How one woman overcame homelessness and found community through surfing

“I was homeless for 403 days.”

Hannah Green’s story is one of sadness and suffering, survival and surfing. When we talk, she is in a good place. Her raw, powerful memoir has just come out, she has a job as a lived experience specialist at the Centre For Homelessness Impact in Scarborough and is volunteering at a surf therapy charity. But the last few years were tough.

“Towards the end of 2018 I started struggling really badly with flashbacks and nightmares, and with PTSD,” she says. “I didn’t want to be alive – I was drinking a lot, I was self harming. Things were really, really bad.

“When I was at university, I was sexually assaulted. And I was also sexually abused as a child. So the nightmares and flashbacks were from both of those. Because of the PTSD, I ended up with nowhere to live.”

Green talks and writes with a rare honesty about difficulties she has overcome and is overcoming, as well as the joy and community and light she found in an unexpected place during dark days.

“I did not think surfing would help me,” she says. “But as soon as I got in the sea, I got this calm feeling I had never really had before.”

If Green’s initial route into homelessness began with abuse suffered as a child and was triggered by the ongoing impact of further abuse as a student, on her subsequent journey she has seen up close some of the best and worst of the safety net in place to help people experiencing homelessness.

Her story in particular highlights the need for better provision of safe spaces for women experiencing homelessness, many of whom have previously encountered male violence.

“I don’t know if it’s different in other areas, but here, because I was under 25, it meant I never had to sleep on the street,” says Green. “So I was sofa surfing for a few months, then I ended up in Nightstop, which is emergency accommodation for people under 25.

“Then I ended up in a supported lodgings placement, basically staying in the spare room of a volunteer’s house. At first, that was great and I talk about this in quite a lot of detail in the book. But my trauma stems from men. And at the placement, there were a lot of young men about.

“That was really triggering and the charity didn’t understand. They just told me ‘not all men are bad’ and didn’t get it.”

Green was told that if she left the placement, she would officially be making herself intentionally homeless and therefore would no longer be able to access support.

“It got to the point where there were four lads my age in this tiny kitchen and every time I had to walk through it it sent me into a flashback. And I just couldn’t cope with it.” RECOMMENDED…How does homelessness differ for women?

Green left but was fortunate, she says, to be able to return to Nightstop before getting another place in a hostel – where she stayed for a further five months. However, again this proved unsuitable.

“The hostel was chaotic. It was loud. There were 19 people between the ages of 16 and 25 in one hostel – and there was drugs, alcohol, partying, anti-social behaviour,” she recalls.

“Things got more out of control for me. I moved out exactly a week before Christmas 2019. I had no choice in where I was going – they told me a week before and I was moved to a flat that was similar to the hostel.

“But the hostel had staff and a security guard. So whilst it was terrible, there was some notion of safety. At this flat there was nothing and the partying was worse. In the hostel, only people that lived there could come in. But at the flats anyone could go in and out.

“The flat above me had constant parties. Ridiculous amounts of noise. People turned up threatening the guy above me with knives. It was really scary. So I ended up on my friend’s sofa again for nearly a month. Luckily, at that point, some friends helped me find a flat and acted as my guarantor.”

If the hostel system failed to provide Green with a place of safety, other charities did provide life-changing services. Green began working with the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust – set up by the double Olympic champion on the eve of Beijing 2008 to support young people facing disadvantages.

They provide long-term mentoring to young people who are not in employment, education or training, are suffering with poor mental health or who are experiencing homelessness.

“When I first when to DKHT, I was experiencing homelessness and struggling really badly with PTSD,” says Green.

“I wasn’t really going out, socialising or doing anything meaningful with my time. It improved my confidence and social skills because I had to interact with other young people which I hadn’t been doing.

“[Mentors] Paul and James were super understanding and really got it if we were having a bad day. They started to push us out of our comfort zones, which helped in the long run. I got the opportunity to build all these skills whilst doing fun stuff like mountain biking and climbing, which most programs don’t give you.

“In one session, when Paul knew I had been struggling with anger issues, he got us to do some boxing which really helped.”

The confidence and reconnection with physical activity gained from working with the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust led Green to surfing. And she has never looked back.Hannah Green and a dog called Bear at a recent book signing in Scarborough

“It meant I ended up on this surf therapy course, which I wouldn’t have had the confidence to try,” she says. “And surfing has completely changed my life.

“I just fell in love with it from that first session. I ended up going twice a week and over that first summer I was getting in most days.

“When the six-week course finished, I started volunteering with The Wave Project, who do a similar thing with surf therapy for kids who are struggling with their mental health or school or family bereavement. It’s a really great charity. Through that I met a people who are now some of my best friends. It’s a sense of community I didn’t have before.”

Green moved into her own flat weeks before lockdown began. After a tweet, in which she celebrated the end of her spell of homelessness went viral, she joked to a friend that she would write her memoir if the country went into lockdown. It did. So she did.

“Because of the lockdown, I lost a lot of my usual support and couldn’t see anyone,” she says. “So in some ways, writing it was really helpful to get everything out of my head. But reliving some of it was hard.

“One thing I want to do with the book is challenge misconceptions about homelessness. A lot of people think it’s just middle-aged men sleeping on the streets. But that’s really not the case.

“It’s also about the language people use. When people talk about ‘homeless people’, I feel like they are defining the person by the experience. Yes, it’s part of me and it’s never going to go away. But it’s not all of me. It’s not who I am. I’m made up of so many other things, like surfing and writing.”

Asked to explain why surfing captured her so completely, Green says:

“There is just something really powerful about the sea. I’m not going to pretend to understand the science behind it but if there are no waves, you can take a surfboard, sit on the sea, and there’s something so calming about it.

“And when you’re actually surfing, you can’t think about anything else. I could end up in a rip or on a reef or colliding with another surfer if I take my mind off the sea and the surfboard and focus on an anxious thought or even try and think about what I had for breakfast.”

Original Article: https://www.bigissue.com/culture/books/how-one-woman-overcame-homelessness-and-found-community-through-surfing/

March 24, 2021

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