‘I’m a key worker on the brink of homelessness’

There are 7.1 million key workers in the UK risking their lives every day, yet many are barely earning enough to keep a roof over their heads. Wendy, a care worker living in a hostel with her 11-year-old, explains how the system has let her down

I never imagined being in a situation where I’m sharing a broken bed with my daughter every night. But since December 2019, we’ve been living in a cramped room in emergency accommodation.

The room is so small it wouldn’t even fit Sarah’s* own bed or the rest of our furniture, so I have to pay £95 a month just to keep it all in storage. Sarah and I are used to having our own space so it feels like a massive setback. Sharing a bed with my little girl is degrading for both of us.

Besides not having any privacy, we’re sharing basic facilities with four strangers. Every day I’m scared we could catch coronavirus because it’s impossible to socially distance, and the kitchen is so dirty I don’t feel safe preparing food there.

As a carer for young people with various illnesses, it’s important I remain as calm as possible and listen to their struggles but I’m exhausted every day because I’m also coping with my own stress. I’ve developed cysts, and my doctor put me on anti-depressants a few months ago. I worry about my daughter all the time. When we first moved here, her teacher called me in because she was misbehaving at school. Some days she doesn’t even want to leave the hostel to go outside. I feel so helpless that I can’t make things better for her.

It hasn’t always been this way. Eighteen years ago, I left Jamaica to study health and social care in London. I was happily making my own living as a hairdresser on the side, when I met Sarah’s dad. We moved in together when I was pregnant but over the years he became violent. By 2013, the situation was so unbearable I had to escape and find a safe place for Sarah and me. Frightened and alone, I went to my local housing association. We were placed in an Airbnb for a year, while they looked for somewhere permanent.

key worker homelessness

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I was eventually found a home, but the rent was way too expensive at £1,223 a month. Although I had started a new job as a care worker I’d had to cut down my working hours as I was looking after Sarah* on my own. I was on universal credit – but this still wasn’t enough to cover our living costs. I was devastated when the housing association said it was the only place they could offer me. I was also told if I didn’t move in, I would be making myself ‘intentionally homeless’ and the association wouldn’t be able to help me anymore. I had no other options. With no where else to go, I had no choice but to say yes to a home I knew I couldn’t afford.

And on top of the money worries it was far from a dream home, with no shower and broken floorboards. But I set to work fixing the whole place up and making it as comfortable as I could for Sarah. But I couldn’t fix my rent worries and after three years I fell into arrears. I called the housing association so many times to tell them I was struggling to pay the rent and needed somewhere cheaper, but no one helped me. Then, two weeks before Christmas 2019, we were evicted. It was heartbreaking to be thrown out of our home of seven years like that. Totally devastating.

We were moved straight into the hostel. We were only supposed to be here for six weeks, but we’re still here. I’m trying my best to look for somewhere new, but it’s difficult because the housing office won’t help me. I’m a key worker in a pandemic, and the only support they could give me was directing me to a website called OpenRent.

I’ve been looking for places, but once you add bills and food into the equation, it makes it very hard to find somewhere affordable. We only have three months left in the hostel, I don’t know what we’ll do if I can’t find another place before then. I thought the system would help me, but I feel totally on my own.

This isn’t something I ever imagined going through. I’m constantly on the brink of tears, but am trying to be strong for my daughter’s sake. The only thing I have control over is my health, so I try to keep us both as healthy as I can through exercise and focusing on other things. It’s frustrating because there are so many other people out there in the same situation as me. The government needs to do more to put key workers in affordable, long-term accommodation where they can be comfortable. I won’t stop fighting until we can all get out of this nightmare situation.

Since the pandemic broke, Shelter’s emergency helpline has seen a surge in calls from people who are homeless or worried about losing their home. Please visit shelter.org.uk/marieclaire to donate to their emergency appeal. They are giving vital advice and support to those who need it – and you could help them answer their next call. 

*Wendy’s daughter’s name has been changed to protect her identity

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