“I suppose it’s my home now.”
At 19, living rough has become normal for Cara, so much so that she has ‘prettied’ up her sleeping area with a few bits and pieces. She tells me she was given a teddy bear today and is going to put it by a photograph of her sister.
A beautiful and sensitive young woman has been crushed by life. There is a man standing beside her. He is her pimp. She is his means of getting heroin.
Five minutes to one in the morning; a boisterous Friday night. I was out on the street with Hope for the Homeless, an agency who assist those who exist on the street. I was initially reluctant to help. It wasn’t fear that was overwhelming me; it was memory. It’s been 19 years since I escaped homelessness. There is no visible evidence to suggest that I ever spent 17 months, two weeks and two days without a home.
Perhaps we should refer to the state of homelessness as absence of home. There is often a perception that homelessness is confined to sleeping rough on the streets. I did not rough sleep for the whole period of my homelessness. Yes, I did spend time rough sleeping but I also spent time in a homeless hostel. My mind wanders back to the late 1990s. It was winter and I recall that the rain pounded the cracked pavements. I sat alone and dejected in the foyer of the Hamish Allen Centre waiting for a taxi that would take me to a hostel. It was the start of a journey that would propel me into uncertainty. It wasn’t easy sitting there alone when you suffer from panic attacks. I sat with a feeling of disconnection totally overwhelmed by a sense of worthlessness, insecurity and shame.
The hostel offered little comfort. I was intimidated by two other girls who liked to bully me. I was so crushed by the bullying that I eventually moved in with a man who used and abused me. It seemed a better option. I may have had a roof over my head but I was as much homeless as I’d have been living on the streets.
The streets are unforgiving. You never feel at ease. I could never fully rest nor sleep as I always had to be semi-alert. There are too many predators trying to take advantage, especially of a woman on her own. I learned to become invisible from the penetrating, judging eyes and was able to slip into the local bus station for a wash, until they got wind of me that is. I never ever felt clean. The days seemed endless and I would take one faltering step after the other to nowhere. To break the monotony, I would visit churches which opened their doors and gave out free meals. Those were a lifeline and so were the free clothes. I would eat quickly, paying attention to no-one, it was easier that way.
It was at one of those drop-in centres that I met Iain. I had no real feelings for him. But I was desperate to move away from the cold pavements and the hostile chatterings of the hostel. His house was very basic but offered some comfort. However, he was no Prince Charming. Slowly and steadily he chipped away at my confidence and without realising it he began to dismantle my personality and re-construct it into his image of what he thought I should be like. Like glass, I soon became brittle; fierceness masking a lot of hurt, pain and rejection.
The human condition hides a darkness which unfolds and manifests through living rough. I learned to survive, but in the process I learned to cheat, lie and fight. I also learned to trust no-one. Violence is never far away. As a consequence, I shut myself down and withdrew. I felt nothing. To feel anything can make you a victim.
I force myself back into the present. After all, my life has totally changed. I have a home now. It is Cara who is existing and sleeping rough on the edge of an industrial estate. “I’m too afraid to sleep in the city,” she says. “I’ve had people pour all sorts of stuff over me. I even had one woman come over and kick me.”
Like so many others she has been physically, emotionally and sexually abused. Abuse wrecks your emotions, mind and soul. It distorts thinking and it becomes so easy to take a path that spirals towards sabotage. It’s the waiting; waiting for the volcano to erupt. It’s the rollercoaster of emotions – down, up, crashing. It leaves little option but to plan escape and with little resources the destination is often the street.
I know that Cara needs a miracle. There is little affordable accommodation to rent, hostels are over capacity. It appears to me that politicians bypass their needs with lip service.
Though I have been off the streets for nearly 20 years, the brutality of it cauterised every aspect of my life. It took a while to untangle myself from the web I got stuck in. On one occasion, I was filing in a form and it requested me to detail all my addresses. I stood looking at the form knowing that there is the space which can only be filled in with no fixed abode.
I am grateful that I can cry now, an experience denied to me for many years because I was so traumatised that I stopped myself from feeling anything. Even today, I still have difficulties with trust, though I am beginning to open to others more quickly than I once did.
Morning breaks. My shift has ended. I am looking forward to going home for that cup of tea from my own freshly boiled kettle. It may be just a little thing, something insignificant, but when I experienced absence of home, I missed my own brew. It’s often the little things that give dignity.
I arrive home around 8am with conflicted feelings. I am content in myself but there is a sadness which overcomes me for Cara. I shuffle into bed knowing that I need to get up early afternoon. I have a storytelling gig in the evening. I cannot believe how far I have come since that dark period of my life. Then I thought I would have no options. Now I give workshops and do storytelling sessions for adults and children.
I was fortunate in that I had the opportunity to be a Big Issue seller. I am aware that some people may be surprised to discover that being a Big Issue actually makes a difference to people’s lives. It gave me the chance to make some money which allowed me to fund my own independent living. I managed to save enough money for a deposit on a nice apartment in the south side of Glasgow. It was small but beautifully furnished. It was my sanctuary; where I had peace of mind and I could plan for the future.
There are currently around 2,000 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
The Big Issue also gave me confidence and it gave me hope that I could actually have a future. I looked forward to the trip to Dunoon which was my designated pitch. I now had something to do which took away that sense of endless empty days. Despite the fare I made some profit every day and I diligently saved a percentage of it. I was determined to better myself. I had grown weary of being written off and now I had a chance to do something.
As the months rolled by I began to notice the change in me. The web of creases in my face had faded. I did not look as gaunt and pale, even my style of clothing changed. It was a great feeling to have my own money that I worked hard for. I viewed selling The Big Issue as a job so I behaved courteously towards my customers as I knew that it was essential to maintain their custom.
In 2003 I left Glasgow to live in West Cork, Ireland. I made the decision to leave to break away from some ties that I considered toxic. For the first time in my life I was making well thought out decisions which would benefit me. There were people around me who wanted to drag me back to a chaotic lifestyle. They did not like my change. I also yearned for a new beginning because many people had formed a negative view of me which was difficult to shake off.
In the stillness I pray for Cara hoping that she too may find a home and realise her dreams. As I snuggle into my hot water bottle and sink into the cosy mattress, I am thankful for my change of fortune. A startling thought comes to mind. What would my life be if I hadn’t ventured into The Big Issue’s Glasgow office on that rainy day in November!
It isn’t just about the financial impact on my life. Working as a Big Issue seller allowed me to develop into an individual that I actually like. Even the panic attacks have gone. The Big Issue allowed me to take control of my life. It gave me confidence and self-respect. My time as a Big Issue seller propelled me towards employment, university, storyteller, workshop facilitator and my new endeavour as short film maker. Thanks to The Big Issue I now have the confidence to submit the film to festivals.
Ultimately, I am thankful, assured that being homeless was one experience of my life and not the total sum of it.
Rae’s Journey was adapted into a mini-graphic novel for The Big Issue by the award-winning team of Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and Giovanni Rigano