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A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Outside In

When someone living rough is given a home

Judy Graves

Reprinted from "Housing and Homelessness" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (1), p. 21-22

One bright and sunny morning, I was rushing down Granville Street, already late for a meeting. A male voice called my name: "Judy!" I turned. He looked vaguely familiar - I waved and hurried on. He caught up with me and stood in front of me, blocking my way.

Clean cut, hands on his hips, sandy hair, hazel eyes. "Don't you know me?" he asked. "I'm Richard!"

I couldn't place him, and it must have showed.

"Four days ago," he said, "you woke me up on the sidewalk. You got me on welfare; you got me my own room; you spent the whole day with me."

The picture suddenly came together: a foul-smelling creature with greasy hair I thought was brown, oversized clothing damp from a rainy night on the sidewalk, and hazel eyes that didn't seem to focus. Now, here he was in front of me - a different man, created by a hundred dollars of support money from welfare - and a room in a residential hotel with a door that locked.

Even after years of helping the homeless find homes, I could scarcely believe the difference that three nights safe sleep, a couple of showers, a haircut, a shave and clothing "new" from a thrift shop could make.

From street to housing—the first few days

The transition from outside to inside, from street homeless to housed, does not always go so smoothly. This is a more difficult transition than we can imagine.

Often, people who have been living outside will sleep on the floor of their room for the first month or two. They say they have become so accustomed to hard surfaces that they are uncomfortable on the bed. They may return to the street and sleep outside for the first few weeks, gradually becoming accustomed to the warm, still air indoors.

Outside, living on the sidewalk, the din of traffic is deafening but constant. People say it is hard to get used to the quiet being disrupted by abrupt noises inside a building - doors slamming, elevator doors, banging of garbage cans in the hallways, voices in the next room. Each loud bang in the quiet is a shock. As well, social phobias may make it difficult to connect with the building manager, or to cope with other tenants in the building.

Although all we have to offer them is a tiny room, people who have been living rough are very glad to have it. Finally, they can put down their backpack without fear it will be stolen.

The most important part for them comes when I say goodbye and they turn the lock on the door behind me. Alone. Safe. They haven't experienced privacy or safety the entire time they've lived outside.

The first few days in the room may be a busy time. Often they sleep a long time and wake up disoriented. They take long showers, and go to a laundromat. There is sudden attention to grooming, haircuts, using a toothbrush, buying white socks, replacing humiliating clothing. More sleep. They go to doctors to start clearing skin conditions that resulted from living on wet cement, and to get back on medication they took before becoming homeless. And then they cocoon.

The first three months—an emotional adjustment

It is fascinating to listen to formerly homeless people describe their first months inside. Each is so individual, and each life is full of its own meaning, yet patterns emerge that seem common to most.

After the first few days of high activity between long sleeps, there is a period, for about two months, of numbness broken by unbearably sharp feelings. People talk about not wanting to do anything, of being still and not even watching TV. During this time, most reduce their use of street drugs - they're no longer the easy victims of predatory drug dealers in the streets. They drink little alcohol, though they may smoke a lot of marijuana to dull their anxiety. Then, suddenly, they relapse, binging on street drugs or alcohol. And then they return to reduced use. Gradually, they say, they learn to stay asleep at night, and are able to develop a regular sleep pattern.

In the second month, when sleep is regular, they start to become hungry at regular intervals.

In the third month, they tell us, they become interested in the world beyond themselves. They may begin to go outside every day. They may start to check out things that interested them before they became homeless - may join the library or go to a movie. Toward the end of this third month, they often begin to seek help for mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. And they start to take a real interest in food.

By the fourth month—re-emergence

It's the fourth month of living inside that I find the most exciting to witness. This is the month when individuality, creativity and energy suddenly re-emerge. Some, who are able, start looking for work, or find a course that will lead them to employment. Others may join groups at a drop-in centre or start to volunteer at a church or service agency. One started to write a book on the computer at the library - a half hour at a time. Another bought art supplies and started to paint. Diabetics start cooking for themselves and take an interest in their diets. Some folk decide to move out of the city to a quieter community away from the memories of homelessness. There is a focused look about them. They sustain eye contact and smile easily. They can think more clearly now and want to talk.

When they lived outside, they could think only of the next few hours. After four months living inside, they look forward to a long future.

About the author
Judy advocates with homeless and low-income tenants for the City of Vancouver. She is currently collaborating with author Stephen Legault to write a book, 101 Solutions to Homelessness, for New Society Publishers.


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