Heavy rain soaked Grace’s clothes as she huddled in the doorway of an empty building in Derbyshire. Just weeks before, the 57-year-old had been a care worker, looking after vulnerable adults with severe learning disabilities. But she had lost her home, and then her job after her boyfriend’s violence escalated.
The pair had been together for five years. “I was in love,” she says. “I thought this was it. But then things changed, and I think it was because he didn’t want me there any more.”
Her partner became physically and verbally abusive and played psychological games. “He’d put my shoes on the other side of the room. I’d leave, make a cup of tea, come back, and they’d be obviously not where I left them, and he’d say I was imagining things,” Grace says of this manipulative tactic, known as gaslighting. He’d pull the same trick with her shoelaces, food and towels; whenever things went wrong at home, Grace was always to blame. She told her family, but they didn’t believe her and “thought I had gone mad”, even threatening to have her sectioned.
Work wasn’t much better. Short-staffing during the pandemic meant that Grace was often working 15-hour shifts, and given drastically different tasks, often with little notice. One evening, she was attacked by a young man she was trying to help. When she returned from A&E, her partner was more concerned with fixing a broken CD player than her ordeal at work. He dismissed her as “the bitch from hell” when he dropped a part, and told her to get out.
He had assaulted her before but one day he strangled her until she lost consciousness. When she awoke disoriented on the floor, he was nowhere to be seen. She frantically gathered up her belongings to flee, but before she was finished, he returned. Terrified of further violence, Grace placated him until she was able to get out.
When she finally escaped, Grace sofa surfed with friends and family, but before long she ran out of places to stay, ending up in that Derbyshire doorway. “I didn’t know where else to go. I hadn’t slept in about a day and a half. I just thought, ‘If I go, I go.’”
Meanwhile, her career imploded. First she had been signed off with stress, then she had to give up work entirely.
Grace’s story is sadly familiar. The idea that low-income workers are one missed pay cheque away from ruin was dismissed as a crude exaggeration long ago. However, when Britain went into lockdown for the first time, and more than 1 million people overwhelmed the Department for Work and Pensions with universal credit (UC) claims, it looked like cold reality.
Homelessness mushroomed due to an epidemic of domestic violence, with lockdown making it harder for victims to move in with friends and family. More than 13,000 calls were made to Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse helpline every month between April 2020 and February 2021, an increase of 60% on the months before.
For many, being employed is not enough to avoid homelessness. According to the most recent government figures, of the 284,480 homeless people in England, 58,590 of them are in work. These statistics are almost certainly an underestimate due to the chaotic lifestyle of homeless people.
For others, it was insecure jobs that led to homelessness. Employees lucky enough to have steady work with full-time permanent contracts and full employment rights were furloughed and received most of their wages. The self-employed, temps, interns and gig-economy workers were not so lucky. Their employers often opted to terminate their contracts despite government subsidies covering most of the costs, and even when they didn’t sack their workers, many simply slashed their hours. The result: 130,000 homeless households by the end of the first year of the pandemic.
This happened despite formal evictions falling by 90% between April 2020 and March 2021. Unscrupulous landlords, predicting a steep shortfall in rent receipts, either illegally evicted their tenants or made life so unbearable that they had little choice but to leave.
This is the situation that confronted Hassan, who worked in hospitality before Covid struck. Hassan is Senegalese and began his career in a restaurant near Trafalgar Square 15 years ago. “I loved it and was really starting to work my way up. When the pandemic hit, I had just changed jobs so wasn’t eligible for much money with the furlough scheme, so I started to fall behind with my rent payments, and I had to leave my home.”
Hassan received £800 a month from his employer; the Department for Work and Pensions decided that he wasn’t eligible for UC. But £800 wasn’t nearly enough to cover his rent and living costs, which caused friction between him and his live-in landlord. He wasn’t officially evicted from his flat in south London; instead he says the landlord made life so uncomfortable there that he felt forced to leave.
Hassan moved in with a friend, staying in his living room. Things were stable for a while, then his friend announced that Hassan had to leave – during the dead of night in the middle of winter. “I thought he was joking,” Hassan says. He wasn’t – even going as far as calling the police, who ushered Hassan out of the flat on to London’s freezing streets.
Hassan had nowhere to go. His wife and children were back in Senegal, but he didn’t want to worry them. “They are my world, and everything I do is to make sure I can be a good father. I’d love to get back to work, find a suitable home and look after my little family. I really just want to be a good dad,” he says.
He spent the next 10 days braving the cold in a park near Elephant and Castle, south London. Hassan has asthma, and after the first week he felt like there was a vice squeezing his chest. So he took to sleeping on buses for warmth and shelter, catching as much shut-eye as he could between first departure and final destination, then doing it all over again until 6am, when he would revitalise with a coffee and a croissant.
StreetLink, a homeless outreach charity, eventually referred him to St Mungo’s, which placed him in a hostel near Southwark station until the council found him temporary accommodation in Peckham. Hassan is settled there, but not secure. “I don’t feel safe because I see so many people coming here, making noise,” he says. The room he is in is not ideal either. “The windows won’t close properly, and it’s getting so much colder outside.”
Still, relief is on the horizon. While living in temporary accommodation, he was referred to Beam, a homeless charity that helps its members through crowdfunding. The organisation has raised nearly £2,000 to help him buy work clothes, a laptop, a phone, and the training required to be a security guard. He has given up his career in hospitality, reasoning that if another lockdown happens, security guards will always be in demand. “Without Beam, I don’t know where I would be. I’m so grateful for them, and I had 45 people donate to me, which is very nice. I’m very happy,” he says.
Anna Kolosova also benefited from funds offered by Beam after spending much of the pandemic squatting and sofa surfing. An artist who also worked as an admissions administrator for a London university, she says she lived “like Harry Potter” in a broom cupboard before Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown. Then she lost her job and could no longer afford to pay the rent on her flat and her art studio. The organisation that let the studio wouldn’t allow her to sleep there, so she ended up living in a north London squat.
Anna Kolosova in her east London studio. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
“Living in squats is not a big leap. I was really lucky that I happened to meet someone who took me in and gave me a little room and a roof over my head,” Kolosova says. Yet it was stressful, with little privacy and the threat of eviction always hanging over her.
Kolosova was able to sell some of her artwork to stay afloat until she started receiving universal credit. And one benefit of squatting was she never had to go hungry. “Everyone shared food with each other. Some people go skip-diving, some people buy food, and usually it gets shared.”
But one day the eviction came: 10 men with a dog stormed the building and ordered them all to leave. Kolosova scrambled all her things together and fled – first to another squat, then to friends’ sofas, until Beam helped her raise £2,264 towards finding more stable housing. “I kind of feel I’m lucky that I’ve gone through this even though it’s been stressful,” Kolosova says. She’s been commissioned to paint murals and is working on putting together an exhibition.
Beam’s founder and CEO, Alex Stephany, says the charity has helped 500 people like Hassan and Kolosova in London. Unlike other crowdfunders, where payments are earmarked for specific projects, “the least competitive crowdfunding platform in the world” encourages general donations and distributes them equally among its members.
“I think what it has that the other models don’t have is this real community-driven quality,” says Stephany. “It brings a support group around each individual. When people use the service, strangers support them through their campaign.” Stephany hopes that Beam could one day support “millions of people” far beyond London.
Yet however well-intentioned Stephany is, this is still hi-tech begging for things that should be – and are, according to the United Nations – fundamental human rights. A blueprint already exists for solving homelessness.
Developed in New York in the 1990s, the policy known as Housing First has virtually ended rough sleeping in some countries. The idea is to provide homeless people with a home without pre-conditions. Then, and only then, are their other needs addressed. Housing First has been highly effective in states such as Utah, which has reduced chronic homelessness by 91%. Finland virtually eliminated rough sleeping after it introduced Housing First in 2007.
In the UK, meanwhile, we often treat poverty as if it was a vice that could be remedied by pulling up one’s socks. Housing provision is a kafkaesque labyrinth, which could be construed as a conspiracy to make life as hard as possible for the nation’s poor. Local connection laws exclude homeless people from accessing support in areas they’re not from (discriminating against Roma, Traveller communities, refugees and people fleeing violence). Even if there is a local connection, councils and charities demand that every time they’re in need, housing applicants divulge their private lives in exhaustive detail and relive the traumas, failures and mistakes that made them homeless in the first place.
Rick Henderson, CEO of Homeless Link, an umbrella organisation for homeless charities, says this disclosure should only have to happen once. “Then that should be their passport into services,” Henderson says. “I’m not against the idea of there being some process. But forcing people to constantly relive the trauma of their past life is unhelpful and should be avoided.”
Housing First would right this wrong; instead, we have a hostel system, which is where Grace ended up after two miserable days in her doorway. She was grateful for the shelter, but as she sat on her bed with all her worldly possessions at her feet, she had little hope. “I was the wrong side of 50; I’d lost everything. I’d worked so hard and got nothing … absolutely nothing.”
She spent most of that night in the hostel crying and struggling to sleep due to the fighting that had broken out in the building.
Eventually, she found help from St Mungo’s Recovery College, an education and employment service. Now she is more settled and thinking of the future. She has reconnected with her children and grandchildren; she’s working with an employment specialist at the Recovery College, who is helping her to find a job. She’s currently in supported accommodation, and the next step is to find a more permanent home.
“I’m gonna fight this. At least I’ve got somewhere,” she says. “I’ve got a roof, for Christ’s sake. There’s people out there on the road, living in a doorway.”
Some names have been changed.