This is the most difficult article I have ever had to write. I can not use the name of the person. I can not say where she was from. Her family has given me the permission to write an obituary about her as long as she can not be identified. When I need to hide the identity of people I write about I often use letters of the alphabet. In this case I will use Z: the last letter of the alphabet, to reflect how we, as a society, had left her last for most of her short life.
I first met Z during one of my first outreach visits to prison when I first started working at Positively Women nine years ago. She was then a blond and bubbly twenty something, who, already, had been diagnosed with HIV and HCV for a few years. She had grown up in one of the poorest parts of the UK, in a family already deeply affected by drugs and alcohol addiction and sexual abuse: an unoriginal tale for a woman who ends up in prison.
I saw Z frequently for many years. She had a voracious drug addiction and committed petty crimes to feed it. Z was in and out of prison, usually staying for a few weeks, sometimes months. I met her twice on her release at the prison gates to give her support in her struggle to be assigned accommodation from the homeless unit. Z had a learning disability and could hardly read or write, so she needed a lot of help. At the homeless unit, we spent our time queuing up, filling forms, begging, and quarrelling with housing officers. I remember I would become discouraged easily, but Z was extremely tenacious and resourceful and would continue insisting when I was ready to give up. Obviously it was her accommodation that was at stake, but it gave me a glimpse of a side of her which was very different from that of a powerless, desperate, drug addict. There was a real force in her. How would you survive on the streets for years and feed a very expensive addiction if you weren’t tough, ingenious, and able to use any meagre opportunity you are presented with?
Both times we went to the homeless unit she was assigned some form of accommodation. We were so excited we had succeeded in getting a place. The first time we travelled all the way to the northern outskirts of London by bus, carrying two bin bags with Z’s belongings. When we arrived the place was a cold and squalid studio flat, without furniture, just a bed without sheets or a duvet. I felt sad when I left her, as if I was abandoning her. The health adviser had given her a piece of paper with a written plan for the whole week: names and numbers for Detox day-clinic, probation, hospital, Positively Women etc. I promised to contact her the following day, but I couldn’t find her, her mobile phone went directly to answer phone. I saw her a few weeks later, in prison. She told me that she had gone out to get fish and chips, but she had become disoriented and couldn’t find her way back. I didn’t blame her. I wouldn’t have wanted to find my way back to that bare and lonely place myself.
The second time Z got accommodation from the homeless unit was a hostel infested with other addicts. That time too when I left her I felt totally hopeless. The accommodation and support on offer was totally inadequate to support her. This meant that she couldn’t properly take care of her health. It felt like her life was not worth much.
In the last couple of years Z changed. Her hair had become darker, her natural shade, her cheeks sank in, she was aging quickly. Every time she was arrested she arrived, drawn, skinny with CD4 count always not over double digit. Her bubbly side quietened. When I saw her in prison I felt a sense of relief. I knew that it was the only time she would have medication, food and a secure roof on her head. After a few weeks, she would start looking better and putting weight on. The last Christmas of her life she spent it in prison. She told me that she committed a crime so she could be arrested, and be safe behind bars. She couldn’t bare spending Christmas in the streets. Z had changed a lot, she was more thoughtful, she really wanted to quit drugs and had made contact with her teenage daughter, she hadn’t seen her since she was a baby, and she was being looked after by other relatives. Z was dreaming of cleaning up and visiting her.
Z was offered a place in a rehab in a rural area. But it didn’t work, somehow her status was disclosed and she experienced humiliating discrimination. Her plates and cutlery were separated and people avoided her for fear of infection. She ran away, back to the streets of London and I saw her a few weeks afterwards in prison.
Z died of an overdose, on her own, in a homeless hostel, a year ago.