By Rae McKinlay
(From the April - June 2017 issue of VOX.)
"I suppose it’s my home now.” A fractured silence pierces me, causing a tear to prick my cheek. At 19, living rough has become normal for Cara, so much so that she has ‘prettied’ up her sleeping area with a few bits and pieces. A grin spans her face as she tells me that she was given a teddy bear today and she is going to put it by a photograph of her sister.
I take a sharp intake of breath and I gaze into her wide saucer-shaped eyes. I see a sensitive young woman who is made in the image of God, but I also see a person who has been crushed by her life narrative.
My attention is drawn to the man beside her. Hollow eyes have nearly consumed his face and his skeletal jaw hangs loosely. He is her pimp.
It is five minutes to one in the morning on a boisterous Friday night in Cork. I was out on the street with Hope for the Homeless, an agency set up to assist those who exist on the street. I was initially reluctant to join them, but I sensed a quiet stillness of the Holy Spirit prompting me to go out. It wasn’t fear that was holding me back; it was memory.
It has been 19 years since I escaped from the snarling jaws of homelessness. There is no visible evidence to suggest that I ever spent 17 months, two weeks and two days without a home. Today, it’s my secret to share.
The streets are unforgiving and yield a cold fury. There is never any comfort and you never feel at ease. I could not fully rest nor sleep as I was always semi-alert. There are too many predators willing to take advantage, especially of a woman on her own.
I learned to become invisible from the penetrating eyes of judgement, and soon I was able to slip into the local bus station for a wash - until they got wind of me, that is. I never felt clean.
The human condition hides a darkness that unfolds and manifests through living rough. I learned to survive, but in the process, I learned to cheat, lie and fight. I also learned to trust no one. Violence is never far away. As a consequence, I shut myself down. I felt nothing. To feel anything can make you a victim.
The days ahead seemed endless and I would take one faltering step after another to nowhere. To break the monotony, I would often visit churches, which opened their doors and gave out free meals. Those meals were a lifeline and so were the free clothes. I would eat quickly, paying attention to no one; it was easier that way.
It was at one of those drop-in centres that I met Iain. I had no real feelings for him. But I was desperate to move away from the cold, cracked pavements. His house was very basic but offered comfort and I was elated that I could finally make a cup of tea from a newly boiled kettle.
However, slowly and steadily he chipped away at my confidence. He began to dismantle my personality and rebuild it into his image of what he thought I should be like. Like shards of glass, I soon became brittle, my fierceness masking hurt, pain and rejection.
Perhaps we should refer to homelessness as the absence of home. I did not rough sleep for the whole period of my homelessness. I was so crushed that to move in with a man who used and abused me seemed a better option. I may have had a roof over my head, but I was as much homeless with Iain as when I was living rough.
JESUS WOULD WEEP
I square my shoulders and force myself back to the present. After all, I have a home now. It is Cara who is existing on the edge of an industrial estate. “I’m too afraid to sleep in the city,” her voice weaves into the cold night air. “I’ve had people pour coke all over me. I even had one woman come over and kick me.” I want to cry, but I have to be strong for Cara. I know that Jesus would weep.
Like so many others, she has been physically, emotionally and sexually abused. Abuse tears at your emotions, mind and soul. It distorts thinking, and it is so easy to take a path spiralling towards sabotage. It’s the beat of cracked silence… the waiting… waiting for the volcano to erupt… the roller coaster of emotions, down, up and crashing.
I pray with Cara and I pray for the same miracle that God gave me, a home and womanhood. And Cara needs a miracle. There is little accommodation to rent and the rental housing sector is in crisis. The hostels are over capacity and several residents have been in them for several years.
Though I have been off the streets for nearly 20 years, the brutality of it can cauterise your emotions, but God has been good. At least now I can cry, an experience denied to me for so long because I was so traumatised.
Morning breaks through and the sun gives a smile. My shift has ended and tiredness has come upon me. I am thankful. I am looking forward to that cup of tea from my own newly-boiled kettle.
People find it hard to believe that Rae McKinley was once homeless on the streets of Glasgow. Today, she is a storyteller, digital artist and mother of three children who lives in Bandon, West Cork, and attends Gateway Fellowship. She is currently writing a compilation of stories based on life experiences.