Last week, I admitted that despite my degree and my job, I am one of the UK’s hidden homeless. I went from the UK’s dirty little secret to the self-proclaimed glamour gal of homelessness all within the space of about 24 hours. After the article ran, I was inundated with responses from old pals who I could barely remember from nursery, distant primary school teachers, people I’d met on nights out and that Facebook friend who you’re constantly debating whether to delete or not, given that you share nothing with them other than a willingness to give personal contact details to strangers while drunk on the strip in Faliraki, ’09.
While I was preparing for horrible assumptions and scrounger shaming, I got messages of support, of shock and, most importantly, of understanding and compassion. And I want to say thank you.
My family and I have spent so long dealing with the problem on our own that to step forward and admit that something was wrong was extremely daunting. While we’re certainly not lacking in friends and family, hardly anyone one has even knocked on our door in 11 months. No postman, no salesman, no visitors. No one really wants to pop into a halfway house for a cup of tea. It’s very isolating. In one year the only visitors to have stepped across the threshold have been my grandparents, who came to drop off an old collapsible poker table, which we put up in the kitchen to eat our dinner off of. A lot of people I know genuinely had no idea until I wrote the article. I guess that’s a credit to me and my babes for dealing with it so well.
Ironically, while my family were ashamed to talk about our situation, writing that article was one of the most cathartic releases that we’d felt since it all happened. It felt like we had finally made progress. After reading people’s comments and tweets, my mum burst into the room with her hands stretched out above her head like a charismatic preacher repeating that she could, “Feel the love!” She exploded into the kitchen smiling in a way I hadn’t seen for a long while, wanting to sing from our shared rooftop. It proved what I’ve always known: that when people are not trapped in red tape, they tend to be remarkably generous.
In a hostel, bad days become unbearable, so you clutch on to happy days with every last ounce of energy you have to keep you going through the darker ones. Whether you believe in prayers, karma or vibes, we were buzzing all day from love. I guess when you haven’t felt any sort of progress for so long, even knowing that anyone was actually thinking about our problems felt otherworldly.
Perhaps it sounds dramatic, but when something continues to take away from you, to drain you every day, hearing people’s disbelief and anger felt like a shot of adrenalin and it shocked us back to life. We were actually being made to feel like people again. People who lived in a country full of the nicest human beings on earth.
The article was posted in the morning and by the afternoon I had been offered two houses and some gift vouchers because “everybody needs a treat sometimes”. I was sent more vouchers yesterday – maybe I’ll treat my sister with those. I was offered a sofa to live on during the week and another place to stay if I ever miss the last train. The beautiful woman who offered my family a house free of charge for a year in Suffolk was almost unimaginably selfless. A nice guy suggested Burnley as a place with good housing opportunities and another kind person offered some great advice through a help the homeless initiative he’d set up. Thank you so much.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of advice I can’t take – I can’t commute from Suffolk or Burnley and my sister can’t move school at such an important stage in her education. In fact, while those offers felt completely different to our impersonal dealings with the housing system, they wouldn’t work for similar reasons – I am one of the many people for whom moving out of my hometown to somewhere far away has been suggested as a “solution” to homelessness. A heart-warming yet impractical gesture from a stranger who owes you nothing feels so much nicer than another unthinking attempt from the local authorities that have a legal obligation to help you get housed.
But it wasn’t all a fantasy. While I was showered in goodwill and disbelief by the everyman, our lives don’t rest in the hands of kind strangers; they rest in the hands of politicians, policy makers and most importantly local authorities. It is both sad and uplifting that ultimately we had been offered more care and concern by strangers in the space of three hours than we had been given in a whole year of living in temporary accommodation. But with 1.7 million people on waiting lists for social housing, I guess it would be weird if the housing authority acted just as surprised. They already know how bad things are – ultimately, they’re having to deal with a situation brought about by years of under investment in housing from successive governments.
It’s seems ridiculous that the 10th of June will be the one-year anniversary of living in “temporary” accommodation. A lot has changed in the space of that year, but I have been in stasis. During that year, George Osborne started patting himself on the back for getting Britain’s economy “booming” once more – the official stamp of approval on his policies of austerity. Meanwhile, local authorities are being pushed to breaking point with homeless lists and what’s really exploded under this government’s watch is the number of homeless people. The kind of percentage points they like to tout – growth up 1.9 percent – mean little to families like mine. It’s like how figures about hidden homelessness can feel pretty meaningless on the website of an NGO or in a newspaper until you hear of real-life experiences – or live them yourself.
I had hundreds of messages from people saying that it had happened to them and that by speaking out I had given them strength to realise it isn’t something to hide at all but actually to kick up a fuss about. Strangely, that rich tapestry of shocked, angry yet understanding Twitterati who discussed and shared the article last week reminded me of David Cameron’s “Big Society”. Remember that? He hasn’t spoken about it for a while. Recently the Conservatives were forced to deny that they don’t use the phrase any more because it had become an embarrassment, maybe because people have began to associate it more with food banks than fundraising cake sales.
But there was a kernel of truth in Cameron’s empty rhetoric. We just need reminding of what it feels like to be empowered again. Just like the zap of energy my mum felt last Wednesday after realising she was part of the many and not the few. Speaking out gives you power, having conversations gives you power, thinking about tangible solutions gives you power.
Sure, it turned out all wrong, but Cameron’s idea of “the most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street” was a good one. Together we have power. My family and I have been suffering in the dark for a year, but the warmth of public support of the last week has already improved our lives. Sure, we’re still homeless, but we’re not alone. This is the real Big Society – a nation of people who want to help save one another from being crushed in the cogs of the Big Machine.
Now is the time for everyone on a housing waiting list, or unjustly denied benefits, or has been moved away from their home to come together, take Cameron’s words and turn them into reality – whether he likes it or not.