Homeless in Hospital

In 1989, when I was eighteen years old, I was in a ‘life-changing’ accident, which left me with a burst L1 and L2 fracture of the spine. Being told I was unlikely to ever walk again, that my bowel and bladder won’t work, and more, was so traumatic I thought my life was over. However, during the months I was in hospital, I got so used to being told what I couldn’t do, I made a pact with myself that I’d focus my efforts on what I’d planned to do before the accident.

Fast forward nine years, and there’s a photo of my husband and me in the doorway of our new home. I’d just secured a promotion and was now a deputy manager in social services working with adults with complex needs.

However, a pressure sore I’d acquired while in hospital nine years earlier was eating its way through my heel and foot. At the beginning of 1999 I was told my leg had to be amputated below the knee. People around me seemed more upset than I was – I felt nothing, nothing at all. I went into hospital on the Monday, had my leg amputated the following day and asked to be discharged on the Thursday. A week after going into hospital I was back at my desk in work, as if I’d just had a few days holiday.

A few weeks later, my husband picked me up early from work, and told me a friend had taken his own life. Just as I was processing that, I heard that a former boyfriend (who was bipolar, like I am) had been restrained in hospital and suffered a fatal heart attack.

The grief I felt was overwhelming, and mixed up with it was guilt, the loss of my leg and the accident. I rapidly lost weight, became uncommunicative, even with my husband, and was off work sick. By the end of the year I had been admitted to psychiatric hospital under section 3 of the Mental Health Act 1983.

Being on a ‘section’ means you are assumed not to have the capacity to make decisions about treatment. As I was still feeling actively suicidal, I started to examine my life. Instead of seeing my career, marriage and home as positives, they became loose ends I needed to sort out.

I asked if I could speak to Occupational Health from my work. I can vaguely remember two people sitting opposite me in the dining room at the hospital, trying to persuade me to take time off and come back in part time. I was on a ‘2:1’ at that stage – two nurses with me permanently, even in the toilet or bathroom. In front of these nurses, I refused Occupational Health’s offer, telling them I wanted to resign on ill health grounds, which was eventually approved

I then told the social worker at the hospital I couldn’t pay the mortgage, as my husband had gone back to Holland. The social worker should’ve advised me about measures that could be taken to allow me to keep my home, but instead, despite objections from my family, she sold it for me, with negative equity. That was my job and home gone, in a matter of months. The final loose end was solved when my husband asked for a divorce. I signed the papers. All of this happened while I was still on a Section 3. I was now officially homeless, without a job or marriage.

Rather late in the day the consultant realised what I had been doing, and (ironically) now considered me too much of a risk to be discharged because I had lost so much. What I thought would be a six month admission dragged on and on

In total, I spent three-and-a-half years sectioned. By the end, I didn’t recognize myself, with my confidence and self esteem both shattered. The last year-and-a-half of my time in hospital was spent searching for an accessible home to accommodate my disability. Eventually one was found. It wasn’t ideal – I would be isolated but I would’ve been willing to accept anything just to get out of hospital.

I had absolutely nothing left, just the clothes and books I had in the hospital, but a Community Care grant and Social Fund loan helped me get the bare essentials needed.

Coming out of hospital was a terrifying time. However, I was encouraged to apply to be a board member of the housing association which had provided my home. I don’t know how much use I was, but in this role I was nurtured and given increasing amounts of responsibility. Gradually, I felt I was rediscovering myself. When I left that charity to join a much larger mental health charity, the chief executive of the housing association wrote to me and said:

‘A number of people have commented to me how much they feel you have done for us but also how much better you seem to be; hopefully being able to participate in our association has been partially instrumental in your personal development.’

I remain truly thankful for the role they played in helping me find myself after such a traumatic time.

These days I’m still in the rented sector, but in a much better property, in a different county. I moved out of the area because I wanted to be free from statutory mental health services, and in particular from the hospital trust and consultant who had sectioned me for so long. That was one of the best decisions I made.

So, why am I telling you this? For nearly two years I was homeless due to a lack of accessible housing. This isn’t just an issue for housing associations and council providers – as I found out recently there is also a severe lack of accessible and affordable privately rented properties. When properties did look hopeful, despite being identical in size to neighbouring houses, I was looking at least £150 to £200 extra in rent a month.

Second, if it wasn’t for the Community Care grant, it would have been extremely hard for me to move into the first property. This grant was abolished in 2013, and looking at what has replaced it, I don’t think I would’ve got the same level of help. That could’ve left me in hospital for longer, and no doubt keeps some people without a home, unable to move out of long stay admissions. This needs to change. I only started to recover when my housing needs were met.

Ruth F Hunt is a columnist for the press and the author of The Single Feather

 If you’re feeling suicidal or need to talk to someone about whatever you are going through, please call The Samaritans on116 123 (UK) or email jo@samaritans.org