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'I am sitting with a non-alcoholic beer on my last night in emergency accommodation'

Homeless people in these situations are not to be blamed. They are living in a brutal, brutalising environment, writes Christine O’Donnell.

Christine O'Donnell Writer

ON 21 SEPTEMBER 2017, I joined the ranks of the “long-term homeless”, the official term used once you have been homeless for six months or more.

Upon first hearing the term, I thought it sounded fairly arbitrary. I didn’t realise that, in fact, there are real divisions within this socioeconomic group, and that six months marks the beginning of a person’s assimilation into the generally unseen culture of the “long-term homeless”, irrespective of what happened to land you in homelessness.

It’s important to note that there are different types of homelessness, the hidden homeless, rough sleepers and people in emergency accommodation. These categories make it impossible to estimate the number of actual homeless people in Ireland, but according to Uplift, there are 8,000 people currently living in emergency accommodation (I am but one individual in that category). Of these, 3,000 are children.

So what does this process of assimilation mean for someone living in the hostels?

For me it started out with a gradual darkening of things I used to find enjoyable. I often see frivolity now where before I saw fun.

Being queer, I feel, for the first time alienated by the relentlessly upbeat camp and colour of LGBT culture. My mind is otherwise occupied, intent on self-preservation, trying to block out the severe drug addiction and misery I see every day, people living at their wit’s end, acting aggressively and bursting into rages at the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential things. Not that they’re to be blamed for this.

Living in emergency accommodation can feel as though the walls are closing in on you, especially when you’re sharing a room with a perfect stranger.

There are rules to living in emergency accommodation

If you don’t follow them you can find yourself in deep trouble. In the 12-hour hostel where I stayed initially, sustained eye contact is to be avoided, as it is often perceived as a direct threat. I witnessed several serious rows about that, some which resulted in violence.

Likewise, if you are seen sharing anything valuable (in my case tobacco) there are people who will take advantage of your “giving” nature. You have to keep an eye on your things at all times. You stand guard over your laundry like your life depends on it; theft of underwear and other clothes is a serious problem.

The most valuable things you are permitted to bring with you are a phone (no laptops or valuables allowed), and you are expected to have little enough with you to move to a different hostel with a few hours notice. And – maybe the most curious, counter-intuitive of all these unspoken rules – you never announce it to anybody when you’re moved from one hostel to the next.

Homeless people in these situations are not to be blamed

They are living in a brutal, brutalising environment. Homelessness is a trauma in and of itself, most often followed by the loss of work, mental health issues, addictions which got out of hand – all traumas in their own right. This creates a cocktail for the perfect internal storm. It is not a choice. Nor is it a series of “bad life choices”.

As I write this I am sitting with a non-alcoholic beer in my hand on my last night in emergency accommodation. Only a few days after becoming long-term homeless, I have been afforded an escape route.

My nextdoor neighbour Lisa has been homeless for 24 years. She is addicted to crack cocaine, and I don’t blame her for it. It’s the loneliness, she says, that drives her to it.

To be honest, I feel survivor’s guilt to be getting out, and am keenly aware that this is largely due to the fact that I have been afforded the privilege of a good education. Nonetheless, I’m lucky to be getting out before my psychological tapestry falls apart.

I have made no friends in my time here. Everything has felt transient and hollow. I am moving on to a new chapter in settled accommodation. But, I know I will never again pass a homeless person on the street without at least acknowledging their presence – even just to let them know if I don’t have a penny to spare.

I would urge anybody in the same situation – as we all are, nowadays, regularly – to recognise that the homeless person, voiceless on the side of a street, is a real human being with an often complex and traumatic past. Compassion, empathy and communication can break through some of the brutal realities these people face on a daily basis. A single kind gesture could make more of a difference than you realise.

Christine O’Donnell is interested in writing on topics related to mental health, LGBT rights and marginalised groups within Irish society. She is also a musician and volunteers her spare time to fundraise for causes she feels strongly about.

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Christine O'Donnell  / Writer

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