A House is Not a Home

Once a vulnerable or homeless person gets a house, all their problems are over – yes?

Unfortunately no, this simply is not true, and I would like to share with you some of the situations I come across on a daily basis, to give an insight into the reasons why, and to challenge the common perception that rough sleepers are not doing anything to improve their plight.

“Go to the council and they will give you somewhere to live” is a sentence I hear a lot.  Whether it is advice from the well-meaning, or justification from those criticizing, it is a common belief that you simply pop along to the council offices, who will hand over keys to your new place by teatime.  Sure, your council might provide you with temporary accommodation, but there are many hoops to jump through before you arrive there: you may be waiting hours before you are seen, and only then, if you are deemed to be entitled, might you be provided with temporary accommodation.

Quite often, your ‘home for now’ is B&B accommodation, and whether you are single or a whole family, it is likely to be only one room. There is nowhere to cook, nowhere to do your laundry, and regardless of storm or shine, such establishments commonly ask their guests to leave during the day, leaving you to wander the streets until it is time to return.

You might be placed in a hostel, which feels more like a prison than a home (I will elaborate in a future post). Or if you are fortunate, it might be a flat or a house. If it is, don’t think of putting any roots down or making plans, because it is temporary, and you have no way of knowing where you will end up living.

Of course, you will be supported to find permanent accommodation, but as a high priority case, you will be given ‘Hobson’s choice’. Those who are a lower priority get to refuse a property if they don’t like it and wait for the next offer, but as a band A qualifier, you get one offer only. If you turn it down, regardless of how sound your reasons might be, that is it. Your legal entitlement to assistance with both temporary and permanent accommodation ends.

All that is if you are one of the lucky ones deemed to be entitled to such assistance. Many are turned away. A common reason is when someone is deemed ‘intentionally homeless’, and some of the reasons for that might surprise you.  For example, if you were previously evicted for not being able to afford your rent – depending on the circumstances, they might argue that you had an obligation to meet your rent, and by choosing not to, have rendered yourself intentionally homeless.  Another example is if you left your home because you felt unsafe to stay there. A suit in an office, who has never met you, might decide that your home is in fact safe to return to, and therefore you have made yourself intentionally homeless.

Regarding the rough sleeper – and I have seen many in this situation – he gets to sleep each night by fantasizing about a safe, warm home. Wanting his dreams to become a reality, he decides to ask for help. One day, he is handed the keys to his new home. It is one of their ‘hard to let’ properties, and they are giving him a trial period in it to see how he manages with a tenancy. Having never been part of a stable family environment, he has no life-skills in keeping a home but, hey, this is his dream.

He enters his house to find it is cold and smells strongly of damp, because it has been empty for such a long time. And far from being the stuff of dreams, it has not a stick of furniture, nor carpets or curtains. He is expected to get these himself; but on his benefits, that is never going to happen. They would provide some essentials, they said, but all he gets is a bed and a fridge. He has no food to put in the fridge, not that he has anywhere to sit and eat it, and no bedding to put on the bed.

His dream home is not a home at all. It is a cold, damp, empty shell. At night he goes to sleep alone, and after such a long time of rough-sleeping in groups for safety, he begins to feel lonely, isolated and frightened. On top of his fears of isolation, in this empty shell, he now has to pay quite a lot of money to keep it. He was only just managing on his benefits when he was sleeping rough, but now he has to find money for a gas meter, a water bill and council tax.

He gives it a go, but bumps into his old street posse one day, and soon finds himself laughing and smiling at their stories about everything that has happened since he left. Before he knows it, it is dark and late, so he decides to spend the night with them ‘for old time’s sake’. For the first time in ages he feels safe and has a sense of belonging. It certainly feels more like ‘home’ than that empty, smelly shell.