The Tories plan to stop 18-21 year olds claiming Housing Benefit. Sally Hendrick knows what this will mean.
It’s hard to know where to start with my story of being a “homeless youth”. Partly because it feels so long ago now that it’s difficult to write as if I was still experiencing it; partly because some of my memories about the chronological order of things are jumbled; partly because I still block a lot of the memories out, it’s difficult to conjure them up to be able to write about them coherently.
I am sure there will be many pieces about this cut, from the different perspectives of housing activists, or charity workers; on this policy, or the housing crisis generally. The rolling-back of the welfare state affects people in a myriad of ways. The real, human stories of the results of these decisions should be known, to strengthen our arguments, and our politics and to remember why we do what we do. This is my attempt to convey that.
Mine isn’t a story that would be particularly film-or-news-worthy. It’s not particularly violent, or dramatic, or romantic. But it’s what happened, and there are many, many stories similar to mine, with many more to come, a thought I find too overwhelming to consider.
All my family — my parents, and their parents — come from council estates. My dad had a steady office job for a while but it turned out to be not so steady and he was made redundant. He then worked night shifts cleaning offices. My mum worked cash-in-hand cleaning people’s houses.
When I was little we were poor, but we weren’t starving. The kind of poor that is quiet, and unseen, yet goes on in millions of houses in Britain, the fourth richest country in the world. The kind of poor that means your parents get up early on a Sunday morning to get early to the car boot sale so they can try and get the best pick of the clothes. The kind of poor where you cut coupons out of magazines and hurriedly thrust them all into the impatient hands of the cashier at Asda. The kind of poor where you never have the heating on but your parents turn it into a game so you make a den of your bed quilts, on the patio furniture you use as a sofa, and watch Jurassic Park.
So I was used to being poor, I was used to having a No Frills fish finger sandwich for tea and I wasn’t used to a certain standard of living that some politicians assume those on benefits enjoy.
I was a bright kid. My parents hadn’t gone to university but they were big readers and our Saturdays always involved a trip to the library. I got almost straight A*’s in my GCSEs, and I enrolled at a local college. By this time my parents were going through a tricky separation, made more difficult by neither of them having the money to find somewhere else to live, especially not with a spare room for little old me. I also experienced a miscarriage around this time, from an unplanned pregnancy me and my then boyfriend weren’t ready for. A bit of domestic violence thrown into the mix meant home life was impossible. I was also experiencing severe mental health problems which an hour’s CBT a week didn’t even scratch the surface of.
I dropped out of college. I would stay on friends’ bedroom floors and sofas. When they went off to college during the day, I would wander aimlessly around town, sitting in cafes making a cup of tea last five hours, or sitting in the library, challenging myself to finish a whole book before it closed.
These parents would get uncomfortable about this strange lost girl spending so much time at their houses. I began to anticipate certain conversations: “you know you’re always welcome here, but my mum says you’ve stayed three nights this week, and that’s a bit…much — you have somewhere else to go though right?” I’d move on to the next friend, until I’d tested to the limit their parents’ patience too. Doing the round of people I knew quickly became a loop — become unwelcome somewhere then move on to the next house.
It would be glib to say I became homeless from embarrassment, but there is only so many times you can swallow your pride to accept charity from parents who you don’t know but for a while wish they were yours, and then retract that wish when you hear their whispered conversations about you in the kitchen. I ended up not being welcome anywhere. So finally I fixed a grin, said, “yeah sure, thanks so much for having me, I’ll see you soon,” grabbed my backpack, heard the front door close and felt that pit in my stomach that had been gnawing at me for a few weeks rise up into my mouth. I realised that actually, no, I don’t have somewhere else to go this time, my options are exhausted.
Town centres are scary places at night time. They’re both loud and eerily silent. One of the best ways I found to see through a night was to beg/borrow/steal enough money to get into one of the few nightclubs in town that opened until 4am. Sit there sober, people-watching, until it closed, and then it was possibly only a few hours until the sun rose. Time was divided up like that; you’d break the day down into manageable chunks.
I very quickly learnt other things: like the existence of a drinking water fountain in a free art gallery, or what time a certain bakery would take their bins out, filled with stale but still delicious cinnamon buns. I learnt the easiest place to get away with stealing a toothbrush, toothpaste, some wipes, and would go to a shopping centre and lock myself in the disabled toilet and try to sort myself out the best I could. Your hair does really begin to wash itself after a while so that was a relief.
There is only so long you can attempt to retain your self-respect though, before you get past caring. The cold, the hunger, the boredom, the loneliness, and the never-ending-ness of it does actually get to you and your standards drop. At one of the nightclubs I began talking to a man, who invited me back to his house. It was bitterly cold that night. He had me at “house”.
I got to know some guys who regularly went to one of the dingiest clubs, and I became a “resident” in their squat. The guy that “ran” the squat was a drug dealer.
He let me sleep in a tiny room that was used as his cat’s room. Me and a heroin addict that frequently visited the squat would lock ourselves in that room when there were all night raves, trying to escape the noise and the people, and placate the poor cat. One night, the ceiling of one of the rooms fell in. I lay there wishing it had fallen on me. When you get to such a point you realise you should probably attempt to get some help.
My “room mate” told me that he wanted to get clean, and that his parents, who had kicked him out some years ago, were willing to take him back while he did so, and did I want to come with him? When we got there, his parents, who I had never met, made me a cup of tea and told me they had bought me a little basket of toiletries of my own that I could use while I was there. I burst into tears in their kitchen, touched by their kindness.
With an address at my disposal, the job applications started going in fast. A few months later and I had an agency job at a call centre. And a few months after that I had a tiny bedsit in a rough part of town and looking out over the bins, the proud home to a mattress on the floor and a little pile of books.
The call centre let me go.
I made a scene at the job centre. Surely security guards in those places are supposed to watch out for people threatening staff, rather than a young bony girl threatening her own life, but they threw me out anyway. A kindly worker came outside and told me that I could go to the council office and apply for Housing Benefit there which would pay my rent.
If I hadn’t have had that Housing Benefit at that point, when I was under the age limit the Tories now want to impose, I would have been back in the situation where I was before. Except actually I would be dead. Because I just knew I couldn’t go back to not having a home, having experienced life with one again. I was still too fragile.
So I went and filled in the innumerable forms, and got my meagre payments, and just about managed to keep my tiny room. And kept off the streets. And I got another job, eventually. And then a different one. And a different house.
All that happened more than a decade ago and seemingly another lifetime. I have a home now that’s clean and pretty. I even have a spare bedroom, for when friends come and stay. My little pile of books has grown into many full bookcases. I never take my home for granted and look upon it with delight every single day. For the last eight years I’ve had a low-paid but strongly-unionised job that I absolutely love. And it all worked out for me: my parents both remarried to lovely kind people and both have good jobs. We talk again, and are even sort of close, though we never talk about what happened. I even went to university as a mature student, cramming at evenings and weekends whilst working full-time. I’m safe and warm and well-fed and loved and very happy.
I’m also a labour movement activist, because I believe that the way to fight this shitty state of things. For working class people to collectively fight is the route to changing the world. So I’m also politically useful. But I can safely say I wouldn’t have or be any of these things if I hadn’t received Housing Benefit that time.
What about all those people now who are worse off than I was? What about the quarter of homeless young people who are LGBT? What about young people escaping domestic violence? Leaving care? Experiencing mental health problems? Substance abuse? What’s going to happen to all those young people, left without that crucial lifeline? When people call it that, I, for one, know it isn’t hyperbole.
I almost want to write a political polemic to conclude, but perhaps that’s for another time. This was just my story, and I think it’s important to acknowledge the personal stories behind our politics sometimes. There are thousands of other stories like mine, some that are a little bit different, some that are a little bit the same, and there will be thousands more. But those stories will have no happy ending, if we let this policy happen.