Sunday, 31 January 2010
Five years ago today my life changed immeasurably for the better when I was given the keys to my brand spanking new flat courtesy of Lambeth Council. I signed my name on the tenancy agreement, waved goodbye to the homeless hostels that been offering me shelter and promptly burst into tears...
I simply couldn't believe that a year of deprivation and desperation had resulted in being given somewhere that I could truly make into a home. It was like agreeing to go on one last blind date before giving up dating for good, only to discover you have met your soulmate. I could hardly believe my luck!
Losing my house after being the victim of a violent assault there brought my world crashing down around my shoulders. It may only have been a room in a comically ramshackle student house, but I had paid my way, shared the ups and downs of the whole time I had been in London with the same people and it had become my home. To be forced out with barely a backward glance devastated me and since I had recently lost my job as well, I was left floundering with nowhere to call my own.
I could have returned to Belfast to lick my wounds and re-group to unleash myself on London again, but I was angry enough about forced out of the home I had chosen that I couldn't bear to feel that I had also been forced out of the city I had chosen to live in. I was also worried that if I went home to my mum's house I would have no incentive to get back on my feet and life might start to pass me by, so armed only with a storage unit and a certain naivety that it wouldn't be that bad or for that long I became one of Britain's 'hidden homeless'.
I was lucky that two friends extended the hand of hospitality and invited me to move into their flat for the first few months. This allowed me the breathing space to see how the land lay and begin navigating the labyrinthine world of the Homeless Persons Unit at Lambeth Council. From having barely even signed on before, I was suddenly thrust into an insanely bureaucractic world of forms, rules, regulations and stipulations all administered by a department with a heart of stone and a way of being run that was harder to penetrate than the Masons.
So began endless days of waiting outside the building from 8am in order to be allowed inside to queue to see a real live housing officer. Tickets for the officers were issued at 9 am and allowed you to sit all day on the torn seats beside the impressively large dead plant that decorated the waiting room as you hoped to see the person you needed. This epic wait was made all the more soul-sapping and surreal by the security guards' predilection for TV programmes featuring people buying second homes or renovating the ones they already had...
Eventually you would be called to see your housing advisor who would invariably look over the paperwork or official documents you had provided and declare something you didn't even know existed or had been asked for was missing and would have to be brought the next day like a bizarre treasure hunt. Of course they couldn't make you an appointment for this, so you would repeat the queuing process next day as if Groundhog Day had been made by Mike Leigh.
Just when I felt utterly sapped by days of endless waiting, the housing officer surprised me by announcing that everything I needed for my case was now all there as the police had finally stumped up a crime reference number and passed me to an assessment officer who would assess my need and entitlement to permanent housing whilst finding me appropriate temporary accomodation as my friends' lease was almost up. And after 3 months of sofa-surfing, I was desperate to have my own space and a bit of privacy again. I also felt that I was starting to exhaust the various offers of places to sleep or take a shower that I had been offered by friends. It was time to rely on the kindness of strangers instead.
It did not get off to a great start. Since the council were fanatical about my proving I had been living in and/or had links with Lambeth, it never occurred to me that the first thing they would do when responsible for me was ship me straight out of ithe borough. My hostel was to be in Croydon...this news was made only marginally more palatable when I discovered they meant the borough of Croydon and I would in fact be living near Selhurst Park. Upon leaving the housing office, the first thing I did was buy an A-Z. I definitely wasn't in Zone 1 anymore.
The hostel itself surprised me hugely when I got there. It was in fact an ordinary looking detached family house with laminate floors and a large modern kitchen. It actually looked considerably better than the dilapidated house I had been living in. My room at the top of the house was spartan, with no furniture other than a bed, but there was no-one next to me to make noise and it had tonnes of storage space. I felt remarkably positive until the girl from the letting agent informed me I could not spend a night away from the property without council officer permission and would have to sign in and out everyday and that it would cost me £15.75 a week to stay there that my Housing Benefit didn't cover. Shocked that it cost money to be homeless and slightly baffled by the signing in, I sensed had little choice, so signed up and took my keys.
I soon discovered the house looked better than it really was. Only one of the two toilets worked, neither had a lock on the door and the shower wasn't plumbed in, leaving only one bath for all five girls living there. The oven had an ants' nest inside and the cooker only worked when it felt like it. I never saw the other girls living there, but I did often find burned tinfoil and scorchmarks all over the living room from them inviting fellow junkies round while one girl left fish guts in the bath almost daily. The final insult came when a visiting handyman enlightened me that the house was in fact a hostel for women on parole from prison. Disbelievingly I called the council to check and found out that it was the only single sex hostel they could find me and not to worry, none of the girls were thought to be violent toward strangers.
I ignored as much of it as I could, ate a lot of cheap fried chicken and concentrated on trying to keep up my freelance work while enjoying the summer sun back in Central London and revelled in not having to visit the Homeless Persons' Unit daily anymore. While not an ideal situation, it was bearable. Then came my second assault and it became almost impossible to keep up the facade anymore.
Sheer circumstance and endless appointments with the police kept me away from the hostel for days at a time and prevented me from getting to the Homeless Persons' Unit to explain my absence. I finally returned to the hostel to find that they were about to evict me and remove my case from the council list for breaking my contract with them. By luck, the letting agents didn't have the keys to my room and allowed me to stay until 5pm next day. If the council could be convinced that my absence was for a good reason by then I could stay. I was first in line for the HPU next morning, fully aware of the irony of begging to stay in a situation I hated, but after hours of cajoling and crying, the housing officer I spoke with believed my story and allowed me to stay in Selhurst without damaging my case for permanent housing.
Relief at being allowed to stay in the hostel soon felt like suffocation as watched ever closer by the council and deeply traumatised by events, I spent day upon day in my room too worried to leave it in case I would either be threatened with eviction or randomly attacked again. The days grew shorter, so did people's patience with my never-ending problems and it seemed as if I would never get out of there. Yet despite how desperate and depressing my life felt, I couldn't leave. If I packed my bags and went back to Belfast now, it seemed as if everything I had been through up til that point would have been futile. I need to stay and see if I would be rehoused to make sure that I hadn't just put myself through hell for no reason, even if it made no sense to anyone else.
The only thing I could do in the meantime was get permission to return to Belfast for Christmas at least. Spending the festive season alone in Croydon was inconceivable and luckily, an officer at the council took pity on me and allowed me to go home with the promise of a new hostel for the New Year. Bolstered by ten days of flushing toilets, hot showers and home-cooked food, I returned to London and was promptly placed in a bed and breakfast above a pub filled almost entirely with men in Streatham. The fact that it actually in London allowed me to ignore the fact that my room looked positively Dickensian with its 20 watt bulb and black-bin liner over the broken pane in the window. Bizarrely it was £5 a week cheaper than the hostel in Selhurst and came with a bag of eggs, bread, margarine, jam and milk delivered to my room each week.
I had just got myself settled there when a letter arrived telling me I need to attend an appointment at a local housing office on an estate in Brixton a few days later. It did not explicitly say that I was being offered a permanent flat, but seemed to suggest it was a possibility. After the longest weekend of my life, I was taken from the housing office to a newly renovated flat on the other side of the estate without any explanation. I was shown round with a running commentary about how the whole estate was being rejuvenated over a 5 year period to improve housing standards and environmental impact. After about 10 minutes I blurted out to my charming guide that I had no idea why I was there and what any of this had to do with me, whereupon she laughed and told me that the flat was mine from that day if I wanted it, while reminding me I could turn it down and wait for another one if I wanted...
Funnily enough I didn't even pause for a second, snatching the keys from her like a spoilt toddler and signing the tenancy agreement at warp speed before anyone could change their mind or think they had made a mistake and give the flat away to someone else. Once I'd stopped crying a mixture of tears of joy at having a new home and despair at the hell the last year of my life had been, it took all day for the news to sink in that I had my own front door once more. The enormous gamble I had taken in being homeless had paid off and only then did I realise just how big a risk it had been.
I moved out of the hostel that very day and never looked back. Five years later not a day has gone by that I don't appreciate having my own front door and the safety and freedom such a privilege offers me. I have finally relaxed enough to be reassured that no mistakes or misfortune can take this flat away from me and send me back to the world of not knowing where I might be sleeping from night to night. I have continued to support Shelter every since with a direct debit each month as way to help those who have not been as fortunate as me and as a thank you for their help and reassurance during the worst time in my life. In the meantime I will continue to do my best to make my lovely home a place where everyone is welcome...and the toilet always flushes!