Homeless people live on the street, beg for small change at cash points and try to flog you a copy of the Big Issue you didn’t want. That’s what I thought before last June, when I became homeless myself, as my family and I got chucked out of our home.
I don’t fit the stereotype, striding into work every morning with my fur coat, red lipstick and sassitude. I’d also like to think I don’t fit in at the dull, stale hostel I wake up in and walk out of every morning. When I strut into work I’m one person and when I fall asleep in the same bed as my 14-year-old sister every night, I’m an entirely different one. Hidden homelessness is a strange struggle between wanting to seem normal on the outside and dealing with the daily anxieties of living without a home on the inside.
Whilst a smiley face and positive outlook can keep me looking classy at The Clove Club, sometimes I just want to wear a massive badge that says “I am homeless”. Other times I find it too embarrassing or too much trouble to explain. Generally people don’t know what to say or how to help. Friends invite me for catch up dinners but I avoid their calls because I’d rather not go and update everyone on the latest (non) movements at the halfway house. Being homeless has damaged my sense of self-worth and affected every part of my life.
Hidden homelessness is in some ways very similar to the homelessness that you see on the street; both are misunderstood, isolating and desperate. Some people may think that because you’re in temporary accommodation with a roof over your head, everything’s okay. Obviously, having shelter is better than rough sleeping, but it really pisses me off when people respond to my situation by weighing up how sofas are better than floors, floors are better than streets and so on. People living in homes will never understand the feeling of living without one. I have no normality, I have no stability, I do not have a room of my own. Living with my clothes in boxes and constantly waiting for somewhere permanent to live drives me mad with worry. But, I don’t like admitting that anything is wrong, so I throw on my fur coat and red lipstick and sashay into work.
For the past eight months I have been living in a halfway home as “statutory homeless” in Essex – far from the glam dram of Towie. Having been on the council house list for 13 years with no promise of a house on the horizon, my mum’s single parent income could not match the recent dramatic rise in rent prices after our superpower landlord decided to sell our house. She’s always been in work and doesn’t receive benefits, but her jobs have always had to fit around bringing up her children and don’t pay that much. Recently, I have started working with VICE, and it has given me the option of renting with friends, but my mum and my sister don’t have that choice, so I feel a duty as daughter to stay with them and support them. I’ve kind of become a “dad” figure in my family.
Whilst ploughing through the last soul-sapping words of my dissertation last year in Manchester library, I received a phone call from my mum explaining that our family home was being sold off and reluctantly told me that we had nowhere else to go. We had to leave our home: our security and our identity. We were never rich – as a kid I remember buying a huge bag of potatoes which had to last the whole week, having them in different varieties for my dinner; chips, wedges, mash, jacket potatoes, potato bake and when we were feeling a lil’ bit fancy – dauphinoise. But any financial worries were trivial and temporary because we had the stability of a home to go back to every night.
In between my final exams and graduation, we packed our belongings into boxes, dropped them off at various storage spots around family friends’ houses (without noting which stuff went where – that turned out to be a bit of an error) and on the 10th of June 2013, with the very bare necessities, went to our local council authority to tell them we were homeless. That moment will stay with me forever. It felt like everything was caving in and exploding outwards at the same time. The gutting, deep stomach wretch that gurgled up through my throat at that moment hasn’t really subsided since we moved into the homeless shelter last year.
I remember the first putrid whiff when I pushed open the clunking heavy fire door of the halfway home for the first time. Like a photograph in my mind, I saw my mum holding a washing basket full of clothes, some milk for the morning and a bottle of wine to settle the night. Standing in the dull white corridors, my mum went from my glowing ray of sunshine to a sad defeated little soul in a matter of minutes. The bottle of wine clinked on the floor as she reluctantly wrote out a signing-in slip and posted it into the nasty metal box. Her face was as sunken and as grey as the walls.
The term “homeless” has so much stigma and taboo attached to it, that even now, after completely redefining in my head what it means, I find it difficult to associate with. My mum has never stopped feeling guilty for her inability to provide a roof over her children’s head. I spend a lot of my time trying to convince her that she hasn’t failed us, but that it was her who has been completely failed by the system.
The psychological effects are bad enough, but the day-to-day practical stuff is also incredibly difficult. Sharing kitchen spaces and dealing with other people’s washing up, unusual routines and low self-esteem means its often impossible to cook and provide a balanced diet, not only because it’s hard to cook in the kitchen spaces provided, but also because who would want to? Cooking was something my mum and I always enjoyed, and having to cook in a kitchen that isn’t ours to then go and eat on our laps in our bed really takes the fun out of it.
My little sister is a pile of teenage hormones right now and being in such a confined space is making her a claustrohphobic nightmare. Not only is my mum feeling too guilty to tell her off when she acts up, logistically, you can’t send a child to their room when there’s only one room and you’re in it too.
The UK is now more polarised by housing wealth than at any time since the Victorian era, but the headlines scream about “benefits scroungers”. I reject that narrative, but for what it’s worth, despite being homeless, my mum doesn’t receive any benefits. A recent report by Shelter revealed that earners in England would need to more than double their annual salary just to keep up with out of control house prices. In the London borough of Hackney, the average annual salary would need to increase by over £100,000 to be in line with the astronomical increase in house prices. Families are the worst affected, with over 70 percent of rent or mortgage payers with children currently struggling or falling behind with their payments. Eighty thousand children were homeless at Christmas, living in shelters like the one I’m in with my family now.
Despite the scale of the problem, people don’t know about it. I’ve even had friends and family asking why we don’t just rent another property, as if putting down money for a deposit when you don’t have any is no big deal. Obviously if we could afford to live somewhere else we would have saved the stress, along with our dignity, a long time ago.
1.7 million people are waiting for social housing but there simply isn’t enough. More and more families are being out priced and it’s going unnoticed. Every fifteen minutes another family find themselves homeless. Homelessness has increased for three consecutive years and housing shortages and cuts to benefits mean an estimated 185,000 people affected in England last year.
It can take just one thing – like a job loss, a bad month at work, or another one hundred pounds a week on rent – to tip people into a spiral that rapidly edges into homelessness. Last year, it was reported that eight million people are one payday away from not being able to pay their rent or mortgage. The definition of homelessness is changing. This is a problem crossing into the mainstream – no longer an issue affecting only those on the fringes of society.
We are in the midst of a growing crisis of homelessness and my family and I have found ourselves at the centre of it. I’m a homeless person now, and guess what? I’m fucking furious.