Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Really, actually properly homeless.

Have you ever been homeless? I don’t mean occupying your friend’s spare basement luxury flat as you waft blithely from one bijou pied-a-terre to the next, but really, genuinely having no home, pleading with the council, living in a hostel, homeless.

I came inches to it last summer. I had used up all my favours with kind friends and their spare rooms and floors. Having moved to a new city, I had then been thrown out on the streets with an hours notice by a temporary landlady with emerging mental health problems, including alcoholism. I was in Brighton, where there wasn’t a hope in hell of finding somewhere fast, as all accommodation is at a premium.

I went back to the city I knew best, Manchester, genuinely shredded by my experiences. I was waiting for an agency to confirm I could move into a new flat, as they were checking my references (which after some recent difficulties might have been a little touch and go) and I was waiting for some money to arrive for rent, all of which contributed to the looming threat of actually being homeless. Not exactly Cathy Come Home, but the threat of having nowhere to live was very real indeed.

I went to the council (at the time, I was disabled). When they visited, a kind but distracted woman went through a complicated process of assessing my ‘need’ and their responsibility. I wasn’t needy enough apparently, and after a year and half in Glasgow, I had a tenuous local connection. They were not obliged to help, and I would have been sent back to Glasgow, for the undoubted delight of a homeless hostel there. You can imagine what fun that would be.

It made me ill. My belongings were in storage (but at least I had belongings; household items and the like, so I didn’t have to worry about finding the funds to buy them, another issue for the long term homeless who must find cookers, sofas, cutlery etc.)

Strangely, I just couldn’t convince people in my social circle to take this seriously. My friends didn’t seem to accept how near I was to being on the streets; they all assumed that I would be housed by the council, or that someone else would let me stay for a short while. I had severed my links with Manchester, and Salford. I had left Glasgow behind, and never really landed in Brighton. I belonged nowhere, had no home. I think everyone assumed that it was my fault, or that I was exaggerating. I wasn’t.

It’s also true that they had their own problems. E rented a small doorless, one bed flat, but kindly lent me her sofa for as long as she could. One of my best friends was gutting his house, and had his own family staying. Others just didn’t want me on their lounge floor/spare room (and why should they?)

All fair enough, but I was heading towards a disaster. I explained to them all that I knew it would be for matter of days. They did their best. A’s partner, who has professional experience, warned me off emergency housing, stating one notorious hostel was: ‘…the closest thing to a Turkish prison you’ll find.’ I was shocked to think that this might be my next destination. But more so as they knew this was where I might end up.

I have worked in housing issues, and know full well that slightly vulnerable, single homeless people are rarely a priority. D and E couldn’t understand why I feared hostels quite so much. They insisted that it wouldn’t be that bad. I disagreed. Families with children get priority, and the ‘best’ places. People like me don’t count for much. Eventually, I ended up staying gratefully and temporarily in a cheap hotel, which nearly bankrupted me, but was better than a park bench.

The experience was humbling, and terrifying. Ultimately, I was lucky. I had a deposit, and with my references intact, I found a flat. Even so, the memory is chilling.

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