I shall never quite understand what it is like to live on the street

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By Justine Mitchell, day to day manager, the drop-incentreHugs and Food

What is it like to be homeless? What is it like to live on the street? Not have a place where you can close a door and be on your own? The homeless often tell me that I won’t quite be able to understand what it is like.  You have to experience it.

I have more than eight years of experience from working with people who suffer homelessness. I have established countless relations, listened to endless numbers of life stories and often from the sidelines watched a merciless downfall from alcohol and substance abuse. I have followed several persons during their later years and have buried a few. But despite the harsh insight it still doesn´t give me the right to say that I know what life as a homeless person is like.

Everyone needs a place to belong – and a toilet

As they are sitting there with their coffees, neatly dressed and with silver-grey hair – one man with a smart white beard – they remind me of my father. They are both at retirement age, and if I didn´t know a bit about their background it wouldn´t occur to me that they are or have been sleeping rough.

’It is one of the most humiliating things to happen’ says one man. We are enjoying the last cup of coffee before closing time, while the rain is pouring outside, we are talking about their experiences from life on the street. ‘I usually tell people that I’m sure that every homeless person has tried it at least once’ the other man follows up, looking me in the eyes. ‘I’m talking about shitting your pants’, he adds, in a slightly higher tone to make sure that I’m following him. We’re talking about the importance for the homeless to always carry a pair of clean underpants and two pairs of socks with them. I hurriedly add that I suppose that most of us have tried to be so sick that we’re not in charge of our own body.

When homeless you are left to use the toilets at social services, libraries or the few public toilets that are available – but first of all you need to know where they are. If mishap strikes, and – like many homeless people – you only have the clothes you’re wearing, there is not much you can do, except try to cover up the trails by cleansing the trousers as well as can be done in a sink and wash with soap you might be lucky to find in the soap dish. One of the men tells me, that he was once so sick that it happened to him, and because he only had the one pair of and couldn´t change, he had to wear brown traces down his trouser legs until he could have a bath and have his clothes washed.  ‘It stank! I did know, but what was I supposed to do?!’ He tells with such empathy that I can emotionally identify with his humiliating experience. I am mortified by the thought.

In Hugs and Food we have a heartfelt wish for the homeless who attend the drop-in centre to experience more than a social service where they can have a meal. We know full well, that we are not likely to be able to change their life situation, but in our experience the feeling of belonging somewhere is of great importance to all people.

The persons I come across in my job often live an isolated life, marginalized and excluded from society, where life as a rule is, that you don’t have the same options or rights as other citizens.

The condition at day depends on the night

By Hugs & Food in Turesensgade there is an open door policy that means that homeless people come in directly off the street. We meet with the homeless within a measured period in the mornings, but their condition and mood is marked by the night and how the many hours in the street have been. Our days are rarely alike and we never know what the day will bring. Consequently the social action is very much a matter of stabilization and of people leaving the centre in better conditions than when entering.

When we open the doors at 11 o’clock there is usually a small group of homeless people waiting outside – ready for a cup of coffee or for one of the two soft armchairs where one can have a couple of hours sleep.

However, there are days when someone is sitting on the bench opposite waiting for us to turn up to work an hour prior to opening. This is usually a bad sign. Sometimes the person has been there for hours: Dismissed from hospital, possibly still in hospital clothes, barefooted in worn trainers. Not dismissed to a shelter but to nothing due to lack of rights as a foreign homeless person in Copenhagen. Too ‘good’ to take up a bed in hospital but too ill and weak to be in the street continuing their usual life.

In this situation, however, it is a good thing that they come to us. A mattress is prepaired, and while the person in question gets a couple of hours sleep, we fight against the clock in order to find a solution in order not to have to send him or her out in the street again at 5 pm, when we close.

It’s often an emergency when they turn up outside opening hours. It might be in regard to an assault where the person in question has been the victim of violence and thus seeks help. The disgrace is such a strong presence that the person does not want the other users to see the battered face and the bloodied clothes.
When they turn up on their own early morning or late afternoon, there is more time for care. We set about cleaning the bruises, and by and by I have built up quite a first aid kit containing almost everything so that we can dress and plaster until a professional can take over.
Sometimes we need to wash the clothes and while the washing machine is running it’s time to smoke a cigarette and talk about the unprovoked assault. Homeless people don’t often want to go to the police – too much bitter experience and fear of not being taken seriously. Sometimes we manage to talk the person into going to the police and our job goes on in the nearest police station. We primarily tag along as moral support, and in our experience that is important to the person.

On a daily basis my colleagues and I try to cover the most basic needs for some of the most exposed homeless people. An important effort is help to what we call self care. That homeless persons get a much needed footbath, have their toenails cut, get a pair of clean socks or underpants, clothes washing, new clothes or help  to have the slightly too long hair og beard cut. In my experience most persons are embarrassed to let us help with these things. It is in a way too intimate to allow another person to get so close to you when you know how much you smell. But once they have accepted my often rather insisting offer of help, the feeling of wellbeing takes up more space than the shame. Cutting the toenails of a person who doesn’t have the energy is taking care.  The feet are characterized by having walked many kilometers every single day in a pair of socks that have neither been washed or changed for months. But first of all, it is necessary. It has to be done. And since I offered, I got the task.

The homeless are very dependent on the help they can get from social initiatives. You need resources in order to coordinate your day to day life in the best way so that you get food, a bath, have your clothes washed, medical attention or a place to sleep indoors. You need to be in specific places at specific ties, otherwise a social project may be closed, or you are too late to have your name on a list of people wanting a bath. This is enormously stressful and demanding physically and mentally. The risk of having all your belongings stolen is prominent when you are on the street. A good sleeping bag is expensive and if you lose it, it might mean nights going without until you manage to get a new one from one of the charities.

What it feels like, I don’t understand. I don’t understand what it’s like to live on the street, what it I like not to have a place where you can close a door and just be on your own. What it is like to lie down to sleep without a sleeping bag, in fear of assault. What it is like to not have access to a toilet, food or a bath.

Also, I shall never quite understand that we – in a society like ours – are not able to create better conditions for the human beings who are out of line.

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