Thursday, 12 December 2013

“How to Get a Council House”

**This post was written back in August.**

This blog is supposed to be an outlet, so this post is a bit random as I'm writing it purely because of all the feelings jumbling around in me. It's difficult to talk to anyone about something from the past and find it worthwhile doing so. I don't even know how I'd want anyone to react that would be satisfying in any way. I suppose if someone understands how difficult and/or frightening something was for me, and seems genuinely shocked at the situation it's a start – that good old concept of validation. Because the agencies I went to for help at various points – most notably mental health services – were so dismissive I began to question my own perceptions. But it was hard to know what someone else would do in my shoes, as no-one seemed to have had the problems I did.

Anyway, I watched last week's “How to Get a Council House” on Channel 4. This episode focussed on homelessness and emergency housing. I don't really know why I watched it; I think partly a grim fascination as I've been homeless and did not have a good experience with the local council. I also feel the need to keep track of how the right-wing propoganda machine is presenting poor people. Since watching it I've been on edge and tied in knots inside, feeling a general sense of anger, injustice and being trapped.

The story that got to me was of a woman with two children who was fleeing domestic violence, and was given a council flat fairly swiftly. Now I am not going to pick apart her situation, but the attitude of staff is another matter. There seemed to be ingrained prejudice, not of the kind you can stick an 'ism' on and legislate against, but that insiduous 'deserving or undeserving' split based on first impressions and (mis)understanding. It doesn't help that the housing allocation policy relies on this catergorising and political buzzwords like
domestic violence. Fleeing your home due to domestic violence or threats of domestic violence means you are automatically considered to be 'priority need', and thus the council have a legal duty to house you temporarily (hostel, B&B) and in the long term. You get boosted up the waiting list too, so will get a settled place much sooner than others.

Now, I understand the need for a swift exit from a violent situation, as well as the need for somewhere to call 'home' after distressing events. But why are other issues less important? Mental health issues are not automatically considered a basis for 'priority need' (it's discretionary), despite the overwhelming evidence that lack of a home both causes and exacerbates mental health problems, as well as the risk to life through suicide. The answer is the same as with most social welfare issues: lack of joined-up thinking in government and pandering to social prejudice in order to score political points. (At particularly bleak moments I have suspected there actually is joined-up thinking, of a sordid and underhand nature, designed to eliminate us 'undesirables'. Evil or inept? Hmm.)

There was also a couple with a child, who had to leave their flat as the man's former partner was named on the tenancy, rather than the couple. When the man went to the housing office, the difference in treatment was painfully apparent. He was quizzed as to where his former partner now lived, and told them she owned a house elsewhere. The housing officer already seemed quite accusatory at this point, and on contacting the ex-partner this seemed to be justified – she informed them she jointly owned a house with her ex. That meant the council had no duty to house him. So he was interrogated further, forced to sign a statement, and pretty much accused of fraud. At this point he looked nervous and admitted perhaps he owned a house and didn't remember. This seemed like a semi-confession of guilt, until they looked up the land registry, which showed that the house belonged entirely to his ex.

At this point the housing officer gave a sort of non-apology (“I'm sorry if you feel you've been accused...”) and her manner became nicer. But – hold on a minute! She had interrogated this poor guy, presumably already hugely stressed about his family's upcoming homelessness, to the point where he thought he might have bought a house and not remembered it. How many others are forced into 'confessing' in this manner, making them ineligible for housing? Well, certainly not the woman who was applying on the basis of domestic violence. She was treated with kindness and understanding. There didn't appear to be many questions asked about the situation – even the odd elements like how did her ex get into the house? (she claimed to have woken up with him attacking her), or her refusal to go into temporary accomodation and decision to stay with her mother instead (having somewhere to stay, even if it's overcrowded, usually means you are in slightly less priority than someone in a B&B or with nowehere at all). They did check that a domestic violence report had been made to the police, but all that proves is that she made a report. Now I'm not suggesting she's lying; rather making the point that she was treated as 'innocent until proven guilty', whilst others were not. And the reason for this is prejudice; a complicated prejudice that dictates the meaning of words like 'vulnerable' and that old chestnut, 'deserving'.

I know someone who fled domestic violence. I don't know all the details, but she had a newborn at the time, so went into a women's refuge and was given a council house sometime later. Being a young mum, she was entitled to benefits without looking for work, so was able to take advantage of training opportunities. She is now self-employed, married to a lovely man, and has another baby. (For the record, we were both first homeless at around the same time, though in completely different areas).

I am pleased that life has worked out for her, but it hurts inside that I can't be like that. I can't look back and say that going into a hostel was the bleakest time of my life (being asked to leave one would be a contender though) and trace a journey up from there, as I snuggle my new baby and smile at my husband. I don't mean to sound bitter, I'm just hurting, because I too have struggled and been brave and fought on and tried my best, but was not given the same opportunities. Instead, I was forced to keep re-living the same struggles again and again, leaving me with more weird baggage than the London Underground lost property department. And of course the weird baggage also makes the possibility of that career, newborn and husband ever more unlikely. (Gah! I'm such a bad feminist..!)

When I approached the council for emergency housing, facing anti-social behavoir and threats of violence in my home, I was told I'd be 'intentionally homeless' (thus not eligible for housing) if I moved out (This was not true). I had already tried to find a room to let in the private sector, but as a 19 year old on benefits this was virtually impossible. When I approached the police, with a view to removing the person in question from the property, they informed me they couldn't do anything because he had mental health problems, so they'd never be able to convict him (this is also not true, but complex). For the record, I had initially called the mental health services, thinking the guy needed help – but they just told me to call the police. Eventually, things came to a head, and the threats were played out as this man tried to throttle my boyfriend. It was terrifying; in panic, I called 999. The police took half an hour to arrive, by which time my landlady and her friend had appeared and managed to calm the guy down. No one was willing to make a statement except me, so they police wouldn't do anything. (I was livid with my boyfriend, he just said he didn't want to be 'mixed up with the police').

A few years later, in an entirely different situation, I was accepted into a homeless hostel on a temporary basis whilst they decided if I was 'priority need' or not. They decided that I wasn't and asked me to leave the hostel, knowing I had nowhere to go to (despite frantically searching for rooms to rent and jobs). I was told I was lucky to have a week's notice as it was usually just one day. The letter I received from the council stated that despite my mental health issues I was “intelligent and capable” thus not vulnerbale enough to be deemed a priority. Presumably they believed me to be so incredibly intelligent and capable that I could magic rooms to rent and landlords willing to accept housing benefit. And we all know that intelligence just whisks away mental health problems and suicidal feelings, don't we?! Another choice phrase from that letter was than I was “known to make demands of services”. It didn't even say “
unreasonable demands”, but the implication was there. I had dared to ask the mental health services for treatment when mentally ill, and the council for a temporary hostel place when homeless! Gosh! - they'd never dare be so demanding in my position now, would they?

I did not fit the poster-child image of politically loaded welfare policies. I could have completely fallen through the net – as many do – because people assume the welfare safety-net catches all, and if you're not getting help it's by choice or lack of effort*. And it's that lack of validation – as well as knowing I was 'on my own' – that really hurts to this day. I wholeheartedly thank those few individuals who showed real concern for my situation, even though their hands were tied as far as practical help goes. Bearing in mind that in the area of trauma, lack of support is the strongest indicator that someone will be more severely affected by the trauma, and you begin to see why the smallest scrap of understanding means so much in the long run.

For the record, I found a room to rent less than 24hrs before I had to leave the hostel. Although I had been searching the whole time I was in there, I was also unemployed and only got the room because I had managed to get a job the day before. So, a big dollop of luck in there, as well as my efforts. But I only managed to keep going because I was terrified – I wasn't actually coping at all, and couldn't deal with how I felt. Which is why it came back to haunt me.

*This is getting worse due to benefit-bashing propaganda and cuts to welfare spending. Not even gonna start on that here... Grr!