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1 December 2017

The double life of the hidden homeless: “It was really hard to keep going to work”

The cause of most homelessness is surprisingly mundane.

By Julia Rampen

Kimberley was 34 weeks pregnant when she got the email. She read it at work. “I had a panic attack in the office,” she recalls. Then she tried to avoid attracting any more attention. “I didn’t really want to tell anyone what was happening. 

“Your world is crashing down around you and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to get any better, and part of the reason is your friends and family can’t help you.”

The email Kimberley had received was from her landlord. It informed her that they were selling the home she shared with her husband and son in High Wycombe, and would therefore be evicting her. The date of eviction was three weeks past that of Kimberley’s caesarean section. “We wrote back and said ‘so sorry, we can’t physically do that because I’m not allowed to drive for six weeks,’” Kimberley says. 

Nevertheless, the couple knew their departure would be imminent. They began searching for a new rented flat, as Kimberley had done ever since she moved out of the family home and started working at 18. But High Wycombe is a town wedged between pricey Oxford and extortionate London, and times had changed. Kimberley’s first flat had cost her £625 a month, but now she was looking at adverts for £600 a room. 

Worse still, the landlords didn’t want them. After Kimberley’s husband was made redundant, he decided to stay at home and look after their young son, to save the cost of childcare. Despite having a history of paying rent on time, the family found that financially, they didn’t meet landlords’ strict criteria, especially as their income included welfare payments. “We started looking straight away for a new place, and we never really gave up trying to,” Kimberley says. “But we effectively came to the understanding it was futile.”

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“You had the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head”

Kimberley and her family had found themselves among the “hidden homeless” – a three million-strong population of sofa crashers, sub-dividers and childhood bedroom occupiers. According to the charity Crisis, which monitors these numbers, this population has risen by a third since the 2008 financial crisis, and is particularly concentrated around London. Of the total, 300,000 are recorded as homeless, according to another charity, Shelter – a population roughly the size of Newcastle. In parts of London, as many as one in 25 people are recorded as homeless.

“You can worry about whether you should give money to someone you see on the street, but that very same day you have probably met another homeless person hidden in plain sight,” Shelter chief executive Polly Neate wrote for the New Statesman. “You might be completely unaware that the mother at the school gate or the supermarket cashier has nowhere to call home.”

In Kimberley’s case, there was nowhere else to call home. Her family wanted to help, but her sister was in remission from cancer, and there was a danger the children would bring in viruses that would compromise her immune system. 

Meanwhile, Kimberley was living a double life. After her daughter was born, as the date of the eviction drew near, the family packed up their belongings. “We didn’t want the bailiffs to put all our stuff on the street,” she says. “We were living in a shell with mattresses.” At the same time, Kimberley was going to her office, where she tried to pretend everything was fine. “It was really hard to keep going to work, because you felt you had the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head. You don’t know what is going to happen.”

She was not alone in this strange balancing act. While writing this piece, I heard from a senior academic who has worked at some of the UK’s most respected universities. She did not describe herself as hidden homeless, yet her story spoke of the housing insecurity faced by even those viewed as “successful” by the outside world.

When her lease expired in January 2016, and she looked for a new home for herself and her young child, like Kimberley, she found it impossible to meet letting agents’ criteria. In her case – she was born abroad – she fell foul of the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policy, which holds landlords responsible for checking tenants’ rights to live in the UK. 

“My visa was going to expire in April,” she tells me. “But no one would rent to me unless I had a valid visa for the whole term of the lease.” Luckily, unlike Kimberley, she had a friend in a position to help. For seven months she camped out in the friend’s house, which was in the process of being sold. 

According to government data, the main reason for hidden homelessness is not addiction, or losing your job, but something surprisingly mundane: your lease expiring. (The second most common reason is a relationship breaking down). Talk of a housing crisis is everywhere. Yet when it comes to being a victim of that housing crisis, the default response is silence. 

As well as not wanting to upset her family and friends, there was another reason Kimberley didn’t want to share her problems. “You think how am I failing so badly if I can’t even get a home to put my children in,” she says. 

“They were decent people just in really rubbish situations”

A report by the London Assembly found the city’s sofa surfers followed a familiar path. First, they might stay with close friends or family, but sooner or later they feared outstaying their welcome. This is the second, crucial turning point. “When the kindness of friends and family runs out, people can find themselves increasingly desperate,” the report noted. “We heard how the range of situations and experiences that people often describe as ‘staying with friends’ may be much more dangerous than it seems.”

The report also found that most people experiencing hidden homelessness did not ask the authorities for help.

Eventually, though, Kimberley and her husband did get help. They contacted Shelter, which told the council. According to Byzantine homelessness rules, they then had to wait until they were officially evicted with their young son and new baby before the council could offer them temporary accommodation. Two days before the bailiffs were supposed to arrive, the family received another email – this time with the address of a hostel.

When they arrived, Kimberley discovered other families just like hers. “I made so many friends,” she says. “[They were] decent people. They worked, were functional members of society who were just in really rubbish situations.”

All the same, Kimberley was grateful that her children were not old enough to understand what was happening. It was not so easy for her neighbour in the hostel, whose daughter was six. “She came along and said ‘Are we homeless?’ Her mother said ‘What do you mean?’ She said: ‘All my friends at school, they don’t live in one room.’”

At least for Kimberley, though, fortunes improved. She was finally given something she had never enjoyed in the private rented sector – a housing association tenancy with a lease that lasted five years. “By the time we leave here, our son will be ten,” she says, when she calls me from her home. “Before the age of five, he moved to six different places. It’s a lot of turmoil for a small child.”

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