This week, we're highlighting the plight of the hidden homeless across the UK. Here Sireena, 35, who lives in temporary accommodation with her son Ethan reveals how a change in circumstances left her on the streets.
Words by Rosie Mullender
Growing up, I had an normal childhood with my mum and brothers in North London. Back then, my biggest worry at Christmas was what presents I’d have to open. Today, things are very different as I embark on the Christmas season with a sense of fear about whether my son and I will have a roof over my head in 2020.
I fell pregnant with my son aged 20, following my family’s move to the Republic of Ireland when I was a teenager. My son and I got our own home but I grew to hate living there. I was targeted by racists who would hurl insults at me during the school pick-up and unable to bear the daily abuse, I left to move back to England when I was 29.
I suffer from Fibromyalgia – a long-term condition which means I live with chronic pain for which I receive an Employment and Support Allowance – so I went to see the council about being housed whether they could help with housing. But because I’d lived out of the country, I wasn’t eligible. They told me that if I couldn’t find room in a shelter, I should take my son Ethan to sleep in a hospital waiting-room, to be safe! It was then that I started panicking.
We were forced to sleep on friends’ sofas until I scraped together the £2,000 deposit for a one-room studio flat. Within our first week there, I had to go to the local food bank, because I’d spent my last penny. Although everyone was lovely, it felt so degrading. But I was left with little choice. When you’ve got a child, you’ve got to put your pride aside.
We were happy in our home for nearly two years, but then our landlord gave us an eviction notice so he could make improvements to the flat and raise the rent. I looked everywhere for another affordable place, but nowhere would accept us because I was on benefits.
The day we were evicted, Ethan and I were put out on the streets with just our few bags of possessions. The council gave us emergency accommodation but it was a one-bedroom bedsit in an area with a lot of drug problems and prostitution. Ethan was 11, but we had to share a single bed for the next year. There were no drinking water in the building, it was infested with cockroaches, and the sink was so tiny, I had to wash the dishes and Ethan’s school uniform in the shower in a bucket.
That whole period was a living nightmare so I was relieved when a support worker from Shelter managed to get us rehoused. We moved into a two-bedroom place last spring, and it seemed fine at first – a few repairs needed to be done, but it was clean, and had a proper kitchen. It felt like a home
But then, autumn arrived – and with it came the damp. Whenever there was heavy rainfall outside, water would seep through the walls, covering everything in mould. Ethan’s room was so bad we had to move him out – from then on, he either had to sleep on the sofa,or back in with me.
Because our block is due to be destroyed in May 2020 to make way for new properties, the council weren’t keen to put money into repairs, but eventually, with help from Shelter, interior walls were put in to protect us from the damp. Things are a bit better, but because it’s only a cosmetic solution, there’s still mould everywhere. My living room is black with it.
Ethan is my registered carer, and I can’t have friends over because of the state of his room. He never complains, but it still really upsets me. He should be worrying about school and other teenage stuff. Instead, he’s having to worry about where we’re going to be living in six months’ time.
Ethan is a great boy and I try to make sure he still gets to be a kid -even in our one-room bedsit, he had a little corner with a desk so he could do his homework. At school, he’s been put in a group for bright children, and I’m desperate for him to do well at school so he doesn’t end up in a situation like this.
The one thing a parent is supposed to be able to do is provide a safe home for their child, and if you can’t, it’s so demoralising. I should be thinking about buying Christmas presents and putting decorations up – instead, I’m having to clean the mould off the walls and buy extra blankets because it’s so cold.
Thanks to Shelter, we feel like we have someone fighting in our corner. But I didn’t think my life would end up like this. That’s why it would be amazing for people like us if others could donate what they can this Christmas. There’s this perception that homeless people are all out on the streets; they’re lazy, or alcoholics with drug problems. But many people without permanent homes are working, but simply can’t afford to pay their rent and find themselves on the streets. You can come from any walk of life and end up homeless.
*There are many ways you can support Shelter in its fight against homelessness, click here to read up on its various volunteering opportunities