Homeless for Christmas

I can’t think of many things worse than being homeless and forced to live on the streets but it must be especially bad at Christmas.  When most of us are putting up trees and stringing up the lights in our lovely warm rooms many people are huddling into doorways trying to shelter from the rain and the cold.

Over the years in the course of my job I have spoken to a wide range of the homeless.  Being naturally curious (some say nosy) as well as providing the medical help required, I always like to know ‘how’ and ‘why’?  ‘How’ they have come to be living on the street and ‘why’ they are living like this.  The answers given are as individual as the people giving them.

Some are escaping from an abusive home and have slipped through the safety nets provided by social services.  Some have fallen on hard times and have been evicted from a previous home without the means to find an alternative.

In some of the areas I know that there have been emergency overnight shelters available but still a large number choose instead to stay on the streets.  Why?  One young lad told me that bullying was rife in these shelters – he went to one and was threatened with violence if he didn’t give up what little he had to the ‘gang’ which seemed to control that particular place.  When I asked about staff there he said that they just weren’t interested and left the residents to ‘sort it out themselves’.  He felt safer out on the street.  Another, slightly older person said he was banned from the shelter for smuggling alcohol and crack cocaine in for his own use.  His need to feed his addiction was greater than his need for shelter.  I can see both sides to this dilemma, it’s quite right that the people running the hostels want them to be clean and safe but I can also see that realistically an addict cannot give up his addiction just like that.  It’s easy to judge and say that he should just give up the alcohol and crack cocaine but addictions are serious physical and mental conditions which take time, will power and professional help to overcome.  And once overcome, continued support and a removal from previous lifestyle and influences is required to prevent remission.

Drug use is said to be widespread among the homeless.  Advice given by the council of my city is that we should not give spare change to individual homeless people as this will be used for drugs and alcohol, we are encouraged instead to support the established charities set up to help the homeless.  This seems a bit judgemental and ‘big brother’ to me.  Sure, some will probably use the cash to buy the next fix – but maybe that’s better than mugging and stealing the cash.  I’m not in any way condoning drug use.  I’ve seen firsthand the devastating and tragic effects of recreational drugs, I’m just being realistic.  Before we judge too harshly it’s worth asking my favourite question: why?  Why are so many using drugs?  For some it starts with a wish to experience an altered state of mind, some it’s peer pressure, some to mask or escape from the reality of their lives, including PTSD from abuse or horrific military experiences.  Once the addiction kicks in obviously it’s a desperate need to feed the addiction and stave off the withdrawal symptoms.

So what’s the answer?  How do we fix things and get all the homeless into some sort of safe shelter?

In my oversimplified mind I think there are two problems to tackle:

Firstly we need to deal with the people homeless now.  We need a range of accommodation options.  Different individuals have different needs and we need a varied range of support including drug, alcohol and mental health support and all backed up with a firm, safe yet understanding regime.

Secondly we need to prevent the next generation of the homeless.  I firmly believe that we should educate our young in how to handle life.  Give them realistic and healthy coping mechanisms for the disappointments and heartaches in life and try to steer them away from the destructive ones.  Invest in community mental health services so when things go wrong support is there from the beginning to hopefully prevent the spiral downwards in mental health which can ultimately end up on the streets.

So what can every one of us do today to help?

One positive thing is to acknowledge the homeless people you see.  Make eye contact and say hi.  If you don’t feel comfortable giving change, still make contact and if necessary say you’re not giving money today but hope that things will work out for them.  Most will appreciate being acknowledged and treated as human – it may even save a life!  One homeless girl I once spoke to said one day she had made up her mind to end her life as all she could see was despair and no future.  A smile and simple human contact from a kind woman passing by changed her mind and made her decide to stay around a bit longer.

I hope you all have a wonderful, peaceful Christmas and feel comfortable, warm and loved.

Mental Wellbeing in the build up to Christmas

This is the Rusty Siren guide to keeping your spirits up in the build up to Christmas with some mental health tips.  I don’t personally like to think about Christmas before the middle of December but these days I’ve found it is in our faces as soon as Halloween is over.  Evidence suggests that mental illness may increase at Christmas, this is my personal guide to dealing with the whole Christmas thing with minimal stress.

The challenges of this time of year are obvious and well known:

Money.  This has become an expensive festival and the pressure is on to spend more and more.  When we feel obliged to spend more than we have this is a huge source of stress.  Several years ago I had a chat with my family.  We decided to cut back on presents.  We all know we love each other so we don’t unconsciously try to measure love by present monetary value.  Family policy now is children get bigger presents adults get a token present.  Homemade presents are very welcome. We’re all relieved and happy with this.

Time.  Lots of us find ourselves working extra hours to get the extra money we need which then obviously leaves us less time to do the Christmas shopping.  My answer is to start the planning and organising early (hence why I’m writing this now).  I know this will annoy some people; I used to get irritated by the organised types who had Christmas all sewn up when I was just starting to panic around the 20th of December!   I’ve now joined their ranks.  I’ve also caught up with the rest of you in the 21st century and do some of my shopping on-line.  The earlier start leaves longer for the gifts to arrive.  For the shopping I can’t get on-line I plan shopping expeditions in the local towns.  I start early and generally have a loose plan of what I will get and where I will get it.  When it goes well I reward myself with a gift too!  There have been times when I’ve not managed to get a single present but still got myself a gift.

Also, about now is when I start to think about posting any cards which need to go overseas.

Perfect-family-syndrome.  The television is full of adverts for Christmas now.  Often a perfect family is shown; the beautiful couple with the happy children whose life is made even happier by the perfect Christmas they are having.  If that’s you then you have my best wishes and I am truly glad for you and hope you have a fantastic time.  Most of us at some point fall short of that ideal scene. As a divorced dad my Christmases have been a little different.  When my children were younger I used to feel guilty that I had deprived them of this perfect Christmas.   Often my shift pattern has meant that I have been working on Christmas day or Christmas night.  The way we got round this was to plan a day near Christmas when we had our own Christmas.  I came to love our alternative Christmas days.  The kids are adult now but we still enjoy our custom.

Through working the Christmas period I know that a lot of people feel increasingly lonely and depressed at this time – I think this is made worse by the Perfect-family-syndrome pushed by the advertisers.  It’s important to remember that a lot of people also feel lonely and low at this time of year and that it isn’t unusual.  Times when I’ve been alone on the day itself I’ve still planned treats for myself – nice food and tried to have a relaxing day and included a nice walk in the fresh air.

The years where Tony and I are working Christmas day we each bring a microwave Christmas dinner so when we get our 30 minutes on station we can still feel quite festive.  I generally eat all the mince pies, Tony doesn’t really like them!

Extended time with family. During the holiday period we tend to spend more time than we are used to with our families.  Much as we love them, this may also cause increased stress.  Then as the anxiety rises and patience levels drop we feel guilty for feeling like this when we’ve probably been looking forward to spending this time with our loved ones and feel that we shouldn’t feel like this.  It’s good to take a realistic view at times like this. It’s natural that there will be tension when spending more time than we usually do with our families, especially if staying at their house and adapting to their routines.  This is part of being a human.  When this has happened to me I just accept that this is natural and I rely on my go-to remedy for everything: I go for a walk and practice my relaxation techniques.

Despite what it might look like from above I do love Christmas.  I’m a big kid at heart and love all the shiny lights and decorations.  I do think people are kinder and more loving to each other for a brief period of the year.  Regardless of spiritual or religious views I think we all think more about loving and giving at this time of year.

I hope you all have a relaxed and stress free build up to Christmas (It’s way too early to wish Merry Christmas yet!).