‘Reflections on a temporary loss of ‘home’; How can we use our own experiences to connect to others experience of homelessness?’
08.09.2023: As I write this week’s PIE blog, as the Head of Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) at the national youth homeless charity — Centrepoint, I am catching up at work following a period of annual leave. Often when we return from our summer holiday there is a sadness that we are back to home, school or work, but on this occasion I was very happy to finally be ‘home’ and back in the UK after a particularly challenging final few days of our family holiday this year. The picture at the start of this blog post is of our VW Type 2 Campervan, not photographed in the best circumstances as she (‘Chloe’ — all VW’s have names!) is towed away to a garage somewhere in the middle of France following a breakdown! And, as I write this blog, Chloe still remains in France waiting for recovery back to the UK at some point hopefully soon!
Now you might rightly ask, what has all this all got to do with a psychologically informed environment or PIE? Well it was interesting to reflect over the course of the 48 hours after the above picture was taken (and before we finally got ‘home’) about the experience, particularly in terms of using this experience to connect more with the experience of young people experiencing homelessness. Now, of course, I should preface what I am about to discuss in this PIE blog, with the statement that I know my experience of this holiday ‘homeless adventure’ is not the same as youth homelessness but there were some parallels that struck me that I wanted to reflect further on in this PIE blog. I also wanted to set a challenge for readers of this blog is to connect with their own diverse life experiences to help them to empathise and understand the experiences of young people experiencing some of the challenges associated with homelessness.
Perhaps you remember that time you had to move house or city and did not know anyone when you moved in? Perhaps you can remember a time you struggled to find employment and were worried about paying your rent or mortgage so were at increased risk of eviction? Perhaps you can remember a time a close relationship broke down and you felt unsettled or unsure where you might live in the future? Perhaps you have experienced mental or physical health issues? Perhaps you even have direct lived experience of homelessness, as often many of those working in this sector bring? Being psychologically informed in our practice, whatever our role, can actually be increased when we connect to those experiences to remember what we thought and felt, what we needed and how we coped. By doing this ‘mental exercise’, you can increase your empathy and understanding of others experiencing similar, even if not exactly the same experiences.
In the case of ‘Chloe’ and our VW campervan breakdown, there were several aspects of this experience that resonated with the experience of youth homelessness for me. The first was the actual ‘breakdown’. Now arguably, if you own a VW campervan that is over 40 years old perhaps you should expect to breakdown, and we have indeed broken down before in the 12 years we have owned ‘Chloe’! However, you never actually believe it will happen until it does and after a complete engine overhaul a couple of years ago (and as a result a run of multiple trips without incident), we optimistically perhaps thought we would be fine this summer. However, as a result of the breakdown suddenly all our plans for the remainder of the holiday had to change. We went from knowing what was happening in the immediate future to complete uncertainty. This was very unsettling and anxiety provoking. Where were we going to sleep that night — after all the campervan is our ‘home’ whilst we are travelling? How were we going to get back across France with all our belongings without the campervan? As we watched ‘Chloe’ being towed away, we suddenly felt very vulnerable. Our ‘secure base’ or ‘home’ was gone so what do we do now? This feeling of ‘homelessness’ in that moment is something that thankfully most people will never have to experience, but one which right then for us was real and frightening. I tried to imagine how a young people suddenly made homeless might feel and noted to myself that it was a traumatic and anxiety-laden state of being.
Moreover, in that moment all our priorities changed. No longer were we on ‘holiday’ but now we were in basic survival mode. Where are we going to sleep when it will be dark in a few hours? We needed a roof over our head that night. Yes it was lovely and sunny in France but we were in the middle of ‘nowhere’ (i.e. somewhere north of Dijon) with nothing but some valuables and the clothes we were standing up in, so ‘rough sleeping’ couldn’t be an option with children. Sadly, of course this is the only option for many young people in the UK right now. What were we going to eat? How do we get water? Where was the nearest toilet? Our basic needs were suddenly more important than anything else in that moment and it was an interesting reflection to me how much we often take meeting these for granted, until suddenly we don’t have the ability or facilities to meet them? It was very hot, we were tired and so we ended up sitting for several hours in the entrance to a supermarket we found nearby with air conditioning just to try and make the phone calls we needed to make to get things sorted (more on that below). I reflected that whilst we were low on cash at the end of our holiday, we did at least have a credit card (and insurance) which meant we could make some plans to meet our basic needs that night, something that of course many homeless young people do not have the luxury of access to in an emergency.
Trying to make the plans to get ourselves back to the UK was also a challenge. One issue was because we had a dog with us, which because of various ‘rules’ meant we were unable to access certain transportation or routes home, and we had only a limited window in which to book new tickets and travel back home on the one ferry route the other side of France from where we were that allowed dogs with foot passengers. This reminded me of homeless individuals, who were rough sleeping and often had dogs, and knowing that often they are refused accommodation because of their pets. Their choice is often to abandon their dog (perhaps their only companion) to access shelter for the night or ‘sleep rough’ with their dog. Even as a dog owner / dog person, I think sometimes I did not really understand why they refused a roof over their head in order to keep their dog, but this recent experience highlighted this to me. Our route home would have been simple had we left our dog behind, but of course as a beloved family pet of 14 years, that was never going to happen. Attachments to pets can be just as strong as to humans (particularly in the homeless population who may have been let down in their human relationships), so why does the sector often refuse to recognise this and consequently, fail to house homeless individuals with their pets?
Of course, one of our biggest challenges was being in a foreign country. I have a very limited grasp of French, mainly learnt in school over 30 years ago so communicating to resolve our problems suddenly was much more difficult and frustrating. It was hard to remain calm and try to explain what we needed in another language, in a country with a culture similar but different to our own (do not get me started on the length of French lunchbreaks!). I could feel my threat response increasing as everything was unfamiliar and out of our control, and I did not understand everything discussed about our situation with those dealing with it (i.e. the garage mechanics). This made me reflect on how some of the homeless young people in Centrepoint that are unaccompanied minors from non-English speaking counties can feel when they are in our supported accommodation services. The challenges of understanding a different system, in a different language and a different culture felt very overwhelming. Moreover, travelling through unfamiliar areas on multiple modes of transport (e.g. train, bus, tram, taxi, car) was also mentally hard work and we made lots of errors in our directions. It made me reflect just how familiar I am with the London transport network, but how moving to a new area (as can often happen with homeless young people) can make even basic tasks like travelling to a location for an appointment an additional challenge.
In addition, for that first night we ended up in less than ideal accommodation. Obviously trying to find a place to stay last minute in a small French town (with a dog!) in the middle of the holiday season was not easy and we had no choice of where to go. Although I was grateful that we had a roof over our head, I was very pleased to move on the next day. However, this made me think about the often highly unsuitable temporary accommodation that homeless young people are placed in (e.g. with adults with complex needs) and not just for one night as it is often for several nights, even weeks or months. Even the young people that come to our supported accommodation services have no choice in this. Although we are working hard to make positive changes to the physical environment of our services through our PIE Property Standards programme at Centrepoint, we know that these homeless settings can be far from ideal and full of other people that they might not want or choose to live with.
The next day we had to return to the garage to collect as much of our belongings as possible that we could carry back to the UK as foot passengers on the ferry. When you have a campervan, everything is stored within the van, so of course we had no suitcases or luggage bags with us. Therefore, we had to grab what we could and put it in black bin liners. Initially it was hard to decide what we took and what we left behind — after all, we did not know when we might see ‘Chloe’ again! Grabbing what felt important in that moment and being limited to just what we could carry was really difficult (and since being home I have realised I have left some things we needed behind because it was all so rushed and emotionally charged), yet often that is the experience of someone being evicted from their home. In addition, I have often seen homeless young people move into supported accommodation services with all their possessions in just black bin bags and it has always felt wrong to me. Black bin liners are for rubbish, not the few valuables and possession that are necessary or important to you. What type of message does it send to a young person that all your life so far is thrown into a few rubbish bags? I know it felt impersonal to me (and I discovered just how easily black bin liners split when filled!).
Finally, one of the biggest challenges was dealing with external agencies — in our case the insurance company or ferry company. We spent hours on hold on calls, only to be told ‘no’ that is not possible or getting mixed messages such as being told we need to do this when previously someone else had said we needed to do something else. This made me reflect on the challenges both the homeless young people we support as well as the frontline staff supporting them can have when dealing with external agencies such as social services, housing departments or NHS services. Just having to speak to a different person each time we called, and therefore repeating all the same information over and over again, was emotionally draining and frustrating, yet this is a common experience for individuals trying to navigate the different social, health and welfare systems in the UK. Often a theme of frontline reflective practice sessions with support and housing staff teams is just this similar frustration and so many hours lost in trying to address what should be a simple issue if the systems and processes were more aligned and functional.
Obviously, we managed to get ‘home’ after a crazy 48 hour period and I am extremely grateful that our experience of being ‘homeless’ was brief and manageable. Perhaps in time our journey will become a fond family memory of adventure, even if it is still something we are all processing right now (and still trying to get ‘Chloe’ home from France). But of course, for many of the homeless young people that Centrepoint support, their experience of ‘homelessness’ may likely remain something traumatising for some time to come. Even if they are, with the right support and the creation as best we can of a ‘home’, able to move on successfully to their own ‘home and a job’ in the future. I do think however, that taking a moment to reflect on their journey to us in Centrepoint can be useful to help understand how they are currently thinking, feeling and behaving not just when they immediately arrive, but also over time as they adapt to their new circumstances. It is also important to reflect on our own experiences to create empathy (rather than sympathy) with them and their experience, whatever our role within the organisation.
Finally, my journey back to the UK also made me reflect on what helped manage this stressful situation and just how much of what helped was ‘psychologically informed’. For example, the key role of supportive relationships (as per a PIE!) in dealing with the challenges we faced. We met some lovely people who tried to help us (and were very patient with my terrible French!), which certainly helped reduce my feelings of anxiety about the situation we had found ourselves in. Ensuring a focus on immediate needs (e.g. food, shelter, money, water) before we tried to think about other things was also important. When we were in France, ensuring we had food and transportation sorted meant we did manage to then get some ‘free’ time to focus on some sightseeing in the town we found ourselves in.
Applying this to the homeless young people we support means we need to focus on addressing their basic needs before we focus on ‘higher needs’ such as education, training or employment (Maslow, 1943). Moreover, dealing with tangible issues such as having the right welfare benefits and enough food to eat, can also help build engagement and trust for a homeless young person that we are able and willing to support them with the ‘other stuff’ (e.g. emotional wellbeing, goals for the future). What also helped us on our ‘journey’ home was trying to focus on what we could ‘control’ rather than what we could not. This helped manage anxiety and a sense of feeling overwhelmed by our change in circumstances. For example, in a homeless setting whilst a young person may have no choice over what accommodation they are housed within, once they actually move in can they have choice over other areas such as décor to their rooms, what activities they can engage in?
My final reflection as to what helped was noting the importance of seeking support from those experiencing the same challenges as me — in this case my husband but in the case of homeless services that would be our colleagues in our teams. Whilst I was anxious about what was happening and whether there would be a successful outcome, I was conscious not to show these feelings to or ‘project’ them upon our children. Instead, my husband and I spoke together about our anxieties and only shared with the children that there were challenges that needed solving but that it was possible to do so and we would work it out together as a family even if that meant lots of googling the answers! In the context of homeless services, being psychologically aware of the impact of our behaviour (and concerns) on others, including the young people we support is important. We need to hold that ‘secure base’ for a homeless young person who might be feeling very uncontained in that moment. It also means highlighting to those we support what are the challenges as honestly as we can, but also noting that we can find a way through them together and we aren’t overwhelmed by them (even if perhaps inside we can feel this!). Finally, it also means knowing where to seek support yourself through supervision / reflective practice / further training or even google (!) if we are unsure about something.
After an eventful end to our holiday, I am glad to be ‘home’ to London. This experience has given me a renewed appreciation of my home and by using this as a reflective exercise, perhaps a renewed understanding of just a few of the challenges a homeless young person might experience. Of course, my breakdown experience is not really like the trauma of being homeless as a young person in the UK, but aspects of it did resonate and I believe there is value in looking back at our experiences of challenge and difficulty to empathise with others experiencing their own challenges. Not only to help us to ‘walk a moment in their shoes’ but also to reflect on what we needed to get through those challenges both practical and relational, so that we can think what the other person needs from us so perhaps ultimately enabling us to be more psychologically informed in our support offer to them.