What It's Like to Be a Teenager and Homeless
100,000 children are going to be homeless this Christmas. We meet one teenager who has been through it.
100,000 children and young people will be homeless this Christmas, living in hostels and B&Bs rather than in the safety and comfort of a home they can call their own.
Having spent time in a homeless hostel alongside my mum and 13-year-old sister in 2013, it's a situation I am all too familiar with. Living as hidden homeless either in a friend's house, on a sofa, in a car or in a hostel, is extremely stressful in its unstable and temporary nature; but for all those growing up in a hostel at a time when their hormones are unstable as well, it's doubly distressing.
As part of their Christmas campaign to raise awareness and funds for these families, Shelter introduced me to Renee Stevenson – a 17-year-old student who found herself without a home two years ago.
I spoke to Renee about our shared experiences of being part of the UK's hidden homeless, how she coped with that time, and how she's getting on now.
Daisy: Hi Renee, it's so lovely to meet you. To begin, can you tell me what actually happened? How long ago were you made homeless?
Renee: So this was a couple of years ago when I was 14. I'm 17 now.
How was that? My sister was 14 when we were made homeless too and that's such an impressionable age. What did it feel like and when did you first find out?
Well, my mum and dad were going through a divorce at the time. His name was on the house so he wasn't paying the mortgage and, long story short, he basically wrote letters to the court saying he wasn't living in the house any more and that he wanted it to be repossessed. That meant we'd be evicted, so I kind of knew things were happening. Me being the eldest, I had to take that responsibility and shield my brothers and sisters from knowing what was happening because they were way too young at that time.
I think my mum and myself tried to forget about it for quite a long time, even though we knew it was going to happen, so we ended up packing away all of our stuff like the week before the eviction because it was just so surreal. I was just thinking, 'this is our whole life and we've just packed it away in less than a whole week.'
So you had to pretty much turn up to the council with your stuff in boxes and bags?
Well we had a lot of help from friends and family and they helped us put our stuff into storage. Then we went to the council and they said, 'well we don't have any place for you right now, we need to assess you to make sure you haven't made yourself intentionally homeless.' Why would you do that? Who would make themselves homeless? So we had to stay at my mum's friend's house and we were thinking, right we're not going to be here for long because she has a family of her own, so we're just staying here for the examination process. They dragged out that process for such a long time.
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We ended up staying for over a year at my mum's friend's house.
How many were there of you in that house?
It was me, my two sisters, my brother and my mum and then her [the friend], her husband, her three boys and her daughter and she found out that she was pregnant with another child. So my mum was like, there's no way we're going to stay here any more. It was putting strain on their friendship and my mum's friend's marriage, and my brothers and sisters. I didn't feel like they could be kids there. You had to constantly tell them to be quiet because it isn't your house. So finally after a year – because we said we couldn't stay there any more – they gave us a bed and breakfast. I had this impression that being in a bed and breakfast is going to be like a hotel, but when I got there it was just a shock. We had one room. It had a bunk bed, a double and a single for all of us to stay in. It was such a weird experience because it was kind of a relief to be there after being in someone else's house for so long. And I know it should feel like that everyone should have the right to housing but when I was in that room, I felt at least it's just us. At least they can be kids.
When you're put in that situation, you become grateful for everything. It's weird. I remember when we got moved into our second hostel, because we had our own kitchen space it was like they'd given us a mansion. What are some of the difficulties of sharing a room?
Well during that time when we were in the bed and breakfast, I was going through my GCSEs. And obviously I'm the oldest and I've got younger siblings and it was just really difficult to find my own space to do my homework and all that kind of stuff. So the majority of the time I would wake up super early in the morning, go to the school library in before school and then when school finished I would go to the school library again. I think the only reason why I put so much focus on education is because it was like an escape. Everything else was changing all the time: where we were living, our routines. I think education was the only thing that stayed consistent.
What do you think a teenager should be doing at 14?
You know, going out to the cinema and having fun and just being naïve. Not being stupid, but not having to know so much at that age.
How do you think you changed?
I feel like I became more responsible. I think I became more grateful as well, which makes you older, because when you're younger you take things for granted. Even in high school I heard people talking about having problems I would think you know what, you're still naive and you're still in your child bubble. And I wish I was there still! I was forced to learn about all these grown up things, like the law. They're legally allowed to keep you in a bed and breakfast for six weeks, so when they finally placed us in that bed and breakfast we thought, okay, this is the home stretch. But all the people that we spoke to had been in there for longer than six weeks. I think what made me older was seeing my mum break down. That was really hard, because she's such a strong woman, you just think if this is breaking her, this is serious stuff. She always was strong for the other kids and when she broke down it was just to me, and it was shocking.
They suddenly rely on you for support. I was the oldest. I was actually old enough though to take on the responsibility and I think my 14-year-old sister, although she grew so much, we almost babied her and it upset her more to not know what was going on. For mums as well, they feel that their job is to provide for us, and to put a roof over our heads and when that's taken away through no fault of their own, they feel ashamed.
Yeah, she felt she'd failed us.
And did she talk to you about that? What did she say?
That broke my heart. She always used to say, 'I've failed you guys.' And you always think, you've raised such amazing kids don't ever feel like you've failed us because you've given us so much.
Gosh, you're going to make me cry.
No, it's so fine. Don't worry I feel like that too, it will get better.
So you still don't have a permanent home at the moment?
No, at the moment we're in temporary accommodation, still. It's a private landlord but it still works through the council.
Basically, the council are paying housing benefit to private landlords.
And the rent is absolutely crazy. Like it's – for the house we're in right now – £437 per week and its not an amazing place. We're grateful for it because it's a roof over our head but to pay £437 per week, it's impossible! For my mum to be able to work the hours to pay £437 a week for this place plus look after children, it's not possible.
Is she working?
She's not working at the moment but the issue that hurts me the most is that people tarnish everyone with the same brush. My mum used to have a good job. It's only because my dad ran his own business, and he wanted my mum to stay at home and look after the kids and be a housewife. She of course wanted to be at home with her kids so that was a decision that she made. She's not a "benefit scrounger" like the media portray us all to be. Everyone just looks at you the same way and it's like, you have no idea what people have been through in order to get themselves in that situation. We were living in a house that was decent, we had a good home, why would we give that up? People are so naive and so judgmental. You only realise what it's like once you've gone through it, to be honest.
What does it mean to have a home?
To have people who love you, to have people that are always going to be there for you. I still don't feel like I'm in a stable home right now, but it is a home because we have each other. But I won't feel stable until my mum can afford to have a house of her own and we completely get off this benefit system. I don't trust it and how badly we've been treated. I don't feel like anything could last. I feel like it could just be taken away and it's scary because we can just be back at square one again.
I was telling someone recently that 100,000 children are going to be homeless this Christmas which is crazy. Especially when Britain sells itself around the world as this superior "developed" and democratic nation. Well, we're the country's dirty little secret. I try and tell the fact to as many people as I can and it really shocks them, especially the idea of hidden homeless and that there are whole families living in hostels and bed and breakfasts.
I just feel like councils and society makes you feel like it's your fault and you've put yourself in this situation.
People are just one bad month, one job loss, one pay cheque away from homelessness when wages flat line and private rent is unaffordable. It's just ordinary people.
People come to the council broken and you can see that they have just lost everything, and they've come here as a last resort and they're pleading to find somewhere to lay their head at night. And you just think, how can you be so heartless? How can you be so heartless to just look at someone and think well, you're just another person? Do you not see us all as human beings? Do you not see that they're in pain? Do you not see they need help? And it's like they don't care.
And who do you blame? Who do you get angry at?
The government. Some people think the government are really good because they always seem to be building up new houses and flats, but they're not for people who need it. And the councils. When you threaten them with something, that's when they want to move. Other than that they'll just leave you. They'll play these mind games because they believe that everyone in those circumstances doesn't know any better. And it's the harsh reality that quite a few people don't: they don't know how they're supposed to be treated, they don't know their rights and so they get taken advantage of and they just sit there and they deal with it. It's so corrupt. I don't understand how they can take advantage of the needy and the weak and the people who don't know how they're supposed to be treated. It's not stopping, it's not slowing down. I remember when I first got involved in Shelter, it was 80,000 children that were going to be homeless that Christmas. Now it's 100,000.
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