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On being Homeless and Maintaining My Wellness by Jantien Schoenmakers

On being Homeless and Maintaining My Wellness

Jantien Schoenmakers

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I was homeless.

It all started one afternoon in late August 2018. Our letting agent informed us that the landlord decided to sell the apartment we’d been living in with our child for nearly three years. He wanted to ring us in advance to tell us that he was going to send out an official notice.A few days later, the notice arrived. We had until Halloween to find a new place and move out.

Try finding a house, even with a steady income, in the middle of a housing crisis in Limerick City, Ireland. We’d seen about ten places, but none of them were for us. There was just the one. A perfect house, a good location, friendly landlady. Then came the time to sign the contracts…and we got a bad vibe. We read through the contract and discovered that she wanted us to sign some of our legal rights away. A witness needed to sign the contract as we were desperate for a house at that stage. We all went to the Garda station, but the Garda didn’t want to witness because he didn’t personally know the landlady, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

October came around, and we still didn’t have a place, but we had to be out of the place we were in by the end of the month. We started packing when my in-laws asked us if we wanted to move in with them until we got our place. The dreaded anxiety set in. I don’t really get on with them as our core beliefs are so different, but I had to choose what’s best for my child, and that was a roof over his head. I brushed aside my feelings and said “okay”, thinking we’d be out of there in a couple of weeks at most. How wrong I was.

Early November 2018, I found out I was pregnant. We didn’t tell anyone but realised we needed a house to come home to after the baby was born. We kept looking at places, viewed more houses, but nothing. Christmas came and went. Around January, my depression got worse. I have known for a long time that my mental health gets worse in the winter, even when everything seems to be going right in my life, and I have a place to call home. I had done a Life Skills Course with CBT at the end of 2017 and tried some of the techniques learned on the course. Having no house and living in a cramped house with a toddler and four adults proved too much for my brain to handle. My mental health deteriorated and, once again, I became withdrawn whilst trying to shut off my brain and went into full-on survival mode. I knew rationally that things would eventually get better, but I was miserable. Cabin fever set in and, in Irish winters, there are not a lot of dry days to get out and do things.

Then, one faithful February night, a fight. Everything I thought was going to happen, happened, and my worst fears came true. The in-laws found out I was pregnant, that I had been in therapy and then they wanted us out. We stayed the night and talked to a friend who owns a hotel in the city. He told us we could stay there for a while. The next day, we packed our things and moved into the hotel. Spacious room, views over the mighty River Shannon and a roof over our heads. But not a home. However, it was a place for just us. The first couple of days were a breath of fresh air, and the built-up feelings and anxiety all came crashing out. I slept most of the days when the toddler had gone to preschool, and ever so slowly, I came back to myself. Days in the hotel turned into several weeks. Thankfully, we had the savings to pay for the hotel room, but we knew we couldn’t keep it up forever. We finally had to admit defeat and rang the Homeless Action Team in Limerick to see what our options were. We knew then, we might need a bit of a hand and couldn’t do it all on our own. Still, the most important thing was having a roof over the toddler’s head and having some stability for him while we kept on viewing houses (and getting rejected) until we found a place of our own. We were met with kindness and a listening ear when they asked us to come in to tell our story and see what they could do for us. There was a list of things we needed to do, like get a letter from the in-laws that they didn’t want us living with them and get a reference from our previous landlord.

Now, there was a bit of a snag. The previous landlord kicked us out and put us in this position in the first place. He gave us a Notice of Eviction with “intend to sell” and then put the property back on the market three weeks later with a €300 rent increase. This was because they couldn’t legally put up our rent by that much, but the market had changed. We were defenceless, and an open market is ruthless.

I was dreading having to head to the real estate agent, but we talked to his secretary, and she helped us with a reference. So, not as bad as I thought it was going to be. We went back to the Homeless Action Team after my partner talked to the in-laws for an official letter. The team told us they would try to find us a place to stay in one of the local hotels they work with as a short-term option and a social worker to help us in the long run. It would take a couple of days until they would know more about a place.

They also advised us to get on the list for housing. Navigating all of the bureaucracy for Housing Assistance Payment, which you need to get on the list for a council house, turned out to be the second hurdle. We were advised to talk to a councillor or TD as they will give you the application for you to fill out and then send a letter with the completed application form to speed up the process. Local politics in action! Although things seemed to be moving forward, my mental health still wasn’t where it should be. It was February, cold and wet, my depression still an unwelcome passenger with me and survival (instead of living) mode was all I could manage. I knew I had to do something about that, but I was hiding most of our homeless situation from the rest of the world as there is still a stigma around it. Posting images with “hotel life” captions instead of saying why (and how long) we were in a hotel. Again, I decided to ignore it and bury my growing feelings of deep anxiety.

A few days later, a call came from the team. They got a hotel room for us in a Limerick City hotel where we could stay until we got a house. What a relief to know that we weren’t burning through our own savings anymore and that we had a place to stay until we got one of our own. Again, we packed our bags and checked into the new hotel. The second we walked in, the staff asked us to sign a form that said we had read the house rules and sorted the keycards for our room. No judgement, just smiles and a warm welcome. We would soon find out that all the hotel staff are lovely and finally a little stability for our little man as well.

After all that had happened in the weeks beforehand, my mental health was still all over the place. Both of us were having this incredible sense of relief as well as trying to adjust to a “new normal”. In the first few weeks, we all had adjust to getting on the city bus for the toddler to go to school and get settled in our new room. It took a bit of time, and we struggled at first to find a rhythm or routine in the day. What I never thought about was the fact that we could not cook or have a fridge (or minibar we could use as a fridge) in the room. Luckily enough, the toddler ate a warm dinner at the crèche every day, and my partner worked in town and had a couple of warm dinner options during lunch. But food and family shared meals, in particular, is a big part of my life and something we could not share anymore. It was warm dinners during lunchtime, and often we’d get cold wraps or sandwiches for dinner, but living at the hotel meant that we couldn’t keep food or store it. A big hurdle we had to overcome. On the weekends, when we weren’t getting warm lunches, we had to order takeaway or delivery if we wanted warm food. As I was pregnant, I had to eat right and make sure I got enough nutritious food for growing the tiny human inside me as well.

And this is where some of the kindness of the staff came to the fore. I always greet people, whether they are the awesome cleaning ladies staff at the hotel restaurant or at the reception. I just think it’s nice to show people how valuable and appreciated they are. After a few weeks ofliving in a hotel, you start to get to know them a little bit, have your little in-jokes and they start to get to know you (and your kid) as well.

Now and then, I’d treat myself to a bit of room service like hotel dinner and my toddler to his favourite – buttered toast. Usually, not that special. When you’re living in a hotel room without any “home” cooking options, ordering off the menu is definitely a treat. After a couple of weeks, our favourite server at the hotel restaurant just waved his hand any time I picked up the toast. It’s the little things like that, which made staying at the hotel much nicer. He didn’t have to do that, but he did anyway.

As my pregnancy became more visible by the week, staff would check in with me more frequently about my wellbeing and if I was doing okay. They told me to talk to them if I needed anything. They realised how awkward it must be for me to be technically homeless and pregnant. The hotel had a pool, and as residents, we could use it at any time we wanted. Swimming is fantastic when you’re pregnant as you can just forget about gravity for a while and it did and has always done wonders for my mental health.

After five months of living in the hotel and nine months after becoming homeless, we got a house. Numerous viewings finally paid off. At 38 weeks pregnant, the last viewing. A lovely home in the suburbs of Limerick with three bedrooms so we could even give the baby that was about to be born, her very own room. We were supposed to sign a contract on Tuesday the week after the viewing, but on Saturday, my waters broke. I told our primary contact in the hotel what had happened and that I was heading to the hospital, but that I wanted to make sure she knew we wouldn’t be back for a while. She nearly roared at us to get to the hospital and to not worry at all about the hotel room. She would take care of everything (as she had done for the last five months).

Worrying about not being able to sign the contract because I was in the hospital, I rang our letting agent from my hospital bed, and he told us to come in a few days later as the house would still be there for us. On Thursday, we wrapped up our newborn baby and drove from thehospital straight to our new home to sign the contract and to get our keys. As furniture still had to be moved, we spent the last night in the hotel with our newborn bundle of joy. On Friday the 26th of July, we moved in, closed the door, and were finally home.

Lessons Learned I’d like to Pass on to my Fellow Millennials

Check your contract to see how much notice you have to be given by your landlord. Finding a new place and moving takes time.

Try and find an activity you can do indoors to get your mind off things and give you some mental breathing space for just you, no matter who you live with at the time!

Try really hard to make sure you save some money to last you a couple of weeks for food and shelter, just in case the unexpected happens.

Laws have changed since our homeless story recounted above. If this happens to you, talk to the Residential Tenancies Board, and they will help you out as it is illegal for landlords to do this.

Most councils have a website with what to do when you become homeless, and a page with contact details for all local councillors.

Use it to your advantage.

Make sure you take time out of your day to look after your mental health. Whether it’s going out for a walk and get some fresh air, meditation or journaling, find something that works for you to get your mind off things.

I will leave the final words to Maya Angelou.

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“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go”

*This is a published chapter in the book, Mental Health For Millennials Volume 4 (2020, pp. 169-175) published by Book Hub Publishing and sponsored by www.thedoccheck.com 

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