Play a game of word association with homeless and which words spring to mind? Probably words like alcoholic, addict, mentally ill and tramp. To be honest that’s what jumps into my mind, even now. Not that I judge. Mental heath is the Cinderella service of the NHS and it's shameful that these people are allowed fall through the cracks to become homeless. This is not the issue I want to talk about.
There is another group of homeless. Average families whose homelessness is not of their doing, who are homeless through repossession or an eviction from their private rental. Not that you would notice them, they are hidden in temporary accommodation. Many are unlikely to discuss it beyond their closest family and friends due to the stigma. They are the hidden homeless. I was one of them.
The tenancy on my privately rented flat had been renewed every six months for the past two years. I moved there after my marriage broke down. The area was close to family support, much needed family support- I was eight months pregnant. My daughter settled in well at the local school, my son and I made good friends at local playgroups.
In the early stages of the tenancy I opened every letter from the letting agent with trepidation, well aware that the landlord could give me two months notice to quit without a reason. This is a totally legal part of any assured short hold tenancy, the standard type of tenancy in the private rented sector. I had never met my landlord, it was a faceless arrangement via a letting agency. As time went on, I stopped thinking about it and assumed the landlord was in it for the long term. So last July it was a shock to receive a notice to quit.
A frantic search for local properties threw up few affordable ones, those that were wouldn't take housing benefit, children or both. I had little in the way of savings. For the working poor and benefit claimants, saving is an unaffordable luxury. What comes in each month goes out each month on essentials. The landlord refused to return the deposit until I vacated the flat, as he was legally entitled to do. However, it was infuriating because I was a good tenant, the place was always immaculate on inspection and he never missed a month’s rent. I needed to magic two grand from nowhere to meet the cost of moving to a new private rental.
I went to the local council for help. They told me I was low priority for a council place as I still had a roof. I was advised to look for a private rental and to negotiate with local landlords about deferring the deposit and rent in advance. Futile, as understandably they wanted it all in advance. The few who accepted HB wanted a guarantor. It is worth noting that housing benefit is not just an out of work benefit, it also is available to working people who cannot afford their rent. The rate is set locally and is known as the local housing allowance.
In the last week of the tenancy, I made a homelessness application to the local council. I was told to put my furniture into storage and turn up the day I moved out to be allocated temporary accommodation. It could be an empty council house where furniture would be needed, or a hostel or B&B where there would be no room for furniture. They wouldn't or couldn't tell me. It could be anywhere in the city, they were not obliged to take proximity to my daughters school into consideration.
The uncertainty was impossible to bear. Medication for a pre-existing mental health condition had to be resumed due to a stress induced relapse. Not that my mental state was of any concern to the council. When I was asked in the homelessness application if I or anyone in my family had health problems, I mentioned the children had asthma and I suffered from a severe mood disorder. It was dismissed with "We all have that, dear"
Well, I turned up on the day I moved out. The local hostel for families was full,as were the temporary houses, so they sent me to a B&B. My daughter 5, my son 2 and I were allocated a family room. It contained three beds a, a TV and a kettle. The bathrooms and toilets were shared with other 'guests'. There were no laundry facilities. I was shown to my room and promptly informed of the house rules: No cooking or electrical appliances in the room, no alcohol or drugs and the premises should be vacated between nine and five.
I managed to maintain my daughter’s school attendance. It wasn't easy, the extra costs of the laundrette and take away meals left me with no money for bus fares. We had a three quarters of an hour walk, a long way for a child her age. The cost of everything has left me in debt. This is one of many situations that leave people below the poverty line. It isn't all booze, fags and fecklessness.
Anyhow, we all lived happily ever after. The council gave me a two bedroom flat complete with a garden. I felt like I’d won the lottery.
I am frothing though, I have real hatred for the current government. Why? Because changes to welfare benefits could make an estimated 40,000 families homeless. It could also result in fewer homes being built, as the housing benefit cap will prevent developers recouping the costs through rent, giving them no incentive to build new properties. There will also be strain on public services in areas with a large influx of the evicted.
The cost to the taxpayer will be immense, it cost the council £400 per week to keep us in the bed and breakfast. It's a totally counterproductive false economy. Many, if not most of these families will end up in temporary accommodation. Temporary can mean being shunted around for months, even years. There is no surplus of affordable housing anywhere in the country. For more facts and information look at Shelter
The highest cost will be the human cost. Housing benefit is claimed by the working poor, the unemployed, pensioners, and those too sick/disabled to work. People will have to leave their low paid jobs when they can't afford the commute. How counter-productive is that! Lone parents will be housed far away from their families. As a lone parent myself I know how important it is to be supported. It takes a village to raise a child. Torn from their support networks their emotional well-being will be jeopardised. Any psychologist will tell you the healthy emotional and cognitive development of a child is linked very closely to the psychological health of the mother.
These reforms are an act of violence against the next generation.
By OpinionatedMum, Guest Blogger
What You Can Do:
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The charity Empty Homes is campaigning on the issue of thousands of empty homes not being used to rehome families in need.
Read more about the Empty Homes Scandal campaign on Channel 4.
Information on how to rescue a Empty Home