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This too will pass

March 01 2019
Homelessness is a situation not an identity © McGinlay Homelessness is a situation not an identity © McGinlay

Survival gifts by Anne Cooper

Survival gifts by Anne Cooper

Recently I was accosted by a woman on Brixton High Street. She was wired, rambling and persistent, with a convoluted story about her sister’s birthday, had to “get a cake”, “get to Croydon”. I figured it was a line. Though visibly vulnerable – frail and emaciated with teeth like the city skyline – I was irritated by her repetitive, borderline aggressive demands. I shook her off, walked away and stood at the bus stop in the fine drizzle filled with shame and remorse. I could see myself in her 25 years ago, desperately mad and homeless.

Though I never had to beg, it was a small act of kindness that gave me the will to carry on when I’d all but given up. That midwinter I was in a squat facing eviction and sat outside the Ritzy. I’d been looking for a room, any room. I took off my DM boots to ground myself, sinking my feet in the frosty grass, when a Ritzy worker came over with a coffee and cake.

Prior to that I’d coasted through hypermania into full-blown delusional mania then plunged headlong into what’s called a mixed state: manic and depressed. My delusions were no longer light-filled but dark and brooding, bordering on paranoia. Not a good look for house hunting.

During the hypermanic stage, I’d moved to the squat to avoid a former partner who had become self-destructive, prone to violence and stalkerish. I left my job teaching creative writing in a centre for people with mental health issues. I was yet to be diagnosed bipolar, but I’d read R D Laing, and now recognized myself in the service users. I was turned away from the Maudsley emergency clinic as I had insight, so not crazy enough for a bed.

Mental health problems are both the cause and consequence of homelessness and, not surprisingly, are exacerbated by the stress. There is a higher rate of mental health problems amongst the growing homeless population than the average.

I reflected on my past at the bus stop. Urgency seized me. I had to go back and find this woman, it was so obvious she was unwell. It didn’t take long.

“Do you still want to get a cake?” She did. Together we went into Iceland, choose one and waited at the till. She calmed down a bit, told me she was on a pass from a psychiatric unit. I asked if she had anywhere to go when she was discharged. She changed the subject. I took that as a no, and then we were at the bus stop. I just hoped her family would show some love and understanding.

The streets are a scary place if you are unwell, no place for someone experiencing anxiety and depression or, worse, paranoia and delusions. Mental health problems are considered an invisible illness, yet just as I can see someone with a mental health problem from the other side of the street, so can people that might take advantage. I was lucky my former employer referred me to Lambeth council. Eventually I was offered supported housing and eventually saw a psychiatrist who listened.

I don’t know what happened to that woman, but I know I would not have got through the bureaucracy and physical tasks of moving without the help of my parents, friends and services. It took me a long time to ask for help.

If you know someone whose behaviour has become erratic, chances are that they are unwell. If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are a few tips: walk tall, develop a routine, don’t trust everybody but do reach out and keeping reaching out until you get the help you need. Perseverance pays off. The best advice I’ve had when in crisis is to know that however bad it gets, this situation is temporary. Even if you are suicidal, as I was at times, it is temporary, and this too will pass.

Take it from me.

Call for help

  • If you have suicidal thoughts talk to someone at Saneline (4:30–10:30pm) 0300 304 7000 or the Samaritans 116 123. CALLS ARE FREE.
  • If you’re unwell and homeless or about to lose your home go to your local council. You are classed as “in priority need” because of your mental illness.
  • If you need to find emergency accommodation, call Shelter for advice on how to deal with your local authority 0808 800 4444. CALLS ARE FREE.
  • If you are already a mental health service user, tell your care
    co-ordinator, psychiatrist or GP about your housing situation.
  • For mental health advice contact MIND 0300 123 3393 or Rethink (9:30am–4pm) 0300 5000 927. CALLS ARE FREE.