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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

Paying Attention to Mental Health while Living on the Streets

07/13/16 01:25 PM | Synthia Kennedy | Trauma, Homelessness, Mental Health

Trigger Warning: Violence, Trauma

Being on the streets poses many challenges. Finding food, water, and shelter from the elements is always the top priority. But, the one thing that we (even street folks) forget about is mental health.

While I was on the streets, thinking about my mental health always felt like a tsunami. About seven years ago, I was living on Haight Street in San Francisco. I hung around Golden Gate Park, often sleeping somewhere in the thick of the park. I had been in San Francisco for about three months, had made some great friends, and was in the midst of living the California dream. I spent most of the day hanging out with friends, panhandling, and making music, arts, and crafts - just trying to have a good time. I had gotten in the habit of sleeping with my friends, but one night I didn’t have the energy to make it up yet another hill; if you don’t like hills don’t go to San Francisco without a car. I decided to sleep in Panhandle Park instead of walking all the way back to Golden Gate where my friends gathered. I woke up at 6:30 am, packed up my stuff, and took a quick inventory of my things. I had $20, so I raced to the local coffee place, grabbed breakfast for everyone, and went to Golden Gate.

When I got to the park, there were three police cars parked with their lights flashing. I watched from across the street. Five minutes after I arrived, I saw two officers carrying a woman who was handcuffed and soaked in blood from head to toe. She had a cold, dead stare. I waited until the officers put her in their car and drove off to investigate. When I got close to my camp spot, one of the officers who regularly interacted with us was waiting. I saw the tape surrounding my camp, and my chest became tight. He came over to me and said, “Let's go for a walk.” He brought me to a bench to sit down and told me that 10 folks were stabbed at or near my camp that morning in their sleeping bags.

I started to shake and cry. What does this mean? What happened? Why did this happen? Am I on their list? Am I safe? Am I next? Why wasn’t it me? All these thoughts were running though my head as the officer told me what happened. I told the officer what I had been doing the night before so they could start to make a case and rule out all the possibilities. He gave me a hug and his card and said if I needed anything that I could call the station. I jokingly said, “Well, I need a place to stay - haha.” We both knew he couldn’t provide that. Read Synthia's thoughts on the challenges of experiencing homelessness as a transgender person.

As I sat on that bench, I thought about what life had given me and where it had taken me. How am I going to move on from this? How am I going to not fear for my life? It’s bad enough to worry about being robbed or having my stuff stolen or being rained on - now I had to also worry about being murdered in my sleep. This caused many painful, sleepless, tear-filled nights.

Trying to process a major trauma while living on the streets is almost impossible. Something is always happening when you live on the streets - whether it's the weather or locals or grumpy cops or you just have had a bad day. It can be hard enough to cope with life. Trying to process that people you love were murdered in their sleep is like trying to put a child in the driver seat of an 18-wheeler and saying, “You got it champ!” A child may have the desire to drive the truck, but simply having the desire doesn’t actually give them legs long enough to touch the pedals or an understanding of how the vehicle works.

This instance was especially hard for me because when I was in ninth grade my best friend, her mom, and step-dad were murdered in their home by a family friend. My trust in people and community had already disappeared. How do I now take the steps to reconnect to the world if all I see is death, deception, and a constant double standard? If you are confused reading this, imagine how confusing it was to live it, to tell yourself: “All I can do today is live - that’s it.”

Since that morning, I have seen more death, destruction, and hardship. Friends have overdosed, or been burned to death in a metal barrel, or shot, or raped, or murdered behind their work place, or “disappeared” with their abusive partner.

I have dealt with all of this by remembering to take it slow, be kind to myself both physically and mentally (the things we say to ourselves in our heads are important and can even be more detrimental than what others say about us), be of service (clean up trash around the city or help a stranger), and eat and drink well. I take five minutes everyday to appreciate what I have. It helps me realize that even when I am having a terrible day, I still have much to be thankful for. These steps keep me on a constructive path versus a path of stagnation and loathing.

I want to tell others to not be afraid to dream. Just because you live outside doesn’t mean that life is closed off from you. If you want something - go for it! Don’t be afraid to do what you have always wanted to do - the time is now. Each day is a new beginning, so leave yesterday in the past, and let tomorrow come. You have one goal and that’s to make today a day worth remembering. You have the tools to handle it, even if that means facing difficult challenges.

I make the choice every day to live - to be a good person, a kind person, an involved person, and to allow myself to grow and make mistakes. In this understanding, I have found peace. I surrender to the world around me. I choose to be of service. I try to live the way I want to see the world. I have learned that it is okay to not have the answers.

Learn more about the link between trauma and homelessness by registering for the new t3 tapas: "Understanding Trauma and Homelessness"

Image by kingkubby (cc by 2.0).

Synthia Kennedy

Written by Synthia Kennedy

Synthia Kennedy is a 23-year old activist, advocate, traveler, adult entertainer, and dreamer. She is a Youth Advisory Council Member for the Y2Y Shelter in Cambridge, MA and has spent most of the last 12 years advocating for expanded rights, services, and supports for youth experiencing homelessness and the LGBTQ community. Her motto is, "If I have felt scared and alone and in need of family and people to trust without fear of judgment -- then others have too."