Please imagine this.
You are happily married for a while, in your hometown, a market town somewhere in Sussex. Then your husband loses his job. Turns to drink. Becomes violent. You learn how to hide the bruises. You wear sunglasses on cloudy days. You excuse his behaviour when loved ones become suspicious and want to know why you have become furtive, easily startled, withdrawn and without your customary good cheer.
Though much longed for in better days, the confirmation that you are expecting a baby fills you with fear and trepidation. It makes matters at home worse. After the baby is born his moods become ever more vicious. One night the rage seems to be never ending, you doubt that you will make the morning. When you do, fear for the safety of your child overrides all else and you run. Run like hell. You shelter with an old friend. Calls and texts come in. He’s drunk and has visited your parents’ house, some of your friends. Shouting, fuming, threatening. The police are called and arrest him. The next day you hear that he has been released on bail. You run like hell some more. All the way to the railway station. You need to disappear and hope the nearest big city, Brighton & Hove, will allow you anonymity.
When you arrive at Brighton Station you find out that he’s cancelled your bank card, reported it missing. When you call the bank they require you to go to your local branch to sort matters out. You hang up. You ask around and find out where the Council is. You go there, pleading for help.
The confession that you are unable to sort out your own problems is humiliating. The reply that you aren’t a local and will have to return home fills you with despair. The muttering, somewhere behind you, about scrounging irresponsible single mums is devastating. You flee, close to tears but you don’t want to shed them in front of all those people.
You wander the city in a daze. Spend some of your last money on a cup of coffee so that you can recharge the battery of your phone in order to establish contact with home. He’s still on the hunt, you’re advised to lay low for a while longer. Your friends and family have been harassed; intimidated by that anger you have come to know so well. You feel guilty and dare not mention that you’re in a whole new world of trouble. You find a large store where you can change your baby’s nappy. It’s getting later and later so you return to the council. Tell them you have nowhere to sleep. This time you shed the tears. You beg. You literally fall on your knees and beg for help. You’ve never felt smaller in your life. Never felt or been so insignificant.
It works though. Calls are made. Emergency accommodation is arranged. You are given an address and told to make your own way there. A grumpy, unfriendly janitor shows you to your room. You are swaying on your feet, exhausted. The baby must be fed and cleaned first. The room is small. There’s a single bed, separated from a sagging kitchen unit by a few feet at most. After the prospect of sleeping in a doorway it seems like a palace to you. Insanely grateful, you fall asleep with your babe in your arms.
The next day you leave your room to explore the building. It’s large but old, a confusing warren of narrow corridors and doors. There are long lists of rules, each accompanied by the warning: “Or you will be cancelled.” Bits of loose carpet make climbing the stairs hazardous. Cracks in the walls, peeling paint on ceilings, damp patches emanating a mouldy smell, rickety doors which have clearly been violently forced open in the past, a used needle in a corner which you try desperately to ignore. You find a small garden at the back but it’s filled with burst rubbish bags, broken glass, thrashed furniture.
You head into town to meet a case worker assigned to you and are overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork for different organisations which needs to be filled in and submitted; here, there and everywhere. Nonetheless, you are determined to do it all, anything to avoid having to go back to violent wrath.
Returning to your emergency accommodation you are accosted by a drunken man who wants to know if you want to buy crack. When you say ‘no’ he asks if he can borrow money so he can buy crack. He follows you to your door, stumbling and incoherent but persistent. You shut the door and lock it. There’s a phone number the janitor gave you, to call in case of emergencies. You call. Again and again. Nobody answers the phone.
Turning to practical matters you have come to realise there is no communal kitchen. The small sink and dilapidated kitchen unit appear to be your kitchen. That and an old microwave on the counter. Remaking your bed you notice that the mattress has several old stains on it. Turning it around you discover more.
Another trip to the council. You are very aware that you might appear ungrateful which isn’t the case. However, you are also sure that a mistake has been made somehow. You queue patiently, rocking your baby, as you wait for your turn. You explain that you need access to a cooker to prepare meals for the baby. Add that the mattress has seen its best days and the kitchen unit seems unsafe.
The council worker tells you there’s nothing she can do. The council has the duty to accommodate you and has done so. You could take it up with the landlord as the building is their responsibility. She adds: “Probably your baby will just have to eat microwave dinners.”
Back at the hostel you see the janitor. You start telling him that you’ve been to the council to inquire…..
He barks and growls. Makes it clear that you will be cancelled, evicted, if you visit the council again to complain about the building. “We don’t like troublemakers here.”
You flee into the maze of corridors, frightened by his demeanour. You bump into a man who gropes your bottom, tries to grab a breast. You run down the corridor. The man follows but stops and then backs off when a woman emerges from a room and unleashes a tirade against him. She invites you into her room which smells of mould and makes you a cup of tea while you soothe the unsettled baby.
The man is a tenant, the kind woman tells you. Best to get a rape alarm. All the other women on the corridor have one too. You ask why nothing has been done about him. She tells you plenty has been reported, but the only thing you can do is to get that rape alarm. When you point out the mould she laughs. We were inspected by the council last week, she says. They found everything to be satisfactory. As far as they were concerned the building was suitable. She tells you the council will pay the landlord over 200 pounds a week for your room. She warns you that you will have to fork over a tenner a week for service charges. You laugh. What service, you ask. None, she answers, but you have to pay anyway or else…..
You know the mantra and complete her sentence…. “you will be cancelled.”
That night you cannot sleep. Even though visitors are not allowed there seem to be an awful lot of people in the building. Drunken men next door, roaring laughter. You can hear every word they say. They talk about the newcomer in the corridor, a dishy piece who is utterly fuckable. When they add “shame about the brat” you realise they’re talking about you. The other neighbouring room contains somebody who is crying incessantly, deep sobs in between garbled wails of despair. A couple having an argument in the room above yours. Raised voices, fists slamming against walls and a door. You tremble violently but try to recompose yourself when the baby starts crying.
Around two o’clock the fire alarm goes off. You wrap the baby in a blanket and stand outside, shivering in the cold with the others for over an hour. The janitor has long gone home and the landlord doesn’t provide on-site supervision. The one boon is that many of the intoxicated or drugged tenants and visitors make themselves scarce when the police show up.
The woman who offered you a cup of tea earlier tells you that some of her friends have chosen to become rough sleepers again. “They feel safer on the street than in the hostel.”
A week ago it would have been inconceivable for you that sleeping rough was considered safer than life in a privately owned homeless hostel. Tonight it seems a very reasonable sentiment.
At long last you’re told it’s safe to go back in.
Waking up the next morning is a shock. One moment you are curled up in bed with your child, fast asleep, the next moment the shabby top kitchen unit disengages from the wall and comes crashing down into the narrow gap between bed and kitchen, one end landing on the bed right next to your legs.
You find the janitor and tell him what happened. He grudgingly tells you he might have some time to look at it tomorrow and reminds you it would be better not to complain to the council. You tell him that you’ve taken pictures of the shipwrecked kitchen unit and will show these to the council. He shouts but you are far angrier than he is. Your baby could have been killed. You don’t expect to be housed in the Royal Pavilion, all you want is some sense of safety. You don’t shout but make clear to him you’ll share the bloody pictures with the whole damn world if need be.
The janitor drops by sooner than he said he would. He has brought two other men. Large unsympathetic ones. You are cancelled, he tells you with a triumphant grin. You are not told why. Before you even realise what is happening you’re on the front porch with your baby and your case containing all your worldly belongings. The door is slammed in your face.
Bewildered you make your way to the council again. The council worker you speak to is unsympathetic. The landlord has been in touch. You have been evicted for causing wilful damage to your room. The landlord will seek compensation from you for the damage you caused by wrecking the kitchen unit in your room. He claims to have three or four eye-witnesses.
Even as you try to digest the sheer scale of this hypocrisy the council worker tells you that as far as the council is concerned you are now intentionally homeless. They have no further obligation to help you. Furthermore, they have informed child safety services that they believe you could harm your baby. Wham bam, thank you ma’am. The consultation is over, next please.
That night you are huddled in a doorway, shivering because everything you had which could provide warmth is wrapped around your baby. You stare dully into nothingness. Cringe as a passer-by casually tosses a 50p coin on the pavement in front of you. Grind your teeth when members of a stag party shout at you to get your tits out for the lads. Shrug as a policeman warns you that he’ll arrest you if he sees you begging again before he instructs you to take yourself elsewhere.
Where? Another doorway. It starts to rain, the baby frets. You wonder if it might be worth your while to get arrested in order to have a dry place to sleep but are afraid your child will be taken away from you on the spot in that scenario.
A man approaches, middle-aged and amiable. He stops to chat, the first friendly voice you have heard in hours. He offers you a place to stay and for a moment you believe in miracles. Your elation is short-lived however, when he makes clear what he expects in exchange for his hospitality.
You stare at him in disbelief. You want to shout at him, tell him a few home-truths and send him on his way. But your baby starts crying again, the cold is beginning to seep into your bones, there is nowhere to go. You stare at him in disbelief. Should you? Shouldn’t you?
You have reached the end.
The above is fictional but based on a combination of many different experiences in several privately owned homeless hostels in Brighton and Hove.
It happened yesterday. It happens today. It will happen tomorrow.
This is reality for hundreds of people in Brighton and Hove right now.
This is the reality as we head for a Christmas which will see over 2,000 children in our city living in temporary accommodation.
This is what we have become.