‘Being Homeless’ by Eric Harper

Making contact with a body in pieces

Over the next few meetings (held on average three times a week), Jane began to tell me about her life. She was from Ireland and part of a working-class family of eight. Both her older brother and sister had died before she was born. Her father was a good, honest, hard-working man. There were no apparent childhood traumas except for poverty. This sounded very different to the histories of most homeless individuals who have suffered extreme forms of abuse, privation and deprivation.

She was very close to both her mother and father but she was her father’s favourite. He called her Blue Eyes. At school she had coped well and obtained good grades. At around the age of sixteen or seventeen her father died. Soon afterwards she got married to a man who beat her. On a few occasions the beating resulted in her being hospitalised – once on a life-support machine. She never went to the police for help. She had two sons from this first marriage who were now grown up.

Thereafter, she consistently found herself in abusive and violent relationships. She became a heroin addict and began to drink. She ended up both in prison and, finally, on the street. There she met Andrew who took care of her. She loved him a great deal and had his name tattooed on her arm. He was good to her and never hit her. He died from a drug overdose.

She told me about her relationship with her mother and the struggle between them. She had stolen from her mother, smashed her house, but her mother had not given up on her. She informed me of different scenarios in which her mother came to her rescue. However, the one thing her mother could not accept was her daughter’s alcoholism.

Jane started to contribute more to the discussions within her group. During one group discussion I said to Billy an eighteen year old woman who was coughing up blood, that she had not fallen so low yet as not to take care of herself. When Billy was with the group, particularly with Jane present, she came alive. It seemed that her relationship with Jane was a way of keeping her mother (with whom she used to drink) alive and that Jane had taken her mother’s position. Billy told me how she was to blame for her mother’s death; she had put her mother on to Tenants Super lager, and this had killed her. The theme of loss, death and guilt had been introduced into the group. Jane responded by saying that Billy could not stand rejection and that she was punishing herself. The group, which ran according to variable length sessions, ended on that note.

When I next met Jane she was very distressed. She had been in a fight with her partner. I asked her if we could move away from the group and talk, to which she agreed. It was the first time I had managed to engage her in a one-to-one conversation. She started to sob and tell me how angry she was. She had been acting in a very self-destructive manner, she said, which could result in her going back to prison. I sat with her. I cannot remember what I said or if I said anything at all. After approximately one and a half hours she calmed down and said she felt a lot better for getting it out.

When I next saw Jane she bought me a ‘can’ (of Sprite) which the group found very amusing. That afternoon she asked me if I was gay. It is a question she returned to from time to time. She made jokes about me being her boyfriend.

A few meetings latter Jane confronted me with a second demand: ‘Will you take me to the morgue?’ She had discovered that Robert (her friend who had been murdered in her flat) had not yet been buried. I said this was something I did not feel able to do, whereupon Jane started to scream, ‘You are supposed to help us! Don’t you fucking come near us! You and the others have let us down!’ Billy began to plead: ‘Please take Jane.’ Another member of the group, Clive, posed a question: ‘What are you doing here? Who are you? How long have you being working on the streets?’

Clive became abusive whilst at the same time Jane was screaming: ‘I want to go now !’ Jane, Clive and Billy continued to screamed at me for about 45 minutes. I kept eye contact and listened. During a pause, I gave everyone in the group a cigarette. The screaming, however, continued. At one point I got up and helped another man – a schizophrenic and alcoholic – who had fallen over and hurt himself. I tried to make him comfortable on the ground where he lay. When I rejoined the group Clive started up again but soon everyone settled down and fell silent. I said to Jane: ‘I’m sorry about your friend. You have had enough to cope with.’ Jane burst into uncontrollable sobbing and put her head on my shoulder. Clive told me to take care of her. Most of the group disappeared and I asked Jane about her friend. She apologised for getting so angry and I responded by saying: ‘Sometimes you need to be angry before you can feel the pain.’ We spoke about Robert’s death in detail and her friendship with him.

In the meetings that followed, sometimes on her own, at other times with the rest of the group, Jane told me about the deaths of her father, Andrew (her former boyfriend) and Robert. She had decided that it was best not to see Robert’s body. Following a conversation about her marriage, I offered my first interpretation of Jane’s material: ‘Your problems happen around men.’ After a silence she made her own interpretation by telling me that when she was twelve she was raped. It had changed her life. She no longer felt she was her father’s ‘blue eyes’.