“I still struggle in the winter months”: the memories of a former homeless teenager

Homelessness is now worse for young people than it was 50 years ago. We ask a 53-year-old about life on London’s streets at 16.

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I find Lucia Hall having a duck wrap and a cup of tea on her lunchbreak. We’re in a crowded Pret a Manger in the city of London, by London Wall. She wears the hallmarks of a city worker – a smart pale blue shirt with big silver buttons on the cuffs, and a red lanyard peeking out from the collar. She has just come back from a holiday with her girlfriends, and feels refreshed after the break.

The 53-year-old former IT and business teacher has been working in one of London’s big banks for three years, after leaving 20 years of teaching. She grew up in Essex, where she lives now in a housing association flat in the affluent market town of Rayleigh. “It’s all two parents, big houses, Range Rovers, you know,” she grins.

Like many in the capital, she often sees people sleeping rough in London’s square mile when walking to and from the office. Unlike most of the other city workers around her, however, she stops to talk, and buys them a meal and a drink at a café across the road from where we meet.

This is because, when Lucia was a teenager, she was homeless in London herself. A week after her 16th birthday, she left home. Her parents had been separated since she was very young, but her world changed when her father left to work in the US when she was 14. She had lost her grandmother at 11.

“I had quite a difficult relationship at home with my mum,” she tells me. “We were really at loggerheads. We both went off the rails a bit when my dad left, even though they’d been split for a long time.”

Lucia says she reached a “tipping point” one night, and the tensions that had been “brewing for a long time” pushed her to leave for London with her friend.

For ten months, she was homeless. Her love of music meant she fell in with a crowd of older, male skinheads. She made many friends who she has kept to this day, but also describes it as “a really dark, horrible time of my life”.

Her main memories are the fear she felt, sofa-surfing in strangers’ rooms, squatting and sleeping under cardboard boxes in Charing Cross station. “I just remember being scared, most of all,” she says. “You come across some really, really horrible people.

“It’s really hard to sum up how hard it was at the time, sitting in shop doorways, when it’s pouring down rain, you’ve got nowhere to go, you need to have a bath,” she recalls. “Trying to keep clean was one of the main things.”

Somehow, she avoided the path of alcoholism and drug addiction, though a lot of the people she met “died along the way”. The friend she left home with was one of them.

“She got herself into mischief,” she says. “That could have been me – I’ve been around all those sort of things my whole life, so it would’ve been easy to fall into something like that.”

Now, when Lucia passes rough sleepers, who have increased by 165 per cent since 2010, she experiences “flashbacks at times”. “Especially if you walk through here late at night, when it’s dark and it’s raining, and people are huddled in doorways, and you think ‘oh my god, that could be me’. That’s horrendous. I remember how scary that was.”

She finds it particularly worrying that homelessness for young people is worse now than it was 50 years ago.

Centrepoint has conducted research into the five generations of people who have passed through its doors since it was founded in a church on Dean Street in Soho, where Lucia herself once briefly took shelter. The youth homelessness charity found that life is harder now than in 1969 for Britain’s young people.

This is mainly because of housing. Almost half (46 per cent) of young people today who have left home moved into private rented accommodation, compared to 25 per cent of those now in their sixties when they first moved out.

Renting privately means higher housing costs and less security. The average millennial spends an estimated £44,000 more on rent than the average baby boomer did. More than a third of young people spend more than half their income on housing costs when they first move out, while just 14 per cent of those now in their sixties paid that much.

Only 8 per cent of young people today first move into a home they own – whereas 27 per cent of people now in their sixties did so when they first moved out. And the proportion of people who grew up in social rented housing has halved from 34 per cent of people now in their sixties, to just 17 per cent of young people today.

This precarious financial situation and lack of social housing is especially difficult for young people who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness. Now, if you need to leave your current living situation as a young person, there are fewer affordable options. The proportion of people who have been homeless, sofa-surfed or stayed somewhere they felt unsafe before they were 25 has increased from 12 per cent to 26 per cent over the past 50 years.

“In this day and age, there’s no need for people to be homeless,” says Lucia. “And youngsters really seem to be at the bottom of the pile. We’re brought up and taught that you go to work, you get a good job, you get a mortgage, you buy a house. Actually that doesn’t seem to be happening now. There’s a generation gap.”

Although Lucia managed to return to her family home, her life and mental health were affected “for many years” by her period of homelessness. She finds confrontation hard, which she believes has “a lot to do with the situation at home and living on the streets”, and struggles during the winter months. “Even now, I will hole up in my bedroom, rather than in my lounge. I will shut myself in there.”

Lucia also found herself homeless three years after she had her first son, and again with her second son when he was eight years old. “The hopelessness of it all can knock you for six,” she says. “You feel worthless. You can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

She remembers feeling “invisible” as a homeless teenager and hates seeing “people look down on them [rough sleepers] or they don’t even see them”, she says. “It takes five minutes to have a conversation with them, they’re only people.”

Although Lucia survived homelessness, she despairs at how dangerous it is for young people in her situation now. “Life could have been so different,” she says, finishing up her lunch before she has to return to the office. “I could’ve been one of those statistics – person found dead in a shop doorway, or froze to death overnight. I was one of the lucky ones.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.