Hidden Homelessness

Homelessness is typified by the image of someone living on the street with a sleeping bag asking for petty change or selling the big issue; I know that’s what I thought before my family and I became homeless last June. I don’t fit the stereotype. Striding into work every morning with my fur coat, red lipstick and sassy sense of humour, I am a far cry from the dull, stale hostel I wake up in and walk out of every morning. When I walk into work I’m one person and when I fall asleep in the same bed as my fourteen-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.

Chatting to my friend over lunch the other day, I joked “ I guess you could call me a bit of a champagne socialist”, and he quite matter of frankly replied “ no, because you’re actually in a half way house”. It was conversational, casual yet brutally honest and cutting, without him even realising, it made me confront my double life and the difference between the person I think I am and the reality I’m living. I’m not sipping champagne and complaining about the state of the nation; I’m getting dressed every morning out of bags in a halfway house asking myself what went wrong. Sometimes living a double life takes its toll and whilst a smiley face and positive outlook can keep me looking classy at The Clover Club, sometimes I just want to wear a huge massive badge that says” I am homeless” so people realise how fucked up the world is. Yet it’s often too embarrassing or too much trouble to take the time to explain, or I actually end up admitting it’s taking a bigger toll on me than I care to accept. Generally people don’t know what to say or how to help so to save awkward situations people just stop asking or they forget. 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 Half way house because it just hurts more four weeks later when I get a text asking me to send them that recipe I was talking about and not to see how I’m coping. So I’d rather save my breath. People living in homes will never understand the feeling of living without one. I’ve been in conversations in which people can strangely justify a scale of hardship by which floors are worse than beds, sofas are better than streets etc. but have never known the psychological effect of living without a home to call their own. This constant state of dependency and powerlessness that my family has found it so difficult to associate with is impossible to translate; words will never really do it justice. Hidden homelessness is no lesser than the homelessness that you see on the street; both equally misunderstood, and both isolating and desperate. Some people may think that because you’re in temporary accommodation with a roof over your head that everything’s okay, and with good health and at risk of sounding righteous, I guess it is. But in reality, the loss of “normality”, of living with clothes in boxes, of constantly waiting for somewhere permanent to live mixed in with the huge pile of hormones, teen dreams and contemporary London worries, it’s a mad place to be in your head. For me admitting that anything is wrong is defeat. 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 half way home as “statutory homeless” in Essex – a far cry from the dram-glam of TOWIE. Having been on the council house list for thirteen 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 TESCO decided to sell our house. 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 no where else to go. Our home was our security, our identity and whatever financial difficulties we had come into in the past, my mum had always been able to sort it. As a kid I remember it often meant just 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 sassy – dauphinoise. Any financial worries were trivial and temporary because we had the stability of a home to go back to every night. Growing up we draw pictures of our house, mainly because at five years old, it’s the sweetest frikkin’ thing we can draw, it’s either that or a questionable-looking dog, but also it’s because as a child when life can quite easily be categorised by pictures, our home is the centrality of our existence. It’s all that makes us feel secure, its where memories are made, its where we go home to sleep at night and its just a normal part of life.

 Only having lost my home can I truly understand what it means to have one, to pick up the post from the door mat, to go to sleep in my own bedroom, to be able to decorate, to have WIFI and so on. While these things may seem trivial, in day to day lived reality you quickly realise how important they were in creating a “home” providing gravitasfor dealing with the turbulence of daily life. Despite the popular paradigm about Britain’s scrounger culture, my mum found herself in this situation because after the house we were renting was sold, she could no longer afford to rent a house in the area that she has lived in her whole life as a result of the current climate. Like too many other families today, she was left with no option.

 So 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 – a logistical nightmare) and on the 10th 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 as an untranslatable life beat; it felt like everything was caving in and exploding outwards at the same time, undercut by a deep stomach wretch that gurgled up through my throat and hasn’t really subsided since we moved into the homeless shelter last year. It was a surreal nightmare that wasn’t meant to happen to us. 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 clinical 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 in the metal box on the wall. Her face was as sunken and as white 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 to be homeless, I find the term difficult to associate with. It’s an incredibly hard reality to come to terms with because my family, like the thousands of others who have recently found themselves in half way houses and temporary accommodation in the UK, were just a regular family. My mum has never stopped feeling guilty for her inability to provide a roof over her children’s head. This deep anxiety and sense of failure can only really be understood by living it. I spend a lot of my time trying to convince her that she hasn’t failed us, but that it was her who was completely failed by the system. As well as the profound psychological effect that losing a home can have on a family because of the complete inability to control or change the circumstances that they’re living in, the day-to-day realities of bringing up children and attempting to retain any shred of normality 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 my mum finds it hard to cook in the kitchen spaces provided but a lot of the time because she quite frankly doesn’t feel like it. Cooking was something she always enjoyed and having to cook in a kitchen that isn’t hers to then go and eat on our laps in our bed really took the soul out of it. Terrible teens become catastrophic nightmares in claustrophobic spaces: not only is my mum feeling too guilty to tell my little sister off, excusing her behavior by the circumstances we are living in, but logistically, you can’t send a child to their room when you share it with them.

 The dramatic increase in homeless families across the UK rarely makes it into mainstream media whilst sensationalist newspaper headlines about “benefits scroungers” and archetypal characters on television series have become the face of the welfare system. Homeless families living in temporary accommodation is an unreported facet of homelessness as an umbrella term which fails to recognise the extent of the demise of the welfare state all underscored by popular rhetoric that views council house list families as the scrounging underclass; society just doesn’t want to talk about it. The UK is now more polarised by housing wealth than at any time since the Victorian era. 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% of rent or mortgage payers with children currently struggling or falling behind with their payments. 80,000 children were homeless at Christmas, living in shelters like the one I’m in with my family now. Shelter’s Chief Executive Campbell Robb said: ‘This is yet more proof of how families across the country are being pushed to breaking point.  The crippling cost of housing, combined with rising prices, flat lining wages and cuts to housing support, is meaning many families are simply no longer able to hold on to the roof over their heads”.

Some popular attitudes suggest that actually people could help themselves if they just tried that little bit harder, or shopped the market that little bit longer. Throughout this process, recurring rhetoric even by friends and family asking why we don’t rent another property are insensitive and ignorant. Even family and friends we are close to seem so awkward about our homelessness that a lot of the time I think people say stuff like word vomit without a thought because there isn’t really a lot else to say and they panic. Living in temporary accommodation was genuinely a last resort and why it might be easy to suggest private renting from the comfort of one’s own home, without a secure income and some savings under your belt, even putting a deposit down for private renting is a huge financial strain. Despite being homeless, my mum doesn’t receive benefits and day-to-day living is a struggle. When you don’t have money, budgeting becomes incredibly short term – there isn’t enough stretch in the budget to set aside money for a deposit or a pension when children want to go on school trips, need new shoes or want ten pounds to go out with their friends during the school holidays. MILF chat aside, my mum is fifty-six and should be in a comfortable financial position in preparation for those winding down years. So if she did manage to scrape together enough for a deposit, who’s to say that after renting for another ten years, the same thing wouldn’t happen again. She doesn’t have the time or youthful freedom to gamble. In one month, we moved our house contents from our family home to four different locations for storage to the hostel up two flights of stairs. After being moved hostels after two weeks, we carried all those belongings back down the two flights and up another two flights at a different one. At fifty-six this was difficult, at sixty-six it would be impossible. Why anybody would chose to live in a half way house is a crazy concept and 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. The statistics lend proof that this is a problem symptomatic of a system that immobilises regular families leaving them to fend for themselves at a time of need, and this is something that needs to be understood and tackled. More and more families are being out priced and it’s going unnoticed. Currently every fifteen minutes another family find themselves homeless. Homelessness has increased for three consecutive years, housing shortages and cuts to benefits mean an estimated 185,000 people a year now affected in England. I’m not trying to sound preachy because I’m living through it right now, but 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 ends in homelessness. I am proof that it can happen to anyone. This is a huge crisis in the UK that is directly affecting people we know. The definition of homelessness is changing by default. This is a problem crossing into the mainstream, no longer a distanced issue of the person living in the fringes of society, but society itself is slipping into a growing crisis of homelessness. The people of the UK, whether born here or moved here, can no longer afford a house to live in.

Shelter facts:

1) http://england.shelter.org.uk/news/march_2013/sharp_rise_in_number_of_homeless_families