One of the worst things about homelessness is the shame

Shame is a complex emotion. For most of my life, it has prohibited me from revealing an experience that has shaped me in the most profound of ways. And today, shame is what is forcing me to finally reveal what that is, something even some of my closest friends don’t know.

You see, when I was 17, I became homeless for a period. As in, I lived in a friend’s garage, sneaking in when his parents had parked each night and getting up before they left each day. It meant me hiding my sleeping bag in bushes before heading off to school and relying on the kindness of others for food. It entailed overstaying my welcome at every opportunity, mocking sleep so as not to be moved off a warm couch or sneaking into their rooms when parents had gone to bed, for a safe place to sleep.

And it made me feel like shit, every humiliating second of every day. I felt I was white trash, despite my middle-class upbringing, unlovable and unworthy. And despite getting my life back on track and achieving success later in life, I will always be that scared young girl with knotted hair who brushed her teeth with her finger and bathed with a garden hose, among other indignities I don’t care to share.

So acute are these memories that when I read that yet another young woman, now identified as 25-year-old Courtney Herron, had been found dead in a Melbourne park on the weekend – this one identified as having “no fixed address” – tears came that haven’t really left. I can only imagine how vulnerable, lost and insignificant she must have felt in that dark park ringed by the warm homes of affluent others.

But what I also felt was shame. Shame because I knew that in society people will be asking what that girl was doing sleeping in a park alone at night, what was she thinking putting herself at risk like that? Some may be smugly tut-tutting that she allegedly had substance issues. I also know many – too many – will be thinking that it couldn’t happen to them, that homelessness is something that happens to “others”, read in to that classification what you will. And I realised that my silence regarding my own experience was through the shame of not wanting to be viewed through a similar prism of scrutiny and supposition, to be judged as inferior or undignified. I didn’t want to expose my ugly emotional scars in fear others will look away.

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