This post is going to be very long, and very heavy. It is going to cover some very intense material. I strongly encourage you to read through to the end. <3
Approximately 20-25% of homeless Americans have mental illness. Approximately 600,000 people are homeless (564708 on a specific night in January 2015). That means that an estimated 150,000 people are homeless and with a mental illness. The statistics on how many people are homeless because of their mental illness have not (at least that I could find) been measured, however mental illness was listed as one of the top three reasons for homelessness in 2008.
If you haven’t been playing along at home, I have a mental illness, and I have struggled with this illness over, and over, and over. Being that I have Bipolar II, Borderline Personality Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I’d say my shit is pretty severe.
So I figured I’d try being homeless for a couple months to see how it felt to be part of the group of people who find themselves with mental illness, and without homes.
Wait, no… That’s not what happened at all.
On April 21st, I had a relapse of my mental illness. I ended up self-harming as a result of some major life changes. I was set to move in September to a city I wasn’t terribly familiar with, and I had very little money saved up, as I had only been told about this move two weeks prior. I was scared, I was hurting, and I was overwhelmed. So I did what I knew would make me feel as though I’m in control: I hurt myself. I wrote about the entire experience on Twitter in an effort to remind people that they aren’t alone, and that sometimes support structures fail, and that is NO ONE’S FAULT. Hell, I’m appropriately medicated, and even with that, sometimes you relapse and it’s OKAY. I felt so vulnerable though, because I was afraid that my relapse would be used against me by the people I was living with to make me feel crazy or damaged, or make me feel like the stress and fear I was struggling with wasn’t real, or was bigger than it should have been. I was dealing with so much shame after self-harming, but after all of it, I calmed down. Once I remembered that the people I lived with struggled with mental health, or cared about those who struggled with mental health, I felt safe enough to go to bed.
The following day, I was feeling better, but still pretty vulnerable, when I received this:
Let me share with you how my brain worked in this situation. First there was disbelief: “This has got to be a joke, surely no one would kick me out for my mental illness”. Then there was fear: “I’m being kicked out and I have nowhere to go, what the fuck do I do”. Then there was planning “Okay, I’m gonna call these 5 people and figure out the next move.” Then there was anger: “They kicked me out, because of my mental illness, with 48 hours notice, knowing I would have nowhere to go, knowing I had nothing in my bank account”.
I was stuck. I didn’t have enough saved to move up to Philadelphia earlier than planned, and I couldn’t quit my job with no notice. I probably could have fought to stay in my apartment, but it seemed likely that fighting would have made things worse for me. Moving back in with my mom wasn’t an option because of my mental health, and moving down to my dad’s in North Carolina would mean that I would have to find a different job and take longer to save up just to move all the way back up to Philly in September. The only financially feasible solution was to stay in the area for a couple months until I could save up enough money to move to Philly early. I moved out of my home on Sunday, April 24, and my dad took all of my things (including my therapy cat) with him down to North Carolina. I had my clothes, necessities, and what could fit in the back of my car.
I’m gonna break down where I stayed during this time so that you can get a general idea of where I was.
April 24-26: My dad put me up in a hotel for two nights so I could get my head together.
April 26- May 6, 9-13, 16-20, 23-27: My amazing friends let me stay in the spare room during the week (it houses a tiny human on the weekends) at their apartment in Arlington. They also let me store the things in my car at their place so that I could have a “home base” to come to. A place where I could shower, do laundry, or repack my bag with another week’s worth of clothes.
April 29-May 2, May 20-May 22, May 27-29: My ex let me crash at his apartment in DC.
May 6-May 9, May 13-16 May: Up to Philly to stay with a partner.
May 30 – July 2: The same amazing friend of mine in Arlington lent me the money to rent a room at the house of a friend of a friend (it is shockingly hard to find a place to stay for a month).
July 2-Sept 4: Another friend of mine let me stay with him in New Jersey until I could move into my home in Philadelphia.
I had a plan of attack, I had a start, I was safe. Really, it couldn’t get any worse.
HA! I have got to stop saying that.
The first wrench in my plan was that I got a cold. “A cold? Really?” I can hear you asking now, and the answer is “Yes, Really”. A cold completely threw me off my game. Everything in my life was planned to the moment. It was planned around who would be home and when so I could grab keys. It was planned around affording food, gas, and putting enough money aside to throw at a security deposit. It was planned around making sure I had enough sleep, food, etc, so that in an emergency, I’d be safe in my car. A cold fogs your brain up. It fogs your life up. And for me, a person with one lung, I have a bit of traumatic stress when I get sick because it reminds me of what life was like before I got diagnosed with cancer. In my brain I had to re-route all of my finances to cover a doctor’s appointment ($20), over the counter cough and cold stuff ($30+), and then prescription meds ($40). Almost $100 just to feel better. It was nearly world ending. Because when you’re in a place like this, $100 is world ending. Hell, $50 is world ending.
The second wrench, and the thing that nearly did me in, that put me in the dark place, was that my car broke down. It broke down so hard that I needed to have the entire engine replaced. My then-partner allowed me to max his credit card out repairing it, and even then my dad and a friend had to help me financially. When you’re in a part of your life where everything must be as rigidly structured as possible, these things are devastating. I’m talking “staring blankly at a wall wondering whether it would be more emotionally and financially affordable to those around you if you weren’t alive” devastating.
The thing is, much like how no one expects to get sick and no one expects their car to break down, no one expects to be homeless. You can’t prepare for what you don’t know. I was INCREDIBLY privileged that I had so many friends who jumped up to assist me by offering food, places to stay, or shoulders to cry on. I was INCREDIBLY privileged that my family was behind me and helped me along the way. I was INCREDIBLY privileged that I had access to a car, health insurance, and a job during this time. I had so many more privileges that most people who find themselves without homes…and yet it was still terrifying.
Being homeless was scary. Feeling like at any point I would end up sleeping in my car was scary. Feeling like I had nowhere to go and no plan was scary. Remembering that it would only take one more thing going wrong to completely fuck my entire plan was really scary. It also reminded me how much we forget about people who don’t look “bad off enough”. People who are poor, but still have that one Coach bag that they inherited from a friend four years ago. People who are homeless, but still show up to work having showered and wearing clean clothes. People who can’t afford food, but can afford a dollar burger from McDonald’s. These people exist, being in this place exists and it’s an impossible feeling.
I remember a specific point during this period, where I bought…something. It was probably a lipstick or something equally silly. The item wasn’t important, the feeling was. I remember that I bought it and I cried over it. I cried because I felt that I didn’t have the right to spend money on something so frivolous, when people were going out of their way to take care of me. I cried because I felt that somehow, that $15 was going to completely change my situation (it wasn’t). It was horrible, IS horrible, to feel guilty for doing something so small to cheer yourself up.
If someone you know is without a home, offer them a space, a place to shower, or the Wi-Fi password. Offer people food if you can, or offer to buy them basic things they need like deodorant, pads and tampons, a reusable water bottle. Ask your friend to create a quick Amazon wishlist for things they might need and share the shit out of it. Grab them some gift cards they can keep on them for food or snacks. Allow your friend to use your address to send mail or packages while they’re couch surfing. The little things meant the most for me. My friends buying my medications, or paying for a doctor’s appointment was so helpful. My co-workers buying me a coffee or lunch really helped me get through the day. Letting your friends know that they shouldn’t feel guilty if they spend $5 on a coffee to feel better is a kindness. My friends just being there, and letting me have a place where I could be angry or scared or frustrated without having to compare my situation to someone who potentially had it worse, was probably the thing that got me through from April to September.
If you really want to help, donate to charities that support mental illness and help people who cannot afford care. Donate MONEY, NOT FOOD to food banks, who could really use the money to buy better food than your old cans of french cut green beans. If you really want to help, make yourself a space to have people reach out to you when they’re in trouble, and do your best to help them. “I’m sorry” isn’t as helpful as “I’m sorry you’re going through this, would you like help, or would you just like to vent”. Keep programs like Housing First, and others alive to give people homes and a place to work out of. If you really want to help donate to and keep clinics like Planned Parenthood and Mazzoni Center (in Philly) alive so that they can continue to give low-no cost care to people who cannot afford it.
Not having a home isn’t just a matter of not having a place to come back to every night. It’s not having a space that’s yours. Not having a space you can retreat to. It’s not having a place to go where you can just take a minute and regroup to figure out what your next plan is when everything comes crumbling down.
I was kicked out of my home because I had a relapse of my mental illness. It was hell for months, but ultimately, it made me stronger and healthier. It’s incredible what you can achieve in the face of chaos. People say home is where the heart is. I don’t think that’s true. I think that home is where you can go when you’re losing the war, to make your battle plans for the next day. We’re all fucking warriors.