This time last year, we were facing uncertainty. We knew we were being evicted and that we couldn't afford to raise the deposit on a new place. Not that LHA rates (the maximum amount of Housing Benefit you can be awarded) met the demands of private landlords; often there was (and still is) a short-fall of £200 a month, money we couldn't possibly find.
I spoke to Shelter and the local Council and was warned that we would not be housed before Christmas, the New Year or even Easter. For a start, our eviction date wasn't until the 12 December. Two weeks before Christmas. The Council would not or could not help us until that date and despite current government legislation stating a family should only be in temporary accommodation for six weeks, there simply is not the housing stock available to ensure Councils meet this demand.
On the 12th of December, with a couple of suitcases and the rest of our belongings in a garage, we trudged to the homeless office. Our options, the advisor said, were limited. There were family hostels in the city but spaces were becoming more and more in demand. Most likely, we were told, we would be facing a lengthy stay in a B&B. Not one that someone chooses to stay in for a holiday you understand but a run-down one, used as emergency accommodation by the Council for anyone from a using addict, recovering addict, a convict on parole, a family. I wept. The thought of sharing facilities with drug users (and I have nothing against recovering addicts or people on parole, I have had contact and friendships with many of these in my life) with a young, energetic child scared me to the core. The husband got angry, asking how it could be possible to permit a child to share facilities with the threat of needles constantly, even for a short time. The response was "Not our problem, our problem is merely to find suitable accomodation." The husband didn't think such circumstances would be suitable. "You'll have beds, a bathroom and possibly kitchen facilities." with a shrug.
As it turned out, we got lucky. Initially we were put into a rather spacious room, with it's own toilet and shower and galley kitchen. Perfectly adequate. I have no idea what the other residents were like, we rarely saw anyone else save for the occasional cigarette. That was only for just over a week then a few days before Christmas we were moved on again. This was a more family friendly place, much the same but for having a shared bathroom. We still had our own toilet and galley kitchen. Space wise I guess it was smaller but it seemed a better layout, there was a little area where we could give Harry his own space. It wasn't much but it was his and as it turned out, over the course of the nine months (so well over the legal limit of six weeks) we were there he became very protective of it. Harry is still very protective of his own space, i.e. his bedroom now, if not more so. At just 3.5 years old, he tries to have his door shut when he is playing alone in there and always pushes it to at bedtime.
Whilst we were homeless over the Christmas period, we got lucky. As I have said a lot, I have an amazing family and our homeless experience would have been so much worse without them. My Uncle and Auntie were away for Christmas and so kindly leant us use of their beautiful home for the festive period. As such, my brother, his then girlfriend and my youngest sister's Dad were able to travel up from Bournemouth and spend Christmas with us. We didn't have to spend Christmas in a cramped space, with not enough facilities to cook a traditional Christmas dinner. As it happened, we had an amazing Christmas and to anyone looking from the outside, we were normal. We felt like a normal family.
The trouble is, there are many, many families who don't have such a wonderful extended family. Many families are forced to spend Christmas just in a room, many have to share facilities with other people. The homeless charity Shelter estimate that around 80,000 children will be homeless this Christmas. In Britain. In 2013. Let me give you a minute for that to sink in. Just how is it possible that 80,000 children can be living in sometimes unsafe, aggressive, cramped, often dirty and unhygienic environments in so-called modern Britain?
As Campbell Robb, chief executive of Shelter, said: “Our shocking findings have uncovered the shameful conditions homeless children will be living in this Christmas. Parents and children sharing beds, children forced to eat on the floor and being threatened with violence in the place they live: this shouldn’t be happening in twenty-first century Britain.
“No child should be homeless, let alone 80,000. But tragically, with more people struggling to make ends meet and homelessness on the rise, we’re bracing ourselves for an increase in demand from families who desperately need our help.
“Our advisers will be working with families facing homelessness every day this Christmas to help them find a safe place to live and get back on their feet - but we urgently need more support this year to be there for these children.”
Maybe it is the fact that I have been there, that I am more than aware of how much worse it could have been but I plead to you, my readers, to please help if you can. To support Shelter’s emergency Christmas appeal visit shelter.org.uk or text HOME to 87080 and donate £3 to answer a call for help. Shelter help people in so many ways. They might not provide the roof but they can and do advise on avenues to seek, what an authority's legal responsibilities are, if indeed any. They can help even long before you receive the S22 notice, or even as soon as you do. They can only offer all of that advice and practical help in terms of putting letters together for free through charitable donations.