with blinders on,” like the ones horse’s wear. It was a defense mechanism that allowed me to remain hyper-focused on moving forward to the exclusion of all else. It was a necessary form of compartmentalisation. However, it came at the expense of understanding the psychological impact of my experiences, being able trust myself and people enough to build healthy relationships and most importantly self-compassion. I was my own worst critic which undermined my self-worth.
Evolve has professional psychological wellbeing therapists that offer support to those in their supported housing. They help with overcoming these types of defense mechanisms caused by historic trauma. Ironically, the first step toward rebuilding security and a sense of self is by becoming familiar with our own vulnerabilities.
My psychologist helped me break down my own defense mechanisms. In the process I learned that I was a “trauma survivor,” a phrase I’d never heard of before. To reconcile the trauma of my ex-partner’s behaviour with how it impacted me, I made excuses for him. However, the act of making excuses for his behaviour meant denying what it really was: abuse. That enabled me to live with the behaviour. As for the subsequent housing situation, I never acknowledged my lack of a fixed address as homelessness. This didn’t have shock value to me because each individual experience developed subtly over time. But, cumulatively it was indeed shocking and now understand why I needed this defense mechanism to survive.
My own experience taught me that when the perfect storm takes hold of your life, abuse and homelessness can happen to anyone. It didn’t matter that I had a boarding school education, was awarded a scholarship to study design in Japan, and came from a middle-class family. It didn’t matter that my mother was an accomplished athlete playing doubles tennis at the professional level or that my father was a successful maritime lawyer. Homelessness is the culmination of socially catastrophic events that pulls a person further and further away from healthy sources of support. Without superhuman will power, an unexpected intervention, or just plain old-fashioned good luck, we all can eventually lose ourselves in those circumstances.
Thanks to my time working and professionally writing at Evolve and with my own therapist, I learned that when we deny the truth of our experience, we deny ourselves the ability to heal. I first had to take off the “blinders” and admit the reality of what I went through. There is a valid reason why trauma often underscores homelessness and addiction. Thankfully, shining a light on my experience now obliterates the shame I once felt. The first step toward shining a light on our experience is admitting the truth in the first place. And when we collectively begin to admit the truth about our experiences of homelessness and trauma, our influence to address the issue increases ten-fold.
Looking back now, I am both mortified by my experience and empowered by having overcome it. It took me 15 years to safely land on my feet. Yes, a lot more happened during that time which I had to overcome. However, I was able to file a police report on my ex-partner when he resurfaced in my life and threatened me. There is a legal paper-trail and new levels of courage and self-worth which helps me feel safe again. I’ve learned to stand up for myself. Sadly, both of my parents have since died and with them, my immediate family. However, I have a new family of incredible friends, extended family and colleagues.
I now live in the United Kingdom where I dedicate my time working and volunteering for some incredible charities applying my lived experience. In 2023, my life is healthier and happier than ever before. This is my reason for writing, in hope of shedding light and dispelling myths on homelessness and trauma. It does not discriminate. Still, I am living proof that with the right support and people around you, it is possible to overcome anything. The first step is admitting the problem. The second step is coming together to tackle it.