SPECIALLY FOR HELENE X TO READ
From The Sunday Times
January 3, 2010
Eton, Oxford, then down and out – and soon plenty from the middle class will be joining me.
Homelessness is a hidden crisis, hitting a much broader section of society than we care to imagine. There is of the growing ranks of sofa surfers.
By Sebastian Cresswell-Turner
I suppose I have been homeless for a year now. In a way, this is ridiculous. I received the most privileged education that an Englishman can have: Eton and Oxford. How, you might well ask, can a chap from my background possibly end up like this? And why doesn’t he pull his socks up and get on with it? How often have I woken up at four in the morning, sick with fear, and thought precisely the same thing. Unfortunately, once your life disintegrates, it is not easy to repair.
It happened like this. At the end of 2004 I returned to England, having worked in Rome since 1995. Back in London I was put up by a friend while I got going as a freelance writer. I also met a girl. Although from the outside my life looked good, the foundations were fragile. In quick succession my girlfriend and I split, I found myself with no work, and I had to leave the room I was occupying. There followed a long period of occasional employment and temporary accommodation, often shared with down-and-outs and people I could hardly bear the sight of.
Then, when the last place came to an end a year ago, I became homeless. At five o’clock that morning I walked to Victoria station for a commission that took me to France for a couple of weeks; then a friend put me up in Brick Lane, east London, for a while; then some house-sitting; then a few months of free lodging in return for services rendered; then a temporary assignment with accommodation thrown in; then more house-sitting and dog-walking … by which time the strain was showing.
But come on, I hear you say, surely you should have seen this coming? Why on earth didn’t you get a job, however simple? I did, working for Prue Leith, part of the Compass group. I was taking home £4 an hour, or £160 a week — not great, when a room in London can easily eat most of that up, leaving you to starve on the rest.
Okay, then, what about a proper job, a real career? But this takes time, a base and a clear and untroubled mind; and when you are homeless you don’t have these. You think strictly short-term. Survival today is what matters.
Why not apply for the jobseeker’s allowance, as the dole is now called? Especially since this opens the door to housing benefit. I did, once. At the end of a hallucination-inducing two-month process, I got a jobseeker’s allowance of £56 a week (not very useful in London) and housing benefit to cover three-quarters of my rent, which meant that to survive I had to work illegally or get into debt. No thank you. The last thing I want is a criminal record.
Then there is the all-consuming logistical chaos of homelessness. Your possessions are scattered all over the place. The simplest task, such as writing a letter, takes ages — where are the ink, pen, paper, envelope, stamp and a surface to work on? Or your printer is somewhere in Gloucestershire, so it’s down to the internet cafe, which takes hours and costs money — most charge £2 merely to plug in your memory stick; two quid to say hello, in other words. Plus, as soon as you find somewhere to live for the next few days, you are worried sick about where you will go after that. Homelessness is not cheap; it’s expensive, both financially and emotionally.
Very rapidly, all productive activity comes to an end. Your existence revolves around packing suitcases and moving on. “I am intelligent,” you say to yourself. “I have a mind; there must be a way out of this.” But you just can’t think. No thoughts come at all.
Do you ask for help or money? Of course not. Most of the time you pretend that everything is fine. Indeed, your life takes on a strange duality. I recently went to a reception at Buckingham Palace, where I talked at some length with the lord chamberlain and then with a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. A couple of nights later it was off to a grand black-tie event (dinner jacket borrowed from a brother, since my own is in storage) where I was sitting with various movers and shakers who, like me, were guests of one of the most powerful men in the City. In neither case could anyone have guessed that I was anything other than a happy member of the metropolitan elite. And this is the thing. Homelessness is invisible. Most of the time, it is not in any of the endless statistics that this government loves so much.
I write openly about my situation because I see it as a temporary setback and am determined to get back to where I belong. I tell this story only because it’s the most dramatic way of illustrating the insecurity working its way up society. It suits the government to keep the homeless hidden — but the strategy won’t work for ever. The issue is too big to ignore or cover up.
Take James Cousins, married, with two stepchildren. For 20 years, he was an IT professional in the City. Life was good. In 2007 he was made redundant. Intermittently employed after that, he started falling behind with his mortgage payments. With no help available from any source, he was soon facing repossession, which he just avoided thanks to the charity Shelter, which helped him get onto the government’s mortgage support scheme — an exercise in jumping through bureaucratic hoops that he describes as a nightmare. “I was surprised how quickly things snowballed,” he told me. “I came within a hair’s breadth of homelessness. I never dreamt something like this might happen to me. It was surreal.”
Lawrence, a former special-needs teacher in his late thirties, was not so lucky. “I lost my job, couldn’t pay my bills and couldn’t pay the rent on the flat. I sofa-surfed for a while, but that tends to put a strain on friendships.” He ended up sleeping on park benches before being taken in by the Emmaus community for homeless single people. “The weird thing is you never ever think something like this can happen to you.”
Significantly, he is divorced and has spent many years abroad; and it cannot be a coincidence that a high proportion of the homeless are ex-servicemen, many of whom have served abroad and are rootless and therefore vulnerable when they leave the army.
Giorgio Salmistraro, a former priest who runs Emmaus in Greenwich, southeast London, tells me: “Homelessness used to be associated entirely with the lower classes. Now we are seeing it in the middle classes. We have people knocking at our doors that we would never have seen, even a couple of years ago.”
Certainly, when most people think of homelessness, the image that springs to mind is the tramp in the street. The reality is far broader and embraces a whole pecking order of misery.
Legally speaking, you are homeless if you have no accommodation that you are entitled to occupy. Anyone living on sufferance in the house of a relative, say, but with no alternative available, is therefore “legally homeless”. So, even more clearly, are the so-called “sofa surfers” who camp in friends’ houses. In other words, almost all the homeless have a roof over their heads and only the tiniest minority spend the nights in shelters or end up as “rough sleepers” — at which point they have reached rock bottom.
In most cases, homelessness is the result of a process that is triggered by unemployment, the breakdown of a relationship, or both. “People then use up their savings, build up debt on credit cards, seek money from family and friends, and some return to their parents,” says Bryan Clover, director of casework at Elizabeth Finn Care, formerly the Distressed Gentlefolk’s Aid Association. “When it becomes unsustainable, they come to us.”
How, in practical terms, do you become homeless? If you sign on and have nowhere to live, surely you will be eligible for housing benefit? As I discovered and as Leslie Morphy, the chief executive of Crisis, confirms: “This benefit is incredibly complicated, and there’s always a lag in terms of when you get it.” It does not cover rental deposits — a vital consideration if you have used up all your resources. Nor does it cover mortgage payments. You might then approach your local council, there to discover that the authorities are obliged by law to house only those classed as “statutory homeless” — in other words, those who have a “priority need” and to whom a “main homelessness duty” is owed. That excludes numerous categories, including healthy singles and couples without dependent children.
How is all this reflected in the statistics? The government likes to point out that the number of “statutory homeless” households in England peaked at 135,000 in 2003-4 and fell to 53,000 in 2008-9. This figure includes only those whom councils are legally obliged to house: they are keen to see off the rest — the process is known as “gatekeeping”. As for the government’s strangely precise claim that there are just 464 “rough sleepers” in England at any one time — well, granted that there are dozens of the poor souls on the streets of Soho alone, this figure is palpably absurd.
Other statistics would seem to correspond more closely to everyday reality. How about the rise in home repossessions from 8,500 in 2003 to 40,000 in 2008, with the Council of Mortgage Lenders pencilling in 48,000 for 2009?
Or the fact that between June 2008 and June 2009 mortgage arrears almost doubled from 152,700 to 270,400? Or that unemployment stood at 2.49m last October, helped by the unprecedented surge in the numbers of solicitors, architects, surveyors and other professionals signing up for unemployment benefit? “The middle classes have more resources of all sorts to fall back on,” Morphy said, “but the worry is that homelessness will have to expand. Undoubtedly.”
What she is now seeing is a new phenomenon of “slow burn”, whereby professionals facing hardship gradually use up their economic resources and social credit in a way that does not show up in figures. Indeed, the professional classes will often exhaust all other options before appealing to institutions or public authorities. In the meantime, it’s the strenuous pretence of business as usual.
I will end with a prediction. Gordon Brown’s recession has only just begun. It will leave behind it a terrible trail of destruction. And many people, who never dreamt it could happen to them, will learn more than they might wish to know about the twilight world of the homeless.
NOTE TO MODERATORS.
I REALISE YOU MAY AT FIRST THINK YOU CANNOT PUBLISH WHAT APPEARS TO BE A VICIOUSLY AD HOMINEM ATTACK.
HOWEVER, HELENE IS ANONYMOUS AND IT WOULD BE A DISMAL RESTRICTION OF FREEDOM AND LAMENTABLE DISPLAY OF POLITICAL CORRECTNESS TO ALLOW SUCH A SLY AND BITCHY AD HOMINEM ATTACK WRITTEN BY HELENE X TO BE PUBLISHED WITHOUT ITS RICHLY DESERVED REPLY.
REMEMBER, ‘THE TIMES’ IS A BASTION OF THE PRINCIPLES OF FREE SPEECH.
DON’T LET POLITICAL CORRECTNESS MUFFLE THE TRUTH WITH IT’S STRANGLEHOLD OF MEALY MOUTHED NONSENSE.
Firstly, lets get the chav like stupidity of the childishly anonymous Helen X out of the way with her excoriatingly acid comments about Sebastian doing nothing worth mentioning working in Italy as teacher of English.
What kind of a moron can such a person be ? They must be a real peasant, mustn’t they ?
No, Helene X, I don’t mean Sebastian is a moron for doing ‘nothing worth mentioning in Italy”.
I mean you are a moron for saying such a dim witted, idiotic thing simply as a brain-dead way to produce some demented fantasy of justification to hurl abuse at Sebastian on the basis of apparently doing nothing much because he is teaching English. What an idiot you are !
You are obviously a person of very little brain indeed.
Is everyone teaching English for a living doing nothing much ?
Perhaps if you had paid a little more attention to your teachers and your education and used what little brain you have to realise they were doing one of the most valuable and useful things possible by trying to teach people how to have a brain and use it, behave themselves, be civilised and have good manners and not be destructively stupid nihilistic vandals and so on, you might not be saying such pathetically dim things now.
As for your bitchily acid comment “and what, seriously, are the chances of living off freelance writing in London ?”, it is, frankly an unbelievably thick, ignorant thing to say.
Does this mean you think anyone doing other jobs as freelancers too are just as wrong as you clearly infer ? Or do you reserve your mean mouthed bile in this regard just for writers ?
As most of the writing done for every kind of newspaper, magazine and every other media is by freelancers, thousands upon thousands of them beavering away in their little attics and garrets, I can assure you it can be a seriously lucrative occupation.
At the top of the tree we have the likes of squillionaires J.K. Rowling and Stephen King earning hundreds of millions of pounds for their writing, and at the more humble levels we have loads of busy little ordinary writers earning well over a hundred thousand pounds a year.
Then there is the army of us lesser mortals earning our more ordinary little pittance of a living at the more normal thirty thousand or so a year.
Would that be a little more than you earn Helene ? My guess is, what with your obvious stupidity and lack of meaningful education, you probably are not earning much at all.
But I may be wrong. It could be you are a high earning employee of one of these Banks using their ingeniously immoral guile, fraud and dishonesty to wreck the World economy.
They don’t seem to have cared what kind of unpleasant people they employed to fleece decent people of their money by means of every kind of deceit they could invent.
Perhaps you think it would have been better if Sebastian had been working away in the engine rooms of criminal fraud and dishonesty instead of teaching English ?
Pray tell l us what you think ?
Helene X wrote:
Boz the Blogger, the realities of life were exactly what I was trying to get at. You have to come to terms with them to get by. I didn’t go to Eton and Oxford but I went to not dissimilar institutions, and in my time I’ve cleaned offices, worked in factories, done several (professional) jobs to pay off debt, etc, etc, etc. And I’ve also written lots of articles and a couple of books and never, ever expected to pay the mortgage with that tiny income.
January 7, 2010 4:39 PM GMT
Boz The Blogger wrote:
Just for for the likes of Helene X and other self centred cynics with the inability to understand the realities of life or to have empathy with other people in different situations to their own narrow lives with their blinkered Blairite and Brownite selfish views, I second Gary Andersons comment.
I also have a lot of understanding of what Sebastian is talking about and how easily it can happen as something similar, but also quite different has happened to me and placed me in a remarkably similar situation to Sebastian.
But at least I still ‘own’ a house at the moment but may not for much longer as the evils that the Nasty Blair and Brown Government have inflicted on us all are overwhelming me completely.
More of which later when I have more time to write about them as I now have an urgent appointment with a sledge and two impatient eleven year old Boys who will not wait for me any longer.
January 7, 2010 12:53 PM GMT
Gary Anderson wrote:
Some harsh previous comments here. It is all too easy to fall off the rails of ‘normality’ and struggle to get back on them from a position of poverty.
A strong education does not assures a good job. The last few chapters of Paul Masons book Meltdown are enlightening on this change in society. Getting back to work can be more about your credit history, an unblemished 5 years of residential addresses etc.
It is imperative that society recognises this, and also recognises that people with such a background are not a threat to a business but an asset. They are unlikely to uncommitted to their work having experienced what few more lucky individuals have.
And luck can be all that separates two very different experiences. The sweeping pen of an unseen and unknown manager delineating between those up for redundancy versus retention.
Someone offering a limited period of bread and lodgings for charity or in lieu for a future payment if possible could change this man’s life, offering the short term stability to restore self esteem and allow him to get back on his feet.
A wise bird commented that the noughties were not about income, but about having a good credit rating (so you could borrow heavily). Reach out, if you can, to people like Sebastian. I rather imagine you will find friends for life.
Jane Brown wrote:
The most prescient point in this article is that of Housing Benefit only covering three quarters of the rent. Recent reforms have exacerbated this, in my local area it covers two thirds of the rent for sub-standard housing with anything cheaper an absolute rarity. And this isn’t even London or the south-east.
The recent local area housing rate style of housing benefit will create a huge swathe of homelessness amongst those who might otherwise be well on their way into full employment or training.
And there are other people writing on here about the drain on the state of housing benefit with poor journalism highlighting obtuse examples to support their essentially ideological argument, rather than investigating and presenting the actual or general picture.
Precipitating a housing crisis with create more longterm damage to this country, to the economy, and last but certainly not least to many individuals and families.
Helene X wrote:
Working in Italy doing what? Nothing worth mentioning, apparently. And what, seriously, are the chances of living off freelance writing in London?
Eton and Oxford maybe, but most people put a little more thought and realism into creating a successful career and thus funding a place to live.