‘Being Homeless’ by Eric Harper

Jane steps forward

Unlike clients who came to see us because they were suffering, it took a month before Jane began to speak to me. Before I could begin a conversation with her however I had to make my presence acceptable to the group of homeless individuals of which she formed part. This involved informing the group about who we were.

“Hello, I’m Eric, a therapist from ‘Just Ask.’ When we were working in the cold weather shelter some people asked if there could be follow up work on the streets. So that is why we are here, to keep contact as well as meet new people. I will be here three days a week with another therapist and an advice worker. We will be here at the following times…” At first I kept my distance from those in the group I did not know. I would stand a few steps back from the group, but remain loosely attached and silent unless addressed directly. With those individuals I had known from the cold weather shelter, the relationship was akin to the kind of relationship staff have with clients in a therapeutic/psychiatric residential setting.

The aim at this stage of the work was simply to acknowledge the group’s existence and not to intrude. Acknowledgment of another human being’s personal existence can be therapeutic in itself, particularly when a large chunk of that individual’s childhood script involved them being treated as an object. A ‘big issue’ with this client group is that people generally them on the streets or treat them as ‘untouchable’ by moving out of their orbit. An extension of this nonrecognition, at the other end of the scale, is the relatively common experience of a stranger approaching a homeless person for sex and/or other services.

When I spoke to individuals I already knew from the cold weather shelter, the others would watch and become curious. Following one of these contacts, Jane, a woman in her early forties, who was standing behind someone, gave me a friendly smile and I smiled back. We engaged in a game of ‘peek-a-boo’. On leaving the group she made some jovial gesture, as if there had been some kind of playful ‘flirtation’ between the two of us. I said I would see her again.

A week later I went up to her. She was sitting in a small group. I greeted her and asked if I could sit down. She told me about the group who frequented that area. Then she spoke to me about begging. Christmas Eve had been a record intake. She had taken her friends to the pub to celebrate but they had cleaned themselves up first. I listened and (with curiosity) engaged in the story, asking details about the event. Jane became animated and went on to tell me other stories. I was presented with some ‘fun times’. The conversation then drifted on to her time in prison, which was briefly alluded to, but more in the sense that this was mentioned as part of the picture.

Over the next few weeks I would sit with Jane in the group. I would sit quietly whilst at the same time giving my attention to whoever was speaking to me. I felt that Jane had made a self referral and I should break the ice and get to know her on a more familiar basis. She told me she had lived on and off the streets for the last 18 years. She had recently obtained accommodation, but following the murder of one of her best friends, Robert, inside her flat, she had not returned there.

Jane spent most of her days and nights in a particular doorway, drinking. She only left this doorway occasionally to go to a Day Center to get something to eat. There was little, if any, movement away from the doorway unless the police forced her to move on. The group who shared her doorway were a noisy lot and were perceived by the other homeless people as ‘trouble makers’.

During this time period there were lots of conversations about homelessness, drinking, drugs and other homeless individuals. I would ask questions about life on the street. When asking questions my aim was to unpack the story through the use of open-ended questions. Jane seemed to enjoy educating me. What was very important was not to introduce a topic that was not already under discussion but to follow the one in progress – to show interest and curiosity but not to look for so-called depth.

The space that Jane and the rest of the group occupied had a twilight feel about it – as if they lived on a border, in a state of unreality. This place of oblivion, aided through alcohol as a means of self-medication, was seen as an attempt to seek refuge and as an avoidance of knowing about difference – to try to avoid situations that might take them out of their familiar context. The experience of being taken out of context can be understood as akin to words being taken out of context – it creates a disordered, violent and distorted text.

Often the space was polluted with things (smells, incomprehensible and loud noises, bodily fluids such as vomit, urine, faeces, blood and mucus) and events (physical fights, suicide attempts, psychotic episodes and deaths). The challenge as a therapist (and team) was to position oneself within this unbound space. This position was a cultivation of the use of silence and noninterference so as to avoid further impingement. This process was not about trying to fit in or adapt, but to take up an (analytic) position, thus ensuring not a ‘fitting in’, but rather offering an empty space; the rationale being that without this ‘gift of empty space’ the client would feel dominated by the therapist’s personality.

Sometimes, whilst I sat with Jane, there would be long periods of silence, perhaps for over an hour. On one of the few occasion when we left the doorway we went and sat in a rather symbolic space in which there were a number of public telephones which were at the center of the area as well as a couple of autobanks set into the wall. We sat against the wall in a line. There where five of us. No one spoke except one individual, Tom, who ranted and raved. Tom has since killed himself.

Over the next few weeks I learned a great deal about homelessness but very little about Jane. It seemed as if my education from Jane was to enable me to become street wise. On the streets there were lies and games of deception. What was true and what was a deception was not often known. One response to this is to come up with a list of observable scenarios (games) at play.

Another response is to realise that what is before ones eyes is ‘a body in pieces.’ Then one afternoon while sitting with the group, I was asked by Jane asked if I could help her to find her brother. I said I would ask one of our advisers at the agency to look into the matter. I also informed her of the limitations of what we could do.

I was comfortable with this advice aspect. Soon there after Jane informed me that her brother had been found, not as a result of our work, but as a result of her own efforts. She was pleased.

She told me about the reunion, then, over the next two hours, she started to tell me anecdotes about her life and give me some of her life history. The nature of contact had changed and I felt I had been tested and that Jane had tested herself too, through recognising a need for help.