So you have a friend who’s homeless, or one at risk. You can’t take them in at your place (for whatever reason). What can you do? There’s a whole lot of ways to help. One pretty easy thing you can do is to provide a home base. A lot of folks spend time travelling and backpacking and having a ball living a very transient lifestyle, and part of the thing that makes this fun instead of traumatising is that somewhere they have a home base where their stuff is kept safe. For most of us as younger people, this is a parent. There’s a spare room, a garage, or an attic stuffed with boxes of paraphernalia that’s really meaningful to us but which we don’t have to carry around. Most of us don’t even bring this stuff with us when we move out as students or young workers. Small units or share houses are not the best place for excess belongings, so they wait until we’re older and way more settled. Many of us also have things of great sentimental value that we don’t own but will probably inherit one day and will remember family members or great childhood events by. These all stay safe in the care of whoever currently owns them. Lastly, many travelers have their VIP documents stashed safely with someone who can look after them, scan and email them to us if we suddenly need them.
This home base is one of the things it’s easy to take for granted if you’ve always had it. Most people who are homeless do not. Anything they can’t carry is lost to them. Any items of sentimental value are left behind, there’s no extended family to just take over looking after the dog, there’s no security even for the things they are able to carry around. This loss is drastic, it hurts like hell. It’s part of the reason people are so reluctant to leave violent partners, it’s something abusive parents can hold over their children, it’s another Gap that opens up between happy adventurers and distressed homeless people.
Depending on your situation, you might be able to offer to look after their cat, to put some important paperwork in your filing cabinet, to keep their digital photo collection stashed on your computer, to keep some of their best clothes in a rack in your wardrobe, to have a box of food they can use as a pantry, to hold onto some precious jewelry. You can help them find cheap public lockers to stash shoes and a phone charger, or long term storage if they’re salvaged larger items. Things they can’t keep you can take photos of; kids sports trophies, a record collection, the cross stitch Nan made for them. Having a record can help when you have to let go of so much at once. There’s such a dislocation that looking through photos later can be something that helps to process it all, to link the old life and the new life together. There’s free cloud storage for digital photos through services like dropbox or google plus.
Homebase can also be about providing a little normality to an experience that is surreal and disconnected. Having someone round for a meal once a week, hanging out and watching tv together afterwards can be a routine that anchors them to a world where things are still safe and predictable. It can help to ground someone who is spiraling. Don’t assume that this happens in services. Most of the services are not good at providing any kind of emotional support or stability. Being up to hang out with you at the dog park for an hour can be the most normal thing that has happened to that person all week. Getting people out of services, even if it’s just for short breaks, can be critical to keeping them sane. Being surrounded by other traumatised people and the extremely weird combination of ‘normal privacy doesn’t exist, normal relationships don’t exist, professional boundaries limit connection, and everyone else is an expert on your life’ that characterises extended contact with staff in services is very hard on people. Helping them get breaks from this and to reconnect with a world where they are regular people for awhile can make a big difference.
Listening and providing emotional support can also help a lot, although I do suggest that you don’t get in the way with this. This kind of crisis can be emotionally overwhelming. A lot of people need not to feel anything very much, because they’ve got so much to do. Dissociation can be the thing that’s keeping them safe. If they want practical help – using your phone to contact services, filling in forms, borrowing your car to get to an appointment – and shy away from your sympathetic ear, let them be. Don’t be surprised if an emotional crash comes later on, sometimes after the drama is supposedly over. I did this with one unit I was in after a period of homelessness, and most of my then friends were confused and a little frustrated with me – wondering why I still wasn’t happy. Delayed reactions aren’t uncommon.
People can also regress, which can scare you if you haven’t experienced it before. Psychological collapse can happen where they freeze and stop looking after themselves at all. Sometimes people wind up in psychiatric services at this point. They may become wildly manipulative and unpredictable as their sense of desperation spirals. They may also just disappear and try to manage on their own. Anything is possible, the stress is intense.
Lastly, one of the things a home base does is keep a safe place somewhere in the world where you are loved, and thought well of. However dark it may get elsewhere, somewhere you are treated with dignity. Like anyone in bad circumstances, a massive amount of victim blaming happens. Our culture is not kind to people who’ve suffered this kind of tragedy, we have a lot of terms for poor people and few of them are something you could maintain a sense of self worth and identity with. Experiences like homelessness assault our sense of safety, our expectations of our lives, and our identity. Home base can at least be a place where our identity is preserved, where we remain a friend rather than a ‘homeless person’. Anything that buffers us against the acid erosion of self will help. Anything that helps us to function more as a traveler does, with some dignity and a keen sense of the absurd, will help. Meaning, hope, acceptance, these are things that help people get through dark times.