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.
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