"I’m not easily scared, but the fear is terrible"

We spoke to people who're struggling to get by in emergency accommodation

9th September 2018

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond put aside a £25 million pot to tackle the problem of homelessness in the United Kingdom, during his Autumn budget address in November 2017. It’s a problem that envelops the sixth largest economy in the world and one that has seen a 132% increase in estimated rough sleepers since 2010.

Figures released by homeless charity Shelter show more than 300,000 people in Britain are now officially recorded to be homeless or living in inadequate housing. The information, obtained through government data and freedom of information returns from local authorities, also reveals that the 307,000 figure is an increase of 13,000 over the past 12 months.

The statutory definition of homelessness is split into a number of categories, with the most publicly visible and recognisable being that of people sleeping rough. Less obvious and just as significant is that of people living in hostels, shelters and temporary supported accommodation. With a roof above their heads, it is difficult for the average person to view this concept of living as actually being homeless; forgivably unaware of the underlying dangers and anxieties involved in hostel living, and of the bureaucracy, paperwork and strict regulations that renting a room involves.

Those you see on the streets are just a fraction of the total number of homeless people in Britain

The first step someone who finds themselves homeless must take is applying for help from cash-strapped UK councils. However, the issues of many single homeless people in the past have been dismissed due to councils having to prioritise those who have families or possible medical problems. The introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act in 2017 was pushed forward on the basis of tackling this issue, with Parliament seeking to change the way in which homelessness services are delivered and ensure that all eligible applicants are given the help they need. Councils can no longer dismiss claimants based on whether they are “intentionally homeless” or, indeed, fortunately lack the unfortunate circumstances to deem them a priority.

However, while these new rules are set to be implemented in the new year, they still may not be sufficient, due to the major lack of social housing across most parts of the country. A homelessness monitor published in 2017 found that almost two thirds of UK local authorities reported difficulties in helping homeless people access social housing. When speaking to 40 homeless people in 2016, St Mungo’s Charity found that 33 interviewees had slept rough after asking their local council for help.

Should one pass successfully through the initial application framework and referral system, however, they could then be granted short-term emergency housing. This includes an offer of either: a bed and breakfast, a homeless hostel or a self-contained flat or house. When making their decision, the council should consider the inconvenient effects that this could actually have on their claimant.

It was just a little box room for the three of us. There was just enough room for a double bed

24-year-old Tayla Thompson, who lives with her young son and partner, was made homeless back in 2015 and consequently forced to seek help from the council. Much to her dismay, she was then moved to a one-room flat in Thornton Heath, Croydon, which was located 40 minutes away from her previous family home. She said: “It was crap. It was just a little box room for the three of us. There was just enough room for a double bed. It was horrible. The shower room was tiny and we also had to share the kitchen with three other families.

“For this one room we were paying £800 a month, therefore we had to apply for Universal Credit. This instantly created a problem for us as we didn’t receive our first housing payment for six weeks. As I couldn’t drive then, I was also having to travel by train for an hour and a half to get to work. For people working to make ends meet, the system simply doesn’t work.”

Despite having a roof above one’s head, living conditions provided by the council can be poor, and circumstances can be completely out of one’s hands. As an example, a homeless hostel could include over 100 people from all different backgrounds, enclosed in a stressful and volatile space. With many dealing with distinctive problems and illnesses, emergency housing can often fail those who are in desperate need of getting their lives back together.

Stressing the lack of a genuine support system, Matt Thomas, a 47-year-old Big Issue vendor in Oxford, said: “In a lot of the large hostels, they are really just warehousing homeless people. People seem to get stuck in the system, indefinitely.”

This is most certainly the case for Linda, who has been a resident at Hopetown Hostel in Whitechapel, London for over four years. Hopetown houses over 118 women off all ages. Highlighting the harassment and bullying that she has suffered, she’s since explained the prison-like setting that she has had to put up with on a daily basis. “I am a mature, disabled woman and and I’ve been living in this hostel for four years and one month. I’ve dealt with many issues related to bullying, harassment and violence.

“I don’t think anyone really understands the enormity of living in a hostel, full stop, and having to go through these stressful times where we have no dignity and we have no voice. I have no family here to support me. Since my life led me to this homeless situation, I’ve come to realise that we all need support from our family.”

I’m not easily scared, but the fear is terrible – you just don’t know where you are going to end up. I’m in a constant state of anxiety and stress

Another example of the anxiety linked to living in temporary housing comes from Victoria, 72, who was made homeless after her landlord opted to sell her privately rented home, and she didn’t have anywhere else to go. Subsequently moving into temporary accommodation, she was all too aware of the lack of personal home comfort, revealing how helpless she felt in regards to her situation: “If I get the chance to visit a friend’s house, it’s so hard to come back to this place, afterwards, and leave behind the warm environment a of a real home.

“The whole thing makes me feel like there is something wrong with me. I’ve moved around a lot, and yet for the first time in my life, I feel like I have no control over my situation. I’m not easily scared, but the fear is terrible — you just don’t know where you are going to end up. I’m in a constant state of anxiety and stress.”

This surely begs the question of whether homeless hostels and short-term emergency housing, in general, are, in fact, the best places for vulnerable people to address their problems. Are they viable alternatives to the streets?  

I think you can be quite lucky to be homeless in Leeds

Speaking to Andrew Omand, a representative for St. George’s Crypt in Leeds — a charitable organisation that provides care and support for homeless and vulnerable adults in the area — he said that emergency housing does not benefit the most vulnerable in our society on a permanent basis: “In the short-term: yes, emergency housing does offer something, in terms of support. However, it is not a viable long-term solution for homelessness.

“We can initially get people off the streets, and then put them in touch with various agencies. However, you need the other agencies to be working together. It can’t work in isolation, as it’s part of a bigger machine. Also, should we be solely dependent on funding from local authorities, then we may not be able to provide a full service.

“I think you can be quite lucky to be homeless in Leeds. We work together with organisations and the council. We are all on the same page. I don’t know if this is the case in other places across the country.”

Ultimately, while Leeds may promote a positive outlook in regard to short-term solutions to homelessness, this is not necessarily reflected across other parts of the country. Whatever the conditions of each individual establishment, problems persistently linger; whether they be linked to anxiety, drugs, support or many more. A £25 million funding pot will not be enough to resolve this in the short-term. Affordable and sufficient social housing is needed across the UK, and it’s needed fast.

Original illustrations by Elise Featherstone

9th September 2018