Our rural homelessness campaign continues with an interview by the charity’s Chair, Dominic Wightman, of a homeless lady who lives day to day and hand to mouth in a tent with her dog. She’s bright, she’s eloquent, she’s brave and really she shouldn’t be homeless in 21st Century Britain; in the sixth richest country on earth. But she is. Why? What is going wrong with homeless charities and government initiatives when someone like this lady could be a real asset to the economy and society? We want to generate awareness and work with solution providers to end these cases of rural homelessness, just as urban homelessness is an utter waste too. Please read the lady’s answers and have a ponder. Maybe appreciate the roof over your head that bit more. As the local and general elections approach, perhaps mention the subject to your prospective councillors and MPs. It really is time for change with regards to Homeless Britain across the board.
Q: Why do you need to be anonymous for the purposes of this interview?
A: Because rural areas are close-knit; site owners don’t want homeless people staying on their camp-sites in case they don’t leave. So, if they suspect guests of being homeless, they will tell them to go, then tell other owners in the locality, who will refuse to allow those people to pitch. If I can’t get a pitch, then I can’t work or look for work, can’t keep clean, can’t get fresh water, would lose everything I have left. A pitch on a site is the only hope of homeless people. So, if I am discovered, I will be finished off completely.
Q: How did you become homeless?
A: I’d been living in the house for three years, (my original one-year tenancy had been extended for two years, as I was a good tenant) I was a perfectly respectable person, teaching children with learning difficulties, and I was not in arrears. But I was a Leave supporter, put a red Leave poster in the window, and spoke at the village hall, at Grass-roots Out meetings. The landlady supported Remain, and a week after the referendum result, served me a Section 21. It’s a perfectly legal means of evicting a tenant, and no reason needs to be given. The tenant then has eight weeks to leave.
Q: How long have you been homeless?
A: In two weeks, it will be eight months. I thought it would be a few weeks at worst – but it’s a hard cycle to break out of.
Q: What’s it like?
A: It has several levels of awful. Weather is completely terrifying. Cold can and does kill, and so the winter, with high winds and temperatures of minus 8 at night on occasions, has been very frightening. I have often sat up all night, afraid to go to sleep in case I don’t wake up. It’s hard to keep as clean as I’d prefer, when often washing facilities are poor, or wet clothes freeze. No matter how frivolous it seems, you have to make a huge effort to look normal, and as well-groomed as possible, because otherwise it would be easy to go feral. It’s degrading, too, because becoming homeless means becoming a non-person. People without a permanent address have no vote, will have their bank account frozen if the bank finds out, have trouble applying for jobs (how do you put THAT on a form, and where do they send paperwork?) and can’t claim benefits. It’s as if we are criminals. We are not wanted, people feel somehow threatened by us. I dread getting ill or needing a dentist. I don’t know how that would be managed. There is no peace – normal camps will allow between 21 and 28 days’ stay, so as soon as I am settled in, and have learned my way around, I have to move on again, and find somewhere else.
Q: You are homeless and living in a camp site. There is no way the Government is counting you in its homeless statistics. So, how rife is countryside homelessness?
A: I’m living in lots of camp-sites. This is the ninth. No, the government don’t include us – we are invisible. Rural homelessness is rife. At every rural camp-site there are people like me. We recognise each other but nobody can say anything to help. And it’s not just the camp-sites, people pitch small tents in fields and woods, empty barns, etc. The tents of homeless people can be destroyed without redress – or taken away, as lots of town councils do. Farmers are worse. In December, in a field near where I was pitched at the time, the tents and pitiful belongings of lots of homeless people were bulldozed into the ground by men who turned up with dogs and lights at 3 a.m. The land hadn’t been used in a generation. In the local paper the next week, people were applauding the farmer’s actions.
Q: Have you sought state help?
A: I told my local council straight away, and asked if there was any emergency help, because as a self-employed single woman with a dog, I didn’t know how quickly I would find somewhere to rent. I was told that I didn’t fit any of the criteria which they had an obligation to help: I was not over 66, under 16, pregnant, an ex-substance abuser, had no mental health problems, hadn’t been in prison, had not lived there for longer than five years, and was not an asylum-seeker or refugee. I later discovered that because I had left at the date specified on the eviction notice, and had not stayed there waiting until the bailiffs arrived to remove me, I was legally considered to have made myself homeless!
Q: Have you sought charity help?
A: Yes. I contacted every homeless charity I had ever heard of and a lot I never dreamed existed. They are generally very kind, but they don’t solve the problem. What’s needed is not advice – it’s about three months in a clean, warm, safe place, which can be given as an address to seek jobs and get life back on track.
Q: Do you get the impression that homeless charities lack cohesion? They should club together or be forced to club together to maintain charity status?
A: Very often they assume that homeless people are all drug-addicts or have mental health problems, which indicates they don’t realise how easily homelessness can happen to anyone. They also concentrate far too much on the legal and political aspects of it, “fighting homelessness in theory”, when that actually means nothing to the person who is shivering under a blanket wondering what the hell happened to their life. They need to be more practical. Most are based in cities, obviously.
Q: What is preventing you right now from getting a live-in job somewhere?
A: Lack of people responding to my adverts! I have the enhanced DBS check, and have experience in private tutoring, the care of the elderly, and administration and research. I have placed adverts in the local papers of every place I have stayed, and signed up to alerts for those jobs. No luck so far.
Q: Dogs and pet ownership are a real handicap, no? What can be done to help the homeless who own pets?
A: Accept that the pet is what raises the homeless person above the feral, and most would rather die than part with them.
Q: How do you see yourself in 5 years?
A: Out of this or dead. And since I have no intention of dying just yet, that means I have to get out of it. I have plans. Spring helps. At least I can sleep now, and therefore function better, and where I am now, there are more jobs. It gives me hope.
Q: Are there any positives to your current homeless state?
A: I have learned things I never wanted to learn – mainly about how vile far too many people are to those who are poor; particularly horrible are those only a couple of rungs up the ladder, who feel poverty may be contagious. I have also experienced the kindness of strangers and when that happens, I am incredibly moved. I used to worry and be far more afraid of small things than I am now; I am now living what I dreaded and I am still here. While I agree it’s terrible, I know that it could be far, far worse, so I’m intensely grateful for what there is, for when there is food, or peace, or good weather, or a hot shower, or someone stops to chat. When I was a girl I knew an old lady who was in Auschwitz in her early teens. She said she was glad she had been there because having seen the worst of everything, she knew there was nothing to fear, and never worried about anything. I think, in a small way, maybe everyone has their particular “Auschwitz”, the thing they think they wouldn’t survive. The knack is in the surviving, to tell the tale afterwards. One day, when this is over, I think I will probably do quite a lot of crying, then get on and use the experience – because if not, it would be a waste.
Q: What’s your message to people who say ditch your dog and get on your bike?
A: I’d say, I am already on my bike, and that if I were to ditch my dog I would not only be heartbroken, I would be as ashamed of myself for deserting a friend as those people should be for suggesting such a thing.
Q: What should the UK Government be doing about you and people who are our rural homeless?
A: A landlord should not have the ability to simply kick someone out on a whim. The tenant has to show responsibility in the care of the property, and the landlord should understand that a house is a home, not just part of a property portfolio. And end the system whereby a landlord can more or less without question make some excuse to keep a tenant’s deposit. The simplest way to help immediately would be to offer a central post-office address, to enable normal communication, delivery of goods and mail, etc, which would enable job-seeking. Homeless people are highly mobile, and so are able to apply for jobs literally anywhere – but not if there is no money to get there, or they look disreputable on arrival. So, a fund for travel expenses would be excellent. Educate! There is a huge stigma in being homeless, as if it is a disease. The stigma stops people seeking help. Admitting to homelessness is throwing yourself upon the mercy of strangers, and very often, those strangers don’t understand the situation at all. There is one initiative in which those who apply for help are basically put to work on recycling projects for the man who started the initiative, in exchange for shelter, on the assumption that this will keep them busy. He’s right – but it doesn’t help them get a home or a job. A homeless person is not another species – he or she is just you, if someone took your house away.
Q: Thank you so much. I wish you the very best of luck. I know you’ll get out of this; not die in the next five years. Be strong, friend.
A: Thanks. I shall.