Each morning, I come to work at Vice, the media company in east London where I’m a trainee producer making documentaries. I’m dressed up in my glam clothes, working with a room full of young people passionate about what they do.
Then, at the end of each day, I go “home” to my mum and 14-year-old sister — except it’s not home, it’s three rooms in a hostel for homeless people. I jokingly call it “the palace”. Mum calls it “the place” or “back here”. Sometimes she calls it “the prison” — it’s the beige, spongy walls, low ceilings and high windows.
I can’t get in from work, run a bath and relax. My sister can’t come home from school and retreat to her room. There’s no way to switch off, no winding down, no normality. Even sitting watching TV isn’t the same because there we are, dangling in this small, stale space, constantly reminded of what it isn’t.
I live a double life, but there’s no escaping the fact that you’re homeless. Wherever I am, even if I don’t think about it, it’s in the back of my head, affecting my mood.
It was last year’s summer term. I was finishing my dissertation in Manchester University library when my mum called from our home in Essex. She’d kept it from me as long as possible, exhausting every avenue, but our landlord was selling our home and we had nowhere to go.
My first thought was to rush back but I couldn’t: I had to finish my degree in English literature and drama and during that time I told no one. There was nothing I could physically do to help my mum, so I concentrated on my dissertation and finals — which could help me. I got a first, the highest in my year.
When I got home that summer there was a trestle where our table used to be. My mum had sold it. That was the first sign that we were starting to move. That evening I sat down with my mum and sister and we talked about what was happening and why. We’d been on the waiting list for a council house for 13 years. Our home was owned by a multinational corporation that wasn’t too interested in making money from its bits of property, so our rent had stayed at a reasonable level. Now it had been sold off and the rest of the rental market in our area had risen beyond anything we could afford. We didn’t have savings for an enormous deposit either. Our only option was to pack our belongings, go to the council and declare ourselves homeless.
We’d lived in that house for 13 years and when we first moved in it was like a house made of gold, our safe place. It wasn’t big — two rooms downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs — but it was light and open and affordable and we loved it. We had a big garden and Mum loved having family round all the time. She was born in that area of Essex and so were my sister and I. Mum decorated it bit by bit and curtained off a little dressing area upstairs, painting it yellow. That was my sister’s room.
Though we didn’t have much — no savings for a rainy day — we lived within our means. I had a great childhood. As a single parent, my mum worked as much as she could in catering jobs while also looking after us. Maybe she could have chosen to live on benefits instead but she has a strong work ethic.
Some weeks were worse than others. If money was tight we ate a lot of eggs and potatoes, but we never felt we were missing out. Mum is my backbone, my world; she made my sister and me believe that we could do anything. My sister is amazing: brilliant at maths and so emotionally intuitive. I left school with three As at A level.
We loved that house, but the moment we knew we had to leave, it stopped being our “home”. A home is about security and when the security goes, that attachment is gone: you don’t want to hang on or reminisce.
Our leaving date was two days before my graduation ceremony. My sister had never lived anywhere else — that place was all she knew — but she was strong and calm, our “head packer”. Our belongings went into boxes that we left with friends in five different places; a logistical nightmare trying to remember what went where. Then we went to the council. My sister and I waited outside while Mum went in and declared us homeless.
The first place we were taken to was a huge, institutional building with heavy, clunking fire doors and long hospital corridors. I’d gone to school close by and if a kid came from this place, everybody knew about it. I was probably guilty of making assumptions about them too. Now here I was, moving in.
We were given two rooms and we shared a kitchen and bathroom with another family. We were worried about the kind of people they’d be: my mum admits she had preconceptions, believing the rhetoric that people in trouble were scroungers.
Instead, they were lovely. The woman was a nurse. She had an incredible son and they were in exactly the same situation as us. We soon realised that everyone there was like us. Again and again, we heard the same stories. “Our landlord sold up and this happened in the space of two weeks.” “I lost my job and couldn’t keep up with the mortgage.” “I got sick, fell behind with the rent and didn’t have enough for a deposit.” These weren’t people “dodging the system”. Wages are not keeping up with the price of housing and these were the victims.
The number of people made homeless when a private tenancy ends has trebled in the past five years according to government figures, and it is now the single biggest cause of homelessness in England. Once you’re out it’s hard to get back in. In our area, Essex, house prices are rising by 8 per cent a year and rents are rising with them. Rents across the southeast are at a record high, having risen by £100 in two years. Wages just can’t compete. The price of the average property in England has soared by more than three times the rate of average salaries over a decade.
The change in my mum was hard to see. She has always been our protector, our provider. Now she was guilty and defeated; she felt she’d let us down. It was out of her control, but she kept saying: “What could I have done? What should I have done?”
She didn’t want to cook — and cooking has always been a huge thing for her. Every meal was something she was providing for us with love and care. But cooking a meal in this gross, shared kitchen, which we’d then have to go and eat on our laps . . . it wasn’t the same. We ended up getting microwave meals or grabbing a portion of chips, which is just not her.
After a few months we were moved to the place we are in now. I call it the crème de la crème of hostels. We have our own kitchen and bathroom, and every inch of extra space is a huge deal. But it’s not a home. There’s no front door. You’re not supposed to have visitors — and who’d want to come? My sister’s schoolfriends don’t even know she’s here.
You’re not supposed to decorate but Mum didn’t want to make it a home anyway. At first she didn’t even want to unpack the boxes; she wanted to remind herself it was temporary. Gradually we began to accept that we just needed to make the best of it. Mum has hung little trinkets on the nails that were sticking out of the walls. We’ve unpacked the kitchen utensils rather than making do with just three knives and forks.
There’s no timeframe. We’re just waiting for a council house to come up. At first we were told it might be three months. Then six. It has been a year. If this hadn’t happened I’d be renting with friends, not sharing a bed with my sister, but I need to be with my family for the times when Mum can’t cope. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
For months I didn’t tell many friends or colleagues. Then, a few weeks ago, my anger had grown so much that I began writing about it. I published an article about my situation on Vice.com. It felt great, so cathartic. I didn’t want to point the finger — it’s not about the blame game — but there are serious questions to be asked of a society where families can’t provide homes for themselves any more.
Every 15 minutes a family becomes homeless in the UK. That’s crazy. According to Shelter more than 70 per cent of rent or mortgage-payers with children are struggling or falling behind with their payments. Soon there won’t even be enough hostels for families like mine: it’ll be B&Bs, maybe miles from your neighbourhood, your job, your school, your friends.
When the article came out, I was braced for negative comments, especially with the Benefits Street hype. Instead there was an amazing reaction: messages of support and offers of help. Everyone at work was lovely — most hadn’t known — but they’ve stopped talking about it already. I’m just here, doing my job like everyone else, which is what I want.
My long-term vision is to make big, cinematic documentaries — and I can’t imagine a better place at which to learn. I don’t want to be “homeless girl”, but I do want everyone to know this is happening and how it feels. Because if something stays hidden, it can’t be solved.