Few homeless people have a chance to tell their story. Ignored and overlooked, we know that they exist and that they are being failed not just by politicians but by society – by all of us – as a whole. Too often they are reduced to stereotypes, discussed and dismissed as one homogenous demographic: people with addiction issues who sleep on the streets because somehow they have failed.
The truth, as always, is far more complex. Inevitably it is the story of a collective political failure to provide secure housing that people can actually afford.
Street homelessness has risen shamefully over the course of the last decade. Official figures are shaky because it’s difficult to accurately record the exact number of people sleeping on our streets but Homeless Link estimates that there has been a 165% increase since 2010. These figures are not explicitly broken down by gender.
However there is another and far less visible facet of this aspect of the housing crisis: hidden homelessness. To give you some idea of the scale of this issue, research conducted by the charity Crisis estimates that hidden homelessness accounts for around 62% of single homeless people.
Few homeless people have a chance to tell their story. Ignored and overlooked, we know that they exist and that they are being failed not just by politicians but by society – by all of us – as a whole.
Many of these people who become homeless – not because they have addiction issues as the tired mythology tells us but because they cannot afford rent, get evicted by a private landlord, flee an abusive partner or suffer a breakdown in relationship with their family – are women. They do not end up on the streets but instead find a temporary solution to their situation, like staying with family or friends or living in squats or another form of insecure temporary accommodation, often for years at a time.
As with so many injustices, inequalities and social evils, homelessness has been brought into sharp focus by the global pandemic we are currently living through. Coronavirus didn’t cause the hidden homelessness crisis (that is down to a social housing shortage and years of unregulated, escalating, expensive private rents) but it did call on us all to stay at home to keep ourselves and others safe. In doing so, it revealed that for too many people, home isn’t actually very safe or stable at all.
Here, two hidden homeless women share their stories of having no room of their own during a pandemic.
Daniela, 26, Ilford
Daniela is a survivor of domestic abuse. Since she left her former partner in 2016, she has spent a period of time living precariously at a women’s refuge. This was difficult before the pandemic but, during lockdown, it has been a claustrophobic experience – she hasn’t been able to do simple things like open a window.
"I became homeless after a major breakup," she says, clearly and calmly, in the way that only someone who has had no choice but to be resilient can speak. "My ex-partner is my daughter’s dad. He didn’t want to break up, he didn’t want me to move on. I was in an incredibly vulnerable position."
Leaving the partner with whom Daniela shared a home was not a choice taken lightly. It was undeniably the right decision but it led to a period of sofa-surfing between 2016 and 2020, with some time on the streets in between. Where she sleeps at night, for the last few years of her life, has been dictated by the goodwill of others. The waiting list for social housing is long and Daniela says she wasn’t a priority because her daughter was living with her ex.
Just as COVID-19 swept through the country, changing the way we live, work and relate to one another in ways previously unimaginable, Daniela was getting back on her feet. She was working as a supervisor at a concession in a well-known Oxford Street store and, finally, able to start contemplating renting a place of her own.
"I was let go in March because of coronavirus," she says. "I wasn’t furloughed because I was on a zero hours contract. I didn’t even realise that until it happened to me. I was working so many hours but I didn’t realise it was an insecure contract. Being let go meant I couldn’t move into a private rented property. It was really difficult, so upsetting."
Having exhausted the goodwill of the friend with whom she was staying and with lockdown pending, Daniela faced an impossible situation.
"I have never had a good relationship with my mother," she explains, "so staying with her during lockdown wasn’t really a good option but, luckily, I had a good friend who let me stay during the pandemic. Going from household to household would have been dangerous."
Peace of mind is everything. When you're homeless you don't have that, you can't apply for jobs because you can't think about anything else.
The toll that all of this has taken on her mental health is vast. "When you’re living with other people," she says, "it’s hard because everybody’s got their own lives, they want to do their own thing day to day and it’s challenging to be in their space."
Daniela has now been given a flat in a temporary accommodation block which is hers until 2023. This is a start. "It has given me a peace of mind that I’ve never had," she explains. "It has allowed me to be comfortable within myself and to know that I can gain the strength to apply for jobs again."
"Peace of mind is everything. When you’re homeless you don’t have that, you can’t apply for jobs because you can’t think about anything else."
The instability of the entire experience which, she reflects, goes back to being fostered as a child, has shaped her outlook and desires for the future. She is currently working with BEAM, an organisation that funds training for young homeless people to support them with getting into work.
"I want to get myself back into work," she explains. "Eventually, though, I want to be a support worker and help others. Moral support – it’s everything."
Dineer, 20, west London
Before the coronavirus crisis hit, Dineer was living at her grandmother’s home in west London. There was no spare room so she slept on the sofa there. She was working full-time in an office job for a storage company but, like Daniela, the economic aftermath of the pandemic caused the work to dry up. And, like Daniela, she was not on a contract and as a result not eligible for furlough.
Dineer’s grandmother could not financially support her and so she had to move out in late March. "It was a strain on my grandmother," she says, "and it just got to the point where it was clear that I couldn’t live there anymore."
This led to a period of instability and uncertainty. Dineer sofa-surfed, moving from the home of accommodating friend to accommodating friend while she tried to access housing benefit via universal credit. But as lockdown morphed from "a few weeks" into our shared new normal, this was not a long-term solution.
"I felt so trapped," she reflects. "I didn’t feel like there was much I could do. As much as I wanted to do something, to put my life back on track and keep it going in the direction that it was heading in, there just wasn’t anything I could do. I just felt like I was stuck in a position, that I had no other options."
If corona has shown us anything, it is that literally anything can come along and cause financial issues which can lead to homelessness. It's not self-inflicted.
Homelessness means not having a home. It is the experience of – quite literally – having the rug pulled from under you and the roof removed from above your head. It is exposing and destabilising. If home is the centre of our lives, of how we have dealt with this pandemic, then there is very little we can do if that home – the one place in the world where we ought to be safe and secure – is unstable or nonexistent.
"I don’t think people in this country really understand homelessness," Dineer reflects. "They think it’s an individual person’s problem, that they’ve chosen not to do anything for themselves. They think it’s the person who is suffering’s fault when, really, anything can happen and leave you unable to pay rent or afford a home."
"If corona has shown us anything," she adds, "it is that literally anything can come along and cause financial issues which can lead to homelessness. It’s not self-inflicted."
Dineer is now staying in a hostel run by the homelessness charity Centrepoint which has given her stability, if only temporarily. Throughout the pandemic, while sofa-surfing, she has been working in the kitchen of a southwest London hospital but, in a dystopian twist familiar to so many people who are forced to navigate Britain’s benefits system, she has had to leave that job in order to qualify for the benefits which will help her move on from the hostel.
She did this job because she needed the money. Yes, she knew the risks of commuting and using public transport during a pandemic but she "had no choice".
"I’d rather be acting and doing something," she concludes. "I can’t wait at home for this pandemic to be over. I want to be an entrepreneur, to start my own business one day but, for now, I’m going to train as a security worker because these roles are in high demand – it will make me employable and independent."
If you are currently homeless, facing homelessness or worried about someone who is, you can contact Centrepoint or Shelter for support. You can also contact the housing department of your local authority to fill in a homeless application.