Consider the unrelenting stigma attached to young single motherhood (still, in 2019), combine this with the shame surrounding homelessness and you've got a recipe for being sneered at, overlooked or even completely cast out by society. But it's an increasingly common situation in which people are finding themselves – the number of young homeless people with children has risen by 60% in just five years, according to figures from Shelter last year – and a new BBC Three documentary offers a long-overdue humane portrayal of young homeless single mothers.
The Hostel for Homeless Young Mums is shot inside a hostel "on a normal residential street" in Luton (its name withheld to protect its most vulnerable inhabitants' identities), and is narrated by its longest resident, 22-year-old Talamika. After falling out with her family three years ago, she says, "I just went online and put in '18-19, pregnant and homeless'." A year later, Talamika was joined by baby Amari when she fell unexpectedly pregnant by her boyfriend Terry. She became a single mum soon after and has been unable to leave the hostel until she clears a £3000 debt.
"Being at such a young age, he wasn't ready for commitment whereas I was. It was very hurtful... to know that I've known and loved this person for so long and they just dropped me in the midst of when I needed him most," she explains. Though the pair are no longer together, Terry, who lives in London and works as a stylist in the music industry, still plays a role in Amari's life. He explains his absence: "I wish I could see him when I want to see him, but I think you have to prioritise your lifestyle and job sometimes so you can give them a better future."
To qualify for a room in the hostel, you have to meet two criteria: be pregnant or have a child and be homeless. Shanice, 17, is another of its seemingly unbreakable young mums to benefit from its support. The hostel's youngest resident, she moved in after living with her auntie and uncle didn't work out ("we kept arguing all the time," she recalls) and has lived there for 18 months, but will soon be moving into her own council flat with her one-and-a-half year old daughter, whose father is largely absent. As for Shanice's own parents, she explains candidly, laughing: "My dad is in jail and my mum is a druggie, basically... I see her in the street all the time. She walks past like she [doesn't] know who I am. It makes me feel sick. I never want to be like her. I don't understand how you can pick drugs over your own children."
One of the young mums has both of her hands full, while also trying to secure a permanent place to live and studying childcare at college. 19-year-old Katie found herself in the hostel with her three-year-old twin daughters Alice and Athena, after the breakdown of her relationship with her mum and stepdad, and splitting up with her boyfriend, the twins' dad ."I was so in love with him. He wasn't really romantic, he just liked a lot of sex and he liked to have it whenever he wanted to have it. It was really toxic. He definitely destroyed my confidence and self esteem," she remembers.
"He was for me having an abortion. I was very uncertain because I was 16 at the time. When I found out I was having twins was what made it harder for me to have an abortion." Now, Katie says that even though her daughters "weren't planned," like the pregnancies of all the women we meet in the show, they are "the most amazing thing that's ever happened to me."
I used to have that perception of hostels, 'Ugh yuck, hostels are disgusting'. Karma is a b-i-t-c-h.
Indeed, despite the difficulty and hopelessness of the positions that several of the girls and young women find themselves in, it's hard not to feel buoyed up by their optimism and resilience in the face of it all. The Hostel for Homeless Young Mums is optimistic. The support they give each other is inspiring. "You're doing everything for them," Talamika reassures Katie during a moment of despair over her tiredness. "Don't ever feel like you're not doing enough because mate, you're a mother, you're only 20, just putting a roof over their head and buying them little toys is good enough."
Nevertheless, they're wise to the social stigma and how their situations might be perceived, addressing it head on. "As soon as you hear someone say 'I live in a hostel,' you probably think 'you're a tramp'," admits Shanice. "Being a single parent is hard – you do need that support emotionally, financially, it can be very hard." Talamika reveals: "I used to have that perception of hostels, 'Ugh yuck, hostels are disgusting'," before adding glibly, "Karma is a b-i-t-c-h because, am I not in one?"
In the face of so much hardship, it feels like almost a privilege to watch these young women and girls rebuild their lives and forge their own paths in council housing. Talamika is frank on the matter: "We all have the same wish: to get out of this place and have our own homes." Shanice, upon getting a council flat of her own, admits she's "excited and scared" about living alone and paying bills at 18. "I feel like I skipped the teenage years and went straight to an adult, but that's the decision I made and I wouldn't change it." With 130,000 children now growing up homeless, according to figures from Shelter, and homeless people being denied access to what little social housing remains, she realises she's one of the luckier ones.