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Invisibility and homelessness

Invisibility and homelessness

“This visible world is a trace of that invisible one and the former follows the latter like a shadow” (Al Ghazali)

Many of us have times when we do our best not to be seen, we try to be invisible because the fear or pain of being truly seen is too much to bear. Would this be the case of we created a society where we all feel loved, cared for, and valued for who we are?

During the Homelessness and the Brain conference, the theme of invisibility recurred again and again; the invisible disability of brain injury, the desire to not be seen, the fear of being seen, the way statistics are used to camouflage the true extent of homelessness in the UK, the gaps in service provision, the invisible cracks into which people are forced in order to avoid providing a service because they are perceived as ‘too complex’, and perhaps most striking, the invisible groups within any population.

One example which brought a lot of this together was the presentation by Jacq Applebee. You can have a look at Jacq’s presentation here:

I’ve known Jacq for a little while now and am always amazed by the powerful ways in which complex contexts comes across in the what Jacq writes, speaks, and performs ( During the conference, Jacq read this on being a homeless black woman:

A typical day as a homeless black woman

By Jacq Applebee

I wake up in emergency accommodation: a Bed & Breakfast that is literally falling apart at the seams.  However bad this place is, it's still paradise compared to where I've come from.

I remove the chair from under the door handle, and take a peek outside.  When I'm certain no other people are lurking around, I make my way to the toilets.  Unfortunately I'm spotted by two men on the way back to my room.  They stand in my way and ask if I'm the manager's bit of skirt.  I look down and shuffle past them without saying a word.  One of the men follows me back to my room.  I'm able to squeeze inside and put the chair back under the door handle.  The man bangs on the door and shouts all the things he wants to do to me.  Eventually the manager gets him to leave.  He doesn't check to see if I'm okay.

Most of the day is spent trying to get a Crisis Payment, and seeing my support worker.  I spend hours in queues.  I'm exhausted, but I dare not leave and go back to the hostel to rest.  My support worker says there's a waiting list for the council's women only hostel.  I don't have children, so I'm not a priority for social housing either.  I try to tell her how difficult it is at the place I'm staying now, but I break down and cry part way through.  When I look up she's gone.  I wait in the cubicle for ages until she comes back acting like nothing happened.  She says I can get moved to another hostel in the centre of London, but when I tell her I don't have any travel money, she huffs, mutters something under her breath and leaves again.  She doesn't come back.

I stand outside the housing office trying not to cry again.  I wonder how my life turned to shit so quickly.  It starts to rain, so I have to move.  I buy a bag of chips on my way back to the B&B: it's my only meal of the day, but at least it's hot.  As I get closer I spot a group of men smoking outside, blocking the entrance.  They stare at me as I walk past them.  One says I can earn some easy money.  All the other men laugh.  I pretend to not hear him and walk faster to my room.

I eat my chips, and go through my bag to find a crumpled photo of my family - the family I ran away from.  I take in the bright smiles, the expensive clothes and jewellery they wear.  I ask myself why I don't go back to them.  Why am I putting myself through this?  And then I see my eldest brother at the edge of the photograph.  I shudder all over as I have a flashback to him touching me, and then threatening me with how he would hurt me worse if I told anyone.  I see my religious parents, and remember how they called me a whore and how nobody would want me because I had a boyfriend once.

I don't cry.  Not this time.  I finish my chips even though I've no appetite now.  I check the door is locked once more.  I lie on the bed and try to get some rest.  Tomorrow is going to be another long day.

The invisibility of homelessness is brought to the fore in Jacq’s writing; the fear of being seen in the line “I remove the chair from under the door handle, and take a peek outside” whilst at the same time wanting to be seen “Most of the day is spent trying to get a Crisis Payment, and seeing my support worker”. As a fellow human, I feel terribly sad when I read of the desire to be invisible and the dangers of being seen. Then as a professional, I feel strongly that our job is to make it safe for people to be seen; to actively go out and find the people who need our help. If someone is scared of being visible, then they certainly ain’t gonna come to us!

A little while ago, Jacq sent me this zine on running away:

In all honesty, I hesitated a bit before putting it on here because I was a little worried about the potential recourse of being perceived as promoting ‘running away’ and all the dangers associated with homelessness, which inevitably follow. Then I remembered my early days of training as a psychologist and recalled the once strong held view that we shouldn’t talk about self-harm because it would encourage people to self-harm. However, the impact of not talking about things is threefold:

  1. We create taboos
  2. We increase stigma
  3. People engage in the issue we’re avoiding talking about, but do so in a much more dangerous way

With this in mind, I hope you will read Jacq’s work and see it not as an encouragement to run away, but an acknowledgement that some people do and need to be as safe as they can whilst doing so. When people do run away, we need to create space for conversation and care; otherwise we erase their experience and render them invisible.

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