Estelle* is a proud woman. She describes herself as a lover of the finer things in life, afforded to her by a successful career as a corporate PA. Last year was meant to be a new beginning, with a promotion on the horizon and a baby on the way. But the pandemic hit, she lost her job and her relationship with her fiancé broke down.
The 31-year-old had to find a place to live, but her income from universal credit made this almost impossible. Estelle was housed in a B&B in west London, where she felt unsafe, particularly after the lock to her room was picked. It was very much the wrong kind of new beginning.
The situation was unlike anything Estelle had experienced before. Having worked since she was 16, she had never faced uncertainty around housing. As her sense of security crumbled away, she began developing feelings of shame. “All my life, I never thought I would be out of work and destitute, but the pandemic changed all that for me. It changed my life in ways I never thought possible,” she says.
Being pregnant with her first child further intensified the negative feelings. “If people saw me with a pregnant belly, they kind of assume, ‘She’s a single mum and got no help, she’s just got herself knocked up, she should have thought of that first, before this and before that,’” says Estelle.
Comments from family and friends were unhelpful, too. Some questioned why she wasn’t working, others delivered blows with condescending remarks about her room in a B&B. “I just thought, ‘Why are you kicking me when I’m down?’” Estelle recalls.
Feelings of shame are common among people who are homeless, research by Shelter found. Half of the people the charity interviewed as part of an investigation into rough sleeping in December of 2018 spoke of feeling stigmatised, judged and looked down on because of their situation.
A hostile narrative that has endured for centuries could be behind the feelings of shame that some homeless people experience. From the punitive Tudor and Victorian Poor Laws, to parliamentary debates during readings of the 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act – which MPs described as “a charter for scroungers” – the conversation around poverty and homelessness has long been framed as the fault or choice of the individual.
Polly Neate, the chief executive of Shelter, says: “For centuries, society has told us that homelessness is caused by a person’s own flaws and failures. But homelessness is caused by the failure of successive governments to make sure there are enough homes that people can actually afford. Everyone has the right to a safe home.
“People who have been homeless tell us they felt ashamed to ask for help when they lost their home, or when they were desperately struggling to find one. Sometimes people feel they have to hide their situation from others in their life, like employers. Feelings of shame can be compounded by people’s attitudes and judgment.”
Nicholas Pleace, a professor of social policy at the University of York, and director of the Centre for Housing Policy, explains that the political narrative exists to prevent suggestions that “something was wrong with the way the economy works”.
He says: “That framework creates a situation where everything’s pre-loaded for people to feel stigmatised and to feel shame, because all the narratives around them are that it’s their fault or there is something wrong with them, or some combination of the two. That’s in people’s heads as they enter homelessness, so you’d have to be very strong-willed and resistant to the idea that you were a failure, that you were a deviant, that you weren’t doing something that was stigmatising you as you moved into homelessness.”
The impact of this narrative played out for Josh, 25, as he slept in the doorway of a branch of Greggs in Leeds for two years. As the harsh reality of street homelessness took hold, including being kicked in the mouth by someone coming out of a nightclub, Josh felt low and depressed. “I wasn’t getting anywhere. I felt ashamed. I was homeless. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have any support around me,” he says. Josh started to feel suicidal and was on the brink of giving up.
Continued exposure to stigma, deprivation, marginalisation and isolation can “drive people over the edge”, Pleace says. “You can’t survive without reinforcement of your status, reinforcement that you’re valued, reinforcement of the idea that you’re loved and have people to fall back on.”
“Anyone facing homelessness should be treated with empathy, dignity and respect,” adds Neate. “We need to remember that our broken housing system affects all of us, and we need to come together to fight the housing emergency and make sure everyone has access to a decent home.”
Empathy and kindness are what helped change things for Josh. The manager of the Greggs store he slept outside of began to give him food. Every morning, she handed him a bacon and egg baguette and a latte, and a pasty in the evening. The time she spent with Josh proved valuable to his recovery. “There was no one to talk to, but she would come out and chat with me every morning, and it was bringing my confidence back a little bit,” Josh says.
Josh’s turning point came in December of 2020. As he walked along a road, a car pulled up beside him. Driving was Haydn Lee Jessop, the welfare director of local community group Vulnerable Citizen Support, who told Josh he had been looking for him all day and wanted to help him. “It was crazy for me to find out that someone actually wanted to help me,” Josh says. “Haydn saved my life.”
Josh was moved into supported housing and is now a volunteer, making and delivering food parcels. “I wanted to help other people in the situation I was in,” he says. “It’s given me my confidence back. My life is getting better.”
* Names have been changed
This article was created in partnership with Shelter.