Posted below are excerpts from a transcript of an interview with homeless Newham woman Marsha, 30.
I post this as an example of homelessness as so many women I interview these days experience it.
Marsha talks about common problems that homeless women with children are always up against now: the lifetime of housing insecurity, the debilitating anxiety and depression, and the public authorities that invade a homeless woman’s privacy and keep her in her place by never letting her forget that they could take her child.
Marsha talks about being trapped forever – in rotten housing and low-paid work.
Few people on the ground believe that this will change soon.
The political and media classes are completely consumed by Brexit.
There’s no time or space for people who rely on the public services that our imploding politics can’t provide.
That is disgusting. I can’t tell you how upsetting it is for everyone involved.
For 18 months, Marsha has lived with her 6-year-old daughter in a single room in a Newham homelessness hostel.
The two share a bed in that room:
Before they were placed in this hostel, Marsha and her daughter lived in temporary shared accommodation in a Newham hostel called Belgrave Court.
The two had one room. They shared a kitchen and bathroom with other hostel residents.
Marsha has lived in a lot of places like this. She grew up in shared accommodation.
Marsha’s mother migrated to England from Jamaica. She worked long hours as a cleaner. She brought Marsha to England when Marsha was 12. The two lived in shared housing.
They often had to move. Stability is a privilege that not everyone enjoys.
“…when you’re renting a room… you’re sharing with all different people and there’s always issues, so we’ve always had to just kept to kept on moving, so as a teenager coming up into my adult years, I had to move…”
Marsha says that she was abused when she was younger.
She hates talking about these issues (“I don’t want all my business out there”), although council and jobcentre officers insist that she talks – again and again and again:
“The medical assessment officer, he asked if I had any issues. My issues growing up is not something I’m comfortable talking about, so I just said to him, “bottom line, I suffer from depression. I don’t need to go into the things that make me depressed, because it is uncomfortable to relive certain moments…”
Relentless interrogation by authorities
Marsha is forced to relive her past and present problems, though. Homeless women must repeatedly justify their need for housing and income help to strangers by explaining their backgrounds and experiences again and again. They must tell their stories from the start to each new officer who interviews them – council homelessness officers, MASH (multi-agency safeguarding hub) officers, jobcentre advisers and social workers.
They must tell officers everything: mental health histories, family histories, relationship histories and abuse histories. There’s no letup. There’s no privacy. There is no autonomy. Officers want details when they are deciding if a homeless woman is in need.
They want graphic details, even. Does the woman have panic attacks? How often does she have them? How serious are they? How bad is her depression? Is she medicated? Was she abused? Who was her abuser? What did her abuser do? How has her experience affected her kids?
Officers want to rate a woman’s story. They want her to prove that her problems are genuinely serious, whatever that means.
Marsha says that her medical history of depression and panic attacks (she’s been hospitalised in the past) has sometimes been dismissed in the past, because officers say that panic attacks are run-of-the-mill these days:
“They said to me panic attacks is a common thing, [that] lots of people go through it. [They said] “just find coping mechanisms and you will be all right.”
Officers say that even when Marsha is clearly unwell:
“…the sort of depression that I had at the time – I was always washing my hands. I was always doing stuff. I couldn’t take light. Even now, I can barely stand light. That’s why I put stuff over the window.”
Marsha still drapes sheets and blankets over windows to keep the light out. I visited her at about midday on a Saturday and her hostel room was in shade.
Officers know these things, but ask about them repeatedly all the same.
Councils keep detailed files about homeless people, but don’t refer to them, apparently.
“I said to him [the officer], “I’ve got my housing file in my drawer. It’s this thick. I have been complaining since I moved into this property that I have panic attacks at least two to three times a week.”
At a recent meeting with social services, Marsha had to remind the social worker of her name, because the officer wasn’t sure who Marsha was – even though she had called Marsha to the meeting.
The social worker hadn’t looked at Marsha’s file. She just brought Marsha in to question her.
Always in frame with social services
Marsha worries about the effects that their cramped living arrangements have on her young daughter:
“She’s already having behavioural difficulties, because she’s stuck in a room with me. The school’s even written a supportive letter to say that her behaviour has changed, because of the pressure… and she’s going to school telling them, “I’m sad, because my mummy’s always crying.” These are the things that she’s going to school with to her headteacher…”
There is fallout from this.
Like many homeless women, Marsha must tolerate constant questioning from social services and her daughter’s school about her child’s emotional and mental health.
Marsha often receives calls from council officers who instruct her to attend meetings with social workers.
She also receives calls from her daughter’s school, when the school decides that it has “concerns.”
Marsha is always told that these meetings are urgent and that she must attend. The meetings are often same-day.
Marsha is never given time to arrange to bring a friend or a supporter along:
“I dropped her off to school as normal… I thought everything was okay. Basically, what happened after – the school rang me saying they need to speak to me about something. I said, “okay – what is it in regards to?” “They said, “well, you’ll have to come in.” My heart starts…racing now. I am like – what’s going on? What’s wrong?”
At the meetings, Marsha is asked a string of invasive questions about her daughter.
For one same-day meeting in February, Marsha was even told to bring her daughter. The social worker quizzed the child about her life with her mother directly.
Questions Marsha has been asked recently include:
“Does she [your daughter] sleep well?
“What time [does she go to bed]?
“Have you got into a routine where you get to bed in certain times?”
Officers know that bedtime routines are hard for Marsha. She and her daughter live and sleep in the same room and bed in their hostel.
Marsha tries to study when her daughter is asleep.
“It is very hard even to do essays, or homework. I have to wait until [my daughter] is asleep during the night just to spend time to do that.”
From the school:
“Your daughter says that she makes her own breakfast.”
The implication here was that Marsha abandoned her child to find food for herself in the morning.
“When [my daughter] says that she makes her own breakfast, she is saying that she helps make her own breakfast, because she is the type of child [who wants to do things for herself]… I will be putting on her clothes and she will be like, “no, no Mummy, I can put on my clothes…”
It’s hard to imagine middle-class parents tolerating this barrage of questions and veiled accusations from bureaucrats.
The problem is that people in Marsha’s situation can’t escape the system as the system stands.
People who have nothing rely on councils for help with housing. They have nowhere else to go. They have to go to approach their local council’s homelessness department.
Nobody throws themselves on the mercy of a council’s homelessness section if they have other options – not in austerity, when council budgets and housing departments have been decimated, and the bureaucracy is brutal.
People go to councils because they have to. They have to get help to find housing they can afford. If people can’t find housing in cities near work and training, they’re stuck on benefits forever. If they move away from family and friends, they have nobody to help with childcare. If they can’t find housing, they face street homelessness. That’s why people hang on.
The DWP, meanwhile, makes escape extremely for people who want to improve their chances of better-paid work and freedom.
Stratford jobcentre sanctioned Marsha’s Universal Credit payments, because Marsha’s adviser decided that Marsha was spending too much time studying and not enough time looking for low-paid work.
Marsha wants to qualify as a nurse. She is studying for a health certificate which she is still working to complete.
Marsha is desperate to gain qualifications so that she can build a future and a better income.
The DWP wants Marsha to find low-paid work and to stay in it:
“…he [Marsha’s jobcentre adviser] was really angry about that [Marsha’s studying]… I’ve been sanctioned for that, for the fact that I’m not spending enough hours looking for work, so even though you’re studying…he wants me to spend my whole days just jobsearching. He said to me, we’d prefer you to work than study.”
“I’m trying to gain a proper qualification. I’m trying to get educated, move forward, so that I can get a decent job. If not, I’m always going to have to come down to minimum wage… There’s nothing wrong with retail, or customer service… I don’t mind, I’ve done a bit of everything, but ultimately how is that going to help me? I’m going to carry on with this work pattern for the rest of my life on a minimal income if I don’t try to get the qualifications to get a certain job.”
Marsha’s other difficulty is that she is playing catchup.
She wasn’t able to work or go to college for years, because the Home Office dragged its feet on her immigration status. Marsha and her mother were also fleeced by one of the many dodgy immigration lawyers that slither around this scene.
Like many youngsters who moved to England from Jamaica as their parents pursued work in England, Marsha came to England on her mother’s passport.
Establishing her right to stay as an adult was a nightmare.
“My mother put through an application for me in 2005… the solicitor was absolutely appalling. She found him through the newspaper. She saved all of her money and she just wanted to sort my papers. He ended up running off with my passport, my birth certificate and my identification and my money, so in 2010, me and my mother was just sitting there thinking – well, now you’re actually getting old… you can’t go to university. You can’t work, so she was like – “let’s just contact the home office to see what is going on… so in 2010, we contacted the Home Office. They didn’t have any kind of file…”
“…then, the Home Office come back to me and they refused my application. They said you have to come [go] back home [to Jamaica].”
Marsha and housing campaigners are pressuring Newham council to find Marsha somewhere to live near her college and near her mother, who helps to look after Marsha’s daughter.
That’s literally the only way for homeless families to beat councils back these days in my experience – to find campaigners, or a sympathetic lawyer, who will lean on a council until something gives. Weeks go by without Marsha hearing anything, but Marsha may get a place. After a great deal of pressure, local councillors said they would act and go with Marsha to look at a flat.
People can’t clear these hurdles alone
Point is: telling people in these situations that they should just pull themselves up by the bootstraps is ridiculous. The hurdles are too high. Bureaucracies are too punitive, too aggressive and too dysfunctional.
I doubt that I could rise to these problems in this context.