The author outside her new home
For the last year I have essentially been homeless, existing with my family in temporary accommodation, despite the fact that I have a job and a degree. However, it is with great pleasure that I can say last week we were given a place to live by our local London council.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and no doubt to a lot of people it's no palace, but it’s ours, and we can make a home there. It has big windows and a lot of natural light. We can decorate it and put our clothes away in a wardrobe and run our feet over our own carpet and we can start to move on with our lives. When my mum first walked through the threshold she placed both hands on the front door and said, “I know I might sound sad, but I just love closing our front door” and she repeated the action again and again. As far as front doors go, they’re all pretty similar but our one feels different to the cold and alienating plastic one of the halfway house. This one is the front door to our home.
We collected all the stuff from our old house from different members of friends and family. We also climbed and descended the very awkward fire escape entrance to the halfway house numerous times, laden with bending mattresses and huge hoards of old papers, school books, cuddly toys and makeshift tables, chairs and curtains we’d used to try to make the place comfortable.
What had once been a tablecloth at our first house became a curtain in mine and my sister’s room, and a beautiful turquoise beach sarong of my mum’s kept the morning light out in hers. She didn’t want to keep them when we moved out, though. It was the same as the fake flowers she’d put on the windowsill in the first hostel we stayed in; she didn’t want anything to remind us of where we’d been. Those two years of our lives were gone now – from the time we found out we would have to leave our home, to the hostels and then to moving into our new flat. We can never get those years of stalemate back and she wanted to write them off as an anomaly.
Over the course of a year, too many of my sentences started with, “Don’t worry mum because when we get a house...” When my mum called me with the news that we actually did have a house, the big cathartic end that I had always dreamed of, the immediate release of all the stress and the heaviness that had weighed so hard on my chest every day, didn’t come. When my mum told me we had been offered somewhere, I just felt numb. I don’t know whether I had been suppressing my feelings for so long, ensuring I was the very strongest that I could be for my mum and my sister, that I had forgotten how to feel. Or whether I was just exhausted. It was scary.
Visualising the future was the thing that got us through it. But then a year in and it becomes hard to put that positive spin on things. We had became obsessed with over-analysing our life decisions, thinking about it, talking about it, worrying about it and desperate to be somewhere else. We were constantly waiting for any small piece of information from the council, wishing that we could just meet someone face to face for reassurance, or just have a conversation with the authorities that would make us feel like human beings again because correspondence was so few and far between. And with council house waiting lists at breaking point, who can even blame them for not having time to deal with a lot of stressed out people over the phone?
The phrase “housing crisis” has become a kind of go-to comfort phrase for a lot of people, whether it is family, friends, or the people I find myself in awkward debates with in the corners of parties or distant relatives at family events. Talking about it has become like talking about the weather – a fact of life that you can’t really help. The thing is, politicians are throwing their arms up in exasperation as well. I read an article on the Guardian Housing Network – a website aimed at people who work in the housing sector – that discussed how the complexity of the housing issue was baffling politicians. Apparently every decision leads to an unintended consequence and you end up in a confusing mess.
When you're homeless, your priorities focus and the solution feels pretty simple – build more social housing. Build infrastructure outside of London that allows families to make lives for themselves with cheaper transport and jobs. FYI: This does not mean pack up a single London mother and send her on a train to Birmingham or Hastings. If rent is too high, regulate it; make laws, create taxes on second homes.
I don’t think politicians are baffled at all, really. It’s just that they’re not prepared to stare down the foreign investors, predatory landlords and multiple homeowners whose pockets solving the crisis would hit. They’re doing the political equivalent of pretending to text someone in an awkward situation when in fact you’re just looking through your contact list because you don’t want to look at them.
The author outside her temporary accommodation (Photo by Nicholas Pomeroy)
I would feel awkward, if I were them. In fact, I would feel embarrassed. For 30 years, governments have let the most basic of needs go unfulfilled. The current government was attacked in January for having the lowest level of house completions since 1924. And recent leaked documents suggest that ministers have been warned that house building has decreased by 4 percent this year.
Labour is at least making some positive noises – an aspiration to build 200,000 homes, a tax on "ghost" mansions. But builders are attacking the plan to double the number of new homes as “wild”, even though they would actually need to build more houses to meet demand, and the ghost mansion tax isn’t strong enough to scare any oligarchs worth their caviar. Can we believe that they will actually stand up to these people, when all over London, Labour councils are kicking poor communities out and letting super expensive developers in?
When you’ve been homeless, all these issues become much less complicated. A simple and obvious truth cuts through the bullshit. Everyone should have a home.
My family is grateful for every day because we have a home, but hundreds of thousands of people don’t. Those people are living in temporary accommodation, in B&Bs, on friends' sofas, in cars, and on the streets up and down the country. Right now, Britain’s housing situation is broken. What are you supposed to do when you break something? You take responsibility and you fix it.
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