Homelessness Causes a Lifetime of Trauma

woman suffering from PTSD trauma

Former Homeless NYC Woman Details Trauma Caused by Homelessness and Her Road to Recovery

My $35 Ikea desk is littered with coffee stains, scented gel pens, and prescription bottles. Since last summer, I’ve been cycling through anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication to manage my mental health.

First, it was Zoloft, then Atarax, and Effexor. It is no easy task trying to find the right combination of medication to treat depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, and PTSD. By far, the most crippling symptom of post-homeless life is the traumatic memories that trigger my PTSD, which I still experience today.

To be frank, most days, homelessness feels so far away. I can think about and discuss homelessness without spiraling into that deep dark hole like I used to. But getting to this point required 2 ½ years of therapy. It required constant reminders that I am safe now.

Since then, my life has evolved and changed significantly and drastically. Very little of my day-to-day life resembles what it was like while I was homeless. However, sometimes when I do remember, something just happens, and it’s like I can’t tell. It destabilizes me for days or weeks at a time, and everything around me slowly begins to crumble.

This can happen for days or weeks at a time. My brain and my body mistake that memory, that intrusive thought, for reality, and I guess in a way, it reacts accordingly. It cries, stiffens, and panics sensing danger. 

Last week was one of those weeks.

I know I am not homeless anymore, and I am safe, but my brain and body have not gotten the memo. The crying spells, the panic attacks still come, the muddy thoughts and disassociation, the sorrow. I know I’m not there anymore because I’m here now. But my brain and my body just can’t tell.

When days like these come, when they last for weeks or the entire month, I don’t write for Invisible People. I try to write the rest of the time because I genuinely want to connect with you.

When I think of homelessness, mental illness is by far one of the most important, overarching topics relating to that experience. This is the case both for myself and many of my homeless and formerly homeless peers.

Before my feet even hit the pavement, I had a long list of undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses. I took all of that with me to the homeless shelter, and I surely wasn’t the only one. Before becoming homeless, I spent nearly a year evading it in housing court. My landlord doubled my rent, retracted the lease renewal, and neglected significant repairs to my apartment. He turned off my heat in the middle of winter and had a hole smashed into my living room wall. I was terrified navigating a failing justice system while coping with my untreated clinical depression.

I fought, though, as long and hard as I could.

When fate found its way again, I landed in a homeless shelter in Harlem. This was when I met Shay. She and I were similar in age and experience. When it felt like the entire world was my enemy, she became my only friend. We’d spend long nights together in that shelter, keeping each other alive.

Soon after her 21st birthday, I learned she was kicked out of her parents’ house and disowned for being gay. She and her girlfriend lived across the hall from me. They were my lifeline when I was in a dark place. She was also on a generous amount of psychiatric medication for anxiety and depression and spent a great deal of time locked in her room alone while her girlfriend went to work during the day.

At the time, I was a college student, working part-time and barely keeping myself above water.

To be honest, I don’t think I would have made it out of there alive if it weren’t for her. That’s because homeless services and shelters are not equipped to address the complexity of homelessness. I don’t feel like they’re capable of doing so, not with how things stand now. 

Homelessness is very much a mental health issue as it is an income inequality issue. It is a lack of affordable housing issue, as it is a whole-system-failure issue. And we are addressing these issues through discipline and punishment, blaming the homeless person for falling through the cracks of a system designed to operate exactly like this.

There’s certainly no question that homelessness is a traumatizing event. I mean, homelessness is basically everyone’s greatest fear – not having someplace to live is damn scary, wouldn’t you say? Knowing this, that should be more than enough reason to consider the implications of homelessness and what it can do to every individual.

Of course, in no way am I a psychologist. But I do know how homelessness has impacted my long-term mental health and many of my formerly homeless friends – it’s even killed a few. Homelessness was the one thing that destabilized me and continues to do so long-term. It’s the event in my life that changed me forever.

“I forgot for a moment there…that I haven’t healed from this. Will it always be like this?”

This is what I asked my therapist last week. She reminded me that, even though it may get easier over time, chances are this is something I’ll carry for the rest of my life.

“And, that’s okay,” she said.

Of course, it’s not “okay,” but I need to accept that homelessness essentially helped mold me into the human being I am today and probably who I will be in the future.

I guess I wouldn’t be here right now, writing this, if it wasn’t for all of this. Still, if I could, I’d erase that entire chapter. If I could hit backspace on my life, I’d smash that key pretty far back, so far back, that I’d never, in a million years, be led to write this.

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Jocelyn Figueroa


Jocelyn Figueroa studied Creative Non-Fiction at The New School and is a blogger and freelance writer based out of New York City. Formerly homeless, she launched her own blog discussing shelter life in New York City. Today, Jocelyn is on a mission to build connections through storytelling and creative writing. Check out her book about homelessness at https://ko-fi.com/scartissueproject

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