‘I’m a useless sack of sh*t.’ Homelessness, hopelessness and me

Research conducted in Dublin and Limerick showed that one in three homeless individuals have attempted to end their lives. Photograph: iStock

I’d been about 10 months homeless on that shuddering morning in February 2018, making my habitual way to the bus station. It was a good spot for feeding the pigeons. While traversing the city to get there, I received a call from my night shelter to tell me that I had been selected for a “step-up” in the homeless system. I was being transferred in just two hours to an STA hostel (or supported temporary accommodation), which allows you to stay on the premises all day.

For me, this equated to an end to the unpredictability and destabilising chaos of day-to-day life in the night shelter system. It also signalled an end to the insomnia-induced days looking for ways to pass the time around the city before the hostel reopened in the evening.

I was elated at the news.

Clinging to the edge of sanity

Conditions had become unbearable in the night shelter. Life in there had brutalised many and every evening it was sometimes shouted, sometimes whispered, but always furiously complained that the residents were at their wits’ end and “couldn’t spend another night in this kip”. All around I saw signs of people clinging to the edge of their sanity. Explosive outbursts, physical fights, inappropriate sexual advances and extraordinarily high levels of anxiety and hopelessness pervaded the environment.

I was so overcome with joy to be escaping the night shelter system that I didn’t realise moving to an STA wasn’t going to make me any less homeless.

Four hours later, I arrived at the STA. At the front door of the hostel, I was given a warm welcome by a kind, older and beamingly pleasant man by the name of Mick. The first thing I noticed was the children in the communal area. They didn’t have much room to play in – a tiny space with a small, battered, two-seater sofa. The kids were playing with the TV, rabbit ears and all, but the screen stubbornly emitted its black and grey static. As I looked at the children, I was reminded of some of the stories I had heard from people in the night shelter. Several people had told me they had been born into homelessness – and so the cycle continued. Before I could ponder too long, Mick ushered me towards where I would be sleeping.

Hoping for the best but expecting the least, I tentatively asked, “so how many will I be sharing with”?

“Oh you’ve the room to yourself. Secured for six months. Make sure to be in by 11 sharp or it will free up and we’ll have to give it away.”

My heart skipped a beat.

I was so elated I felt something akin to nausea. A room to myself; a room where I could make a call with the knowledge I wouldn’t have to suddenly hang up. Mick brought me through to the back of the building, where there was a prefab which had three separate bedrooms, and where I would be sharing a bathroom with two other women. Once he opened up the door to the room, I began to take in my surroundings.

“It’s not the Ritz,” said Mick.

“It is to me!” I blurted out.

No windows but a skylight and a wardrobe . . . Not so bad at all

Mick gave me a pitiful smile and, closing the door behind him, he left me to acclimatise to the room. Not too bad, I thought to myself cheerfully. No windows but a skylight and a wardrobe. This is really not so bad at all.

Some grand stroke of luck had landed me with a room to myself far from the city. Away from the chaotic nightmare of the night shelter system, where you could be sharing with anybody at any time; where things as basic as underwear get stolen, and where you have to live on constant red alert lest you step out of line and find yourself on the receiving end of trouble. Once left alone in the room of the STA – my room for the next six months – I instinctively threw myself supine on the bed.

I slept for 18 hours.

Time to reflect

I was moving up in the homeless system, and I was also eligible to get a Housing Assistance Payment (HAP), as my income would never cover two months’ rent with the rental market prices. I knew I would need assistance from the council – in the form of HAP properties – where the landlord agrees to let the council pay the bulk of your rent and you spend an amount indexed to income.

I was also determined to work, and decided to start volunteering; ironically, to help the homeless. It served as a means for me to fill my day and get some exercise, as the hostel was far out of town. I kept my homeless status secret while volunteering to avoid the stigma of what is often perceived to be “a series of bad lifestyle choices”.

My longer-term ambitions – of becoming housed and escaping the hostel system – slowly diminished

In fact, it is the homelessness itself which brutalises both its victims and survivors. But I didn’t realise that yet. I was in a state of what is often referred to as survival mode. My immediate thoughts and concerns became focused on short-term, daily objectives, and my longer-term ambitions – of becoming housed and escaping the hostel system – slowly diminished over time and I didn’t realise how radically I was becoming depressed.

Having lived through the night shelter system, I had been expecting this transfer to somehow change everything. As it transpired, I suddenly had time to reflect. Time by myself. Time to think about where I was in my life. Which, gradually, turned into excruciating, unbearable time by myself. The walls. The covered mirror. The broken kettle I was too unmotivated to replace.

Time wore thin in that room, where nothing ever changed.

The increasingly hypnotic drive to self-destruct started kicking in after about two months in that place. I started to self-harm.

I hadn’t lost my mind. I was enthralled by the release the pain was giving me. It was something palpable. I could feel something other than mute numbness.

I began to need something stronger to blot out reality – something more impactful.

I even decided I ought to beat myself to a pulp, bare knuckled, because I believed I deserved it, and so I could at least feel some sort of sensation that wasn’t profoundly depressive inertia.

A phone call

I started wearing dark sunglasses to cover up my swollen black eyes. Everyone at the hostel thought I was a victim of domestic violence. I would be harangued by questions from people whose names I didn’t know demanding “who done that to ya?” or “was it a guy or a girl that messed up your face?”

I would mutter something about falling off a roof or a shower collapsing on me or some such nonsense. As far as I was concerned, the worst thing I could possibly do was admit that I had done it to myself. I felt like a human anomaly, and my actions would result in people hiding their children away if they knew of what violence I was capable of – although the harm was only ever self-directed. It was as though all of my anger had turned inwards, on to itself. On to myself.

I dog-headedly kept on shrugging it off. It infuriated everybody.

The urge to self-harm morphed into the urge to disappear. It started out one evening, as I was gazing at my walls. I gently, instinctively placed the palm of my hand to the wall beside me on the bed. I felt a tingling sensation and shuddered. The walls were cream with a hint of grey; cracks lining the spots where the layers of paint lay in a tinted hue below. Lined with a C02 canister and a hand sanitiser.

What would happen after two months?

Would they move me somewhere worse?

Where will I be in two years?

I’m a useless sack of sh*t

Overwhelmed by the futility of bearing that train of thought, the oppressive feelings turned into a thought: “I wonder would it be doing the world a favour? I’m nowhere. I’m no one. I’m a useless sack of sh*t – I can’t even get somewhere to live.”

That thought lingered and festered for weeks until a plan began to emerge.

I was thorough in my planning. I would do it in a week, just to make sure it wasn’t an impulsive decision. Once five, depressive, sedentary days had passed I was left with my last two last days in the world. In spite of the desire to disappear, I was curious to see if something would give me the impetus to continue living such a hopeless, miserable life.

In those two days I made one phone call to a helpline to see if any spark of my humanity remained – perhaps a connection would remind me of something I had long forgotten. Although the person at the other end of the line seemed concerned, they relied on talking to me about cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques to practice. I was tempted to assert that I was homeless, hopeless, utterly beaten down since I knew I could only withstand another day.

The phone call put me off. I didn’t feel as if I could talk to any of my friends as they all seemed baffled and upset by the fact that I was homeless. Isolation had become the defining feature of my stay in the STA hostel.

So for my final day I did nothing, saw nothing, and nothing happened. I was simply waiting for nightfall – when the hostel would be asleep.

Why on earth am I not dead?

Next thing I know, someone’s in the room, and I feel extremely ill. My only thought was, why on earth am I not dead? I waned in and out of consciousness, a male doctor’s concerned face looking at my eyes and shouting something at me. There was a lot of pricking my thumb for tests. Once I came around a bit, the nurses had me linked up to some kind of blood cleansing machine.

Later that day, my head began to straighten up a bit. A professional of some sort came round (she wasn’t a psychiatrist) and asked many questions about my background and second-level education. Then we spoke about former employment. I sensed she was trying to get a feel for whether I should be admitted to a psychiatric ward. I had an ulterior motive when trying to talk her into believing that I was in full decision-making capacity.

I needed to get back to the hostel that had driven me out of my mind because, as tough as it was, I knew it was better than being on the streets.

Eventually, a psychiatrist came around, and said the psychiatric ward was full. I gave him my full reassurance that I would be able to cope and he seemed (not very) convinced that letting me go was the best idea – just a few hours after I acted to end my life. But he had little choice when I explained that I would lose my bed if I didn’t return that evening before 11pm.

I walked back to the now dreaded room on my own. I knew what awaited me – a broken kettle, the covered mirrors, the deadening, clinical wall paint. I felt as though I was entering fully into the abject. Becoming institutionalised and internalising the stigma of a “homeless” identity signified a transition for me on a basic and unconscious level.

Toxic environments

It feels strange to write of this now, as I have been housed for a few months. I feel a weight has lifted off my shoulders; a weight, I might add, that I never realised was there until I found my new home. And I have come to recognise the impact my homelessness has had upon my support network. I severely curtailed contact with family and friends as I could feel the downward spiral of depression. I grew ashamed because of my housing status. While the STA was a large improvement on the night shelter, it did not remove the hopelessness imbued in being homeless.

In fact with every passing day this worsened.

Toxic environments in the hostels are exacerbated for those with a susceptibility to poor mental health. In my own experience in the hostels, I have witnessed profound schizoid tendencies, bipolar diagnoses, personality disorders, along with (and more commonly) anxiety and depression. This is understandable given the precarity of the position of people there.

The homeless system can also produce environments so adversarial that people with no psychiatric background develop mental ill-health as a result. Research conducted in Dublin and Limerick showed that one in three homeless individuals have attempted to end their lives. I am one of that number. And I am not alone.

It is difficult to put into words. Retrospectively, suicide felt like an urge, a compulsion; something that needed to be done as soon as possible. The depression was utterly dejecting and self-abasing. The struggles one faces being at the very bottom of the (broken) social net left me with the feeling that my personality had disappeared, and I was overtaken by the overwhelming need to escape.

To put a word on it, I felt utterly subhuman.

It is important to note, as Peter McVerry pointed out, that “homelessness in itself is a trauma”. There are multitudes of causal routes to homelessness; mental health, finances, sky-rocketing rental prices across Ireland, dual diagnosis are but some. And these are the ailments and worries people have before they ever become homeless.

It’s a downward spiral, and I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

I survived.

The byline on this piece is a pseudonym. The author’s name is known to the Health & Family Editor