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How To Survive As A Homeless Family

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19.04.2005 (27.04.2005)

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Homelessness - the word usually conjures up images of people sleeping in shop doorways, having nowhere else to go and no help available to them. My experience wasn't anything like as bad as that, as nowadays families facing homelesness can have a lot of help from the Council where they live, and get a roof over their heads while waiting for a proper house or flat to be allocated to them. So this review is about that kind of homeless - I hope it will give you an insight into what can happen and what it's like.

*********The Story of My Experience*********
Way back in July 2000, we lived in a nice, privately rented house. I was eight months pregnant, we had a little girl of 13 months and I was working at the post office. My partner was a self-employed subcontractor for a company installling and repairing Sky TV systems. Together our income was very low as my partner was paid per job, and for a long time the company he worked for hadn't been passing enough jobs his way. I had arranged to work up until a week before my due date as the situation was dire - we were behind on the rent and the council tax, as nine times out of ten we couldn't afford to pay both each month.
Our landlord was pretty unsympathetic, and finally lost patience with us, and gave us one month's notice to quit. There was no way we could afford the deposit plus one months rent in advance required to rent somewhere else, and as we were working we didn't qualify for enough help from either Council Tax or Housing Benefit.
We and our posessions had to be out of the house two weeks after the baby was due - starting to panic, we asked the local council for help, and started the process of being declared homeless.

The council will not help unless you are due to become homeless in less than four weeks. That gives you very little time to complete the paperwork they require and get it back to them so they can go through it, speak to your landlord etc. The council has to be satisfied that you are not Intentionally Homeless, a stupid way to put it since I doubt anyone of reasonable state of mind would put themselves through this process on purpose.
They will find you to be intentionally homeless if they consider the homelessness to be your fault. If you have chosen to move out of your home for reasons they consider to be inadequate, or if the leaving was your own fault (breach of the landlord's terms for example) then they will put you up for a month but won't add you to the Council accommodation waiting list. The reasons listed doesn't include being unable to pay the rent or anything beyond your reasonable control.

We were considered unintentionally homeless, and qualified for emergency housing from the council while we waited for proper council accomodation (house or flat) to become available.

The "moving day", the day which we had to be out of the house and the day the council would take responsibility for putting a roof over our heads was a complete nightmare.

We still hadn't been allocated a place in one of the homeless families units, the house was almost empty as my partner had removed the furniture and most of our possessions to my mum's spare room, his mum's garage and his aunt's garage. Everything else was in boxes and we had a 15 month old barely-toddler and a two-week old baby. We were waiting for a phonecall from the council to tell us where to go, and the landlord was waiting for his keys back.

By midday, I was nearly in tears and finally rang the council to find out what on Earth was happening. I discovered that they still hadn't found us a place in one of the units, but were "hopeful" that one would be available in the next few days. Astounded, I asked tham what we were suposed to do - the landlord had already re-let the house and as the new tenants were due in the next day, he was demading his keys so he could carry out and inspection. The council person suggested that we stayed put, and informed me that it would take a few days for our landlord to get a court order forcing us out and by then we would have a place in their units. Reading between the lines, I realised he was suggesting we became temporary squatters. I burst into tears and said that we wouldn't do that. The council worker said he would call our landlord to try and arrange something then call us back.

Eventually (I don't think the council man had any more luck with our by-now-irate, nearly-ex-landlord than we did) the council rang back to say that we had a place, and we finally left the house for the homeless familes unit.
When we arrived, with our boxes and bags, we found that as a temporary measure we's been put in one of the communal lounges of the building. It would be for our own private use, but there was no getting away from the fact that it was not a bedsitter room. For one thing it was miles from the nearest (communal) toilet and bathroom, and miles from the nearest kitchen. Ever tried that with two babies? Not recommended.

We expected to be allocated a proper room within a few days, but five days after arriving, five days of taking both children with me whenever I needed a pee and my partner was at work, five days of cooking in a room with five ovens badly in need of cleaning and then walking down two corridors with steaming pans just to serve the dinner, we had a visit from the unit manager. A larger family needed our "room", and they had found us another, in the homeless unit across town. I didn't have time to wonder why the new family didn't go to the other unit (I figured that out later) because we had four hours to pack (again) and move. This time it was my mother in law who came to take us, plus stuff, to the new place.

The other unit was just a large Victorian house, in one of the more run-down areas of town. The basement had been made into a small self-contained flat presumably for larger families (there was a family there who seemed to have about ten members over four generations!) but the other floors consisted of four or five rooms, one kitchen and one bathroom each.
As soon as I saw it I realised why the larger family who were to have our old room couldn't have been given this one. It was the size of a fairly small living room, with a double bed, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers and a fridge crammed into it. With a bit of moving round we could just about fit one cot between the end of the bed and the small sink in one corner, but had no hope for the other cot. Our two-week old son, against all current medical advice, would have to share the double bed with us.

To make matters worse, my partner was still trying to squeeze a living out of a dying job, and with two children under 16 months I wasn't working and qualified only for the very lowest maternity allowance as I'd been working until my son was born. Because we weren't on benefits, we had to pay most of the rent on the room which was then more than £140 per week. Bear in mind that I'm going back almost five years and it was a single room - also, my partner was then earning less than five hundred pounds per month. When our arrears to the council had mounted to four hundred pounds, my partner who was already depressed as he felt he'd let down our family, had to swallow his pride even further and give up work. None of this was his fault, he'd worked his nuts off for us and it hadn't paid off but he took a lot of the blame onto his shoulders and being almost forced to stop being a working man supporting his family and becoming another unemployment statistic was very hard on him. It took a lot of pressure off in one way, as we didn't have to worry about paying rent and council tax any more, but being winter now we were often stuck in one tiny room all day with each other and two very small children. I was tired and tearful trying to look after two babies, and we ended up arguing a lot, made more difficult by there being nowhere else to go to cool off for a while.

Christmas that year was particularly hard, we went to stay at my parents house for a few days but that wasn't very easy either - for various reasons my father and I do not tend to get on when forced to spend extended periods of time with each other and my partner only really joined us for Christmas Day - I think this was due to his feelings of being somehow inadequate and having to stay at my parents made this worse.

Thankfully, in January, we were finally told that a house had been allocated for us. We went to see it, and weren't very impressed as it was in a bad part of town, was in terrible disrepair and was miles away from the town centre and our friends and family. We didn't have a choice though, usually when waiting to be allocated Council housing you are allowed to refuse two offers if they don't suit you but for people in our situation, it was a one-shot deal - take this, or bugger off. We took it, but still had to wait for some weeks for the council to make it liveable - the previous tenants had wrecked the place and it needed a lot of work. However, there was light at the end of the tunnel which made life at the hostel a lot easier, a weight had been lifted off our shoulders. The children would be able to have their own room, Sam (by now nearly eight months old, having lived almost his whole short life in one room) would be able to have his own cot, and I would be able to take a bath without having to worry about who might walk in. My partner would be able to get a job again, and we could start plans for things. Living in the hostel really did make us feel as if life was on hold for a while - just without the sound of Greensleeves to make the wait "more bearable" !


I've just read back through all that (note to self, try to write less in future!) and realised it sounds like our whole time there was all doom and gloom. Yes, it was pretty awful but there were things which made it easier, and even fun at times. When we first moved in, we didn't really get to know anyone else in the house (bit hard when nobody spoke our language and we didn't speak theirs) but then a girl with two children a similar age as ours moved into the room across the hall and a guy with a two-year-old boy moved in up the hall. Having people to chat with, and other kids for our Sian to play with made life that bit nicer - having people who understood when I came back from the council offices and said "That bloke XXX is a complete twat!!" and knew at once who I was talking about and why he was a twat was invaluable.
We used to take the kids to a playgroup in the local church together as well - something that I wouldn't have liked to do alone but which was great for the kids and gave the adults semi-comfortable chairs to sit in for once (there were no chairs at the hostel, we perched on the edge of beds).

There are also things that I can look back on and laugh at, but which were a major pain in the bee-hind at the time.
The fire alarm was linked directly to the local fire station, which sounds like a good idea (there not being a telephone in the house) but used to drive us all crazy. The cookers in the kitchen were so old and filthy that they often used to set off the alarms when switched on, and we'd all have to traipse outside until the fire brigade (wonderful people but I bet they used to swear every time they drew up outside the house) turned up and declared the house safe to re-enter. More of a pain was when the alarms used to go off for no apparent reason in the middle of the night - not funny at all, standing shivering outside like complete nebs at three a.m. in November while the completely exasperated fire brigade chaps went through the place, probably wondering why they'd bothered. I quickly got used to where the controls for resetting the alarms were, identifying and grabbing the fireman in charge when he arrived and taking him to the basement to sort everything out.

Also very funny with hindsight (and rose-tinted specs) was the way the grandfather of the family below us in the basement flat somehow got it into his head that we'd been stealing their mail. He used to totter upstairs whenever he heard me bashing the doorframes in an attempt to manhandle my double buggy out of the front door, and shout, poking at me with his walking stick. I had no idea what he was on about until one of his relatives who spoke better English than he did enlightened me. My attempts to enquire why on Earth he thought I'd want to steal his letters didn't seem to be too well understood either, nor did my attempts to point out that I wouldn't have been able to read it if I had. Jolly times!

Anyway, this is about advice, not waffling on for ages so I've added a few things here that could be useful to anyone moving into a hostel like we did.

As soon as the possibility of losing your home looks likely, make arrangements for your furniture to be stored somewhere safe. If you're on benefits then the council will store your furniture and pssessions and won't charge, however if you're working (as my partner was) then they will make a weekly charge which can be quite hefty. Beg loft and garage space off friends and family - we managed to condense a three bedroom house into two already-full garages and a spare room. When you know the date you have to be out of your house by, leave enough time to get everything sorted out - we had to take stuff to three different places, one of which was twenty miles away.

Start the packing early, and clearly mark boxes with their destination. You don't want to put essentials in storage by mistake, nor do you want your hostel room to be cluttered with stuff you won't use while there.

Take the opportunity to get rid of accumulated crap and useless stuff while packing. I found a four-foot square Valentines card which my partner's ex had given him years ago, and which he'd somehow managed to keep......

When redirecting mail or informing companies of address changes, make sure important or sensitive stuff is directed to a trusted family member or friends house. The mail for the homeless unit will be shoved through the main door, we had a shoe-sorter rigged up so that whoever got the mail could put other peoples in different little baskets near the front door. Anyone could get hold of it - it wasn't just residents who came in and out it was everybody's friends too.

If you have children in school or nursery, and the hostel will be farther away than your home was, make arrangements as soon as possible for getting them there each day - the council may help with this, especially if you receive benefits.
If the children are used to having friends over for tea one day and then the friend comes to yours the next week in return and you feel this won't be manageable in the hostel, explain to the friends' parent. Hopefully they will be still be happy to have your child round without expecting much in return for a while. Keeping little things like this going for the children will probably help them adjust to the larger changes.

Check what furniture will be in the room - usually a bed or two, a fridge, possibly a table but not much else. Do take some things to make your room feel like an individual home instead of a stopgap - you don't know how long you will be there. Basic furniture such as beds, a wardrobe and/or a chest of drawers will probably be provided, along with a fridge in your room but stuff like chairs probably won't. Do check with whatever place you're going to. You're unlikely to be provided with a TV, we took an old portable and an old video player.

Take cooking equipment, crockery and cutlery but not too much - remember you'll have to store it, and your room may not have enough cupboard space. You may be allocated a lockable cupboard in the kitchen but be warned that these aren't safe - the kitchen where we were had all of the locks broken off the cupboards.

There will be list of things you are and aren't allowed to have in your room - a microwave will probably be banned. Depending on whether your place has staff who could wander in or not (our first room was in a place staffed 24 hours, the second room was in a place visited only once or twice a week) you could smuggle one in - it makes cooking small meals a lot easier! You can easily hide it under something and can always plead ignorance if caught - the worst they'll do is ask you to remove it.
The reason they don't want you taking in microwaves is to do with fire hazards - in my opinion, there is no more risk of fire from a modern microwave than from a kettle or hairdryer which are both allowed - just don't be silly with it, and unplug it when you're not using it.

Do find contents insurance if you have quite a lot of your own stuff with you. The major companies and banks won't insure single rooms in houses but most councils offer a reasonable tenants contents insurance which will protect you if someone was to break into your room.

Try and get a friend or someone to do your washing for you - there was a washing machine and dryer in the basement of our hostel, but they were stupidly expensive, easily accessible to anyone who happened to wander in (I once lost a whole duvet cover set) and had to be operated by tokens only available from the council's employee who came round once a week or so.

Keep washing stuff such as shampoo, flannels etc in a bag hanging on your room's door handle, it's less easy to forget it when you want to take a bath or shower - nothing was more annoying that getting in the bath and finding that your shampoo was sitting in your room necessitating a chilly run back clutching a towel for dear life, hoping that nobody had sneaked into the bathroom while you were gone (that happened a lot, one bath between five families and all politeness goes out the window).

Make friends with other residents if you can - it will make your stay much easier as often your other friends won't really understand. They can sympathise, sure, but sometimes you need to talk to someone in the same boat. Also, we had many friends who just didn't visit when we were there.
It's much easier if you can get on with the people you have to share living space with.
My little girl made friends with the boy across the hall, and I made friends with his mum. The kids could be in and out of each other's rooms and share toys etc which made it a fun time for them instead of being scary.
Because we shared a kitchen we could also make big meals, all chipping in, which was nice - often when the kids were asleep we'd properly barricade the front door, pop the baby listening devices on and gather in the kitchen for a game of Monopoly and a few drinks. The cameraderie was nice and gave us all a chance to relax. If you're on your own then it can stop you feeling isolated.

If you can go and stay at a friends house for a few days it can be a nice change. Don't tell the council, and don't do it too often as they have strict rules about the amount of time you can spend away from the hostel and still be classed as living there - also, if they get to know that you have other accomodation in an emergency, they could say that you're not homeless, seriously hurting your chances of being allocated a proper house.

Having friends over isn't a problem, but nobody can stay the night and there will be a curfew (for insurance and fire regulation reasons) after which nobody except the tenants will be allowed in the hostel. There's no point in breaking this rule as other tenants in my experience will be only too happy to report you.

Do annoy the hell out of the council's housing department. Even if it had no effect on how fast we were rehomed (makes us sound like a puppy or something!) it certainly made me feel better knowing that every time I walked into the office, the housing officer groaned and felt like hiding. Petty? You bet! I made my mind up to squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of this experience, even if there was precious little to be had. Besides, I always had a sneaking suspicion that being annoying was one way to ensure the housing team wanted us out of their hair as fast as possible.

EDIT to the section above after a well-observed comment - what I meant by this was to go in and see the housing team every week, ask about progress on your case etc as opposed to sitting back and waiting for them to contact you. Don't expect them to move heaven and earth (they cannot for example move you higher up the waiting list) but do everything within your power to ensure they're pushing your case forward as much as they can.
Above all, don't be rude or aggressive - that's not what I meant by being annoying as this course of action will simply get you thrown out of the office (I've seen it happen).

Most Councils use a points system to determine whereabouts you fall in their vast waiting list for housing. They'll send you a list of what points are allocated for various situations and what points you have in each category. Check this carefully and if you think you should be getting points for something but your list doesn't say so, then get the housing department to check. People in temporary accommodation are quite high up the list but you need to make sure you're squeezing out every point you're eligible for.

If you have a medical condition and it's being made worse by your situation or the particular conditions of the place you're in, get your doctor to write to the Council stating this - they will take it into account when determining where in the waiting list you should be.

When filling out the endless forms, we could indicate three of the town's Council estates we'd most like to live in, and also state any areas we would not consider. If your council gives you the option to state areas you won't consider living in, have a really good think about your reasons for this. In our town there are a few estates that nearly everyone puts down as their "not to be considered" and it will make your waiting time for a house or flat much longer. We removed two places from our list after really thinking things through and were allocated a house in one of those estates within a month. The place we live in isn't as bad as our preconceptions led us to think it would be - if we hadn't removed this estate from our not considered list, we would have been waiting a lot longer for a house.

If you have a friend going through this, then keep in touch with them, go and visit, take a casserole or something that can be easily heated up, or invite your friends over for the day. Embarrassment and shame about their problems can leave people in these homeless units feeling as if they don't want to ask for help from their friends - showing them that it doesn't bother you and that you'll be there for them means a lot.

If anyone wants any help, or a chat then please feel free to leave me a message in my guestbook. I hope that writing about it can be of some use to somebody facing homelessness like this.

MadCat xxx
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Comments about this review »

memphisto_chick 23.06.2006 20:27

I have used all my E's today. you're review is harrowing and heartbreaking yet optimistic at the same time, will be back to re-rate

n13roy 25.11.2005 00:19

What a harrowing story indeed, but written in a way that brings it all home about this awful fact of the Homeless, you also give out some great advice too, cant fault this review at all. Well done for sharing it, I'm sure its opened a few eyes.........Roy

nikki.jr 24.09.2005 08:44

you have been through some strife haven't you. some really good advice and a very moving story. thanks for sharing it!

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