Descent into Homelessness: Waving not Drowning


photo credit Ryan Moreno

Editor’s note: In this six-part series, Denise documents her journey through homelessness. From normality, to troubled and teetering to full blown devastation and back again, she shares her story. This is part four; click here for part three.

There are four main colours of people in here: Ashen, grey, yellow and orange. I’m one of the grey ones. Which means, that in the big scheme of things, I am luckier than most.

My friends Karl and Sam are variations of yellow. Both still in their twenties, their livers wrecked in a couple of years by drinking too much cheap sherry and cider. Sam is in a wheelchair when we meet. Liver failure is taking its toll.

Detox is harrowing, humbling and an absolute Godsend.

In here, I am cushioned from the madness outside that used to be my life. In here, I can breathe. I feel safe.

Everything the staff tells me I do to the absolute letter. I want to get well again as quickly as possible and I will do anything to achieve that. Obeying rules and sticking to the program comes before anything. I keep my head down and my nose clean, making sure that nothing and nobody sways me.

I take my meds, go to classes and try and learn new things. The girls in here help me to comb out my dreadlocks. I get my appetite back, endure vitamin injections and gradually I begin to put on some weight.

I read, pray, meditate, sleep, do yoga, make jewellery. There are two tiny little figures I made out of clay on my windowsill. They cheer me up when I see them.

There are 24 hours in my days these days. Without alcohol to blur the edges, I have a lot of time to fill. I make sure that I use it wisely.

I am focussed. Determined. “A woman on a mission”. Completely unrecognisable from the dishevelled, 6 stone scrap of nothing that was me when I got here barely two weeks ago.

I am starting to look like a human again.

The other guys look up to me. They ask me what my secret is. I tell them that there is no secret. I just don’t want to die.

It’s a good motivation to get well. Several others follow my lead. A couple more make a break for it and climb over the wall. It hits us all hard when we realise that they’ve gone.

You get attached in here, form bonds, try and be strong for each other. Days like today are grim and serve as a stark reminder that this could be any one of us if we take our eye off the ball for a second.

We are all new to this. Fragile. We need to remember that we are all in here for a reason … mainly because we have an addiction that wants us all dead. Going over the wall will speed up that process. I stay where I am… I am choosing to live.

A new girl is admitted. She OD’s that night in her room. We all look on in horror as staff try to resuscitate her whilst waiting for the paramedics to arrive.

They bang on a door that no-one can open because the staff with the lanyards are desperately trying to save her life. I run into her room and announce that they are here. I try not to look at her face.

They wheel her away on a stretcher. There is a coat over her head. It’s a horrible night for us all and a stark reminder of what we are up against.

I take this as a warning and work as hard as I can every day.

When it’s an uphill struggle, I think about Bear.

When I start to lose focus, thinking of him keeps me going and I get myself back on track again.

I go to meetings twice a week. AA and NA. Although not compulsory, the staff encourages us to go. I give them a try, but they don’t really resonate. I prefer to tackle this in my own way. Determined to get my normality back the best way I know how, meetings on the outside are not part of my plan. I prefer to push my way forward alone. When I finally get out of treatment, it will be down to me anyway to keep myself on track. I’m fully aware of that … I’m just starting early.

In treatment I am picked apart, broken down, and then finally rebuilt. When I emerge from rehab four months later, I am older, wiser and, most importantly, sober.

There is no doubt in my mind that this has saved my life. I feel cleansed, renewed, reborn and I never want to drink again.

I move into a homeless hostel.

The walls are like rice paper, there are holes in the wall and the door has clearly come away from the door frame on more than one occasion. But it’s a roof over my head and somewhere to sleep. I am grateful that I have this much. There are people in this town with nothing.

I feel wobbly. Vulnerable. Out of my depth. I don’t have any friends here, and the others in the hostel have their own demons to slay. I choose not to get drawn into conversation or ask too many probing questions. “Good morning” and “Goodnight” are the extent of my repertoire, unless I am speaking to staff.

The house is oppressive. The staff seems indifferent. I try not to spend too much time here and so I spend most of my days outside by myself.

My friend Sam dies.

It hits me hard. We went into detox on the same day but only one of us got to get our life back on track. He had a little girl. His family is broken.

There are pubs and clubs on every corner here. I can’t afford to let my guard down. After everything I’ve been through, failure is really not an option – I’ve come too far and worked too hard to let this news break me.

Grieving for him without reaching for a drink, I know that I can do this. I just need a different kind of coping mechanism. One that doesn’t involve dragging myself straight back to hell via the nearest bar as soon as I have a bad day.

Something easy, something healthy, something portable, something cheap. I need something that I can turn to 24/7 when I need a distraction from my head and this shitty set of circumstances.

Nothing springs to mind.

Until I pick up a pen and then I start to write…

Denise Harrison

Denise Harrison


Denise Harrison is a writer, blogger and podcaster bourne out of her own personal experience of homelessness, addiction and poor mental health. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Big Issue, Metro, The Guardian and Happiful Magazine as well several not for profits. She is passionate about raising awareness and tackling stigma around addiction and mental health and recently wrote the film script for an educational film called This Is Depression.

Related Topics

Get the Invisible People newsletter


80 years old and homeless veteran in Los Angeles needs help


Displaced - social impact fim

Displaced: When Surviving Homelessness is a Crime

Homeless man sitting on sidewalk near Skid Row Los Angeles


homeless woman in Grants Pass



poverty shelter podolsky brothers

From Slumlords to Millionaires: The Podolsky Brothers’ Reign of Poverty

landlord murders child

Landlord Murders 6-Year-Old Muslim Boy in Heinous Hate Crime

Homeward Bound programs for homeless people

San Francisco Sending Homeless People Anywhere But Here

McPherson Park sweeps and impact of Encampment guide

Advocates Alarmed Over New USICH Encampment Guide 

Get the Invisible People newsletter