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October 20, 2023

Orwell Prize: My journey into homelessness

Last year we partnered with the Orwell Foundation to offer the Orwell Prize for Reporting Homelessness. With the inaugural prize being awarded back in June to Freya Marshall Payne and Daniel Lavelle, both of whom wrote about their own experiences of homelessness, we are pleased to share a selection of entries by people with personal experience of homelessness or about personal stories of homelessness over the coming weeks. 

Living with friends, moving our children into a filthy hotel: my journey into homelessness 

By Barbara Lombert

When we had our first baby it was time for my husband to become the sole breadwinner. Having struggled with authority in his jobs, he had outspokenly ‘burnt his bridges’ and ended up working freelance with sporadic income whilst I worked full time to ensure we could pay the bills. He was a highly skilled and very competent electronics engineer and we went to South Africa in the early 1980s to start a new life. However, just two weeks after our second child was born my husband was told by his manager that if he was so unhappy with the new arrangements they were making, where he would be subordinate to a guy whose mistakes he had just spent a year putting right, then he might as well hand in his notice now rather than later. That meant no 13th cheque or even a December salary and I had to find a job to begin six weeks after the birth of the baby.  

He looked around for work but in the end came up with the idea of buying a motor spares business and that meant selling our home to release capital. We moved to a rented house and he started employing staff to help him cover the trading hours. Sadly he had issues with dishonest staff that he only realised too late. He was late paying bills and his bank foreclosed on his account without telling him. My husband spent a whole month’s salary from my own job in fighting that first case in court, which of course he lost. A few months later we returned home to find two more notices of unpaid bills and we took legal advice. It became clear that if he was unable to pay these bills he would be sent to jail for two months on each account.  

I couldn’t let the father of my children go to jail for something like this, so we bought him and our eldest child one way plane tickets back to the UK at the end of May, nearly three years after we had emigrated. As soon as he had left I spent the next week deciding what we would keep and what we would sell and boxing up our belongings every evening. The following weekend I moved with our baby into the house of a friend. Over the next six weeks I completed two annual tax returns and received the refunds due, sold everything that needed selling, organised removal back to Europe of the things we wanted to keep and held down my full-time job whilst my friend’s maid looked after my baby.

Close friends had kindly offered my husband and daughter a room in their house and my daughter had begun school as a ‘rising five’. When I arrived, they happily absorbed my son and me as well, but we all slept in a small box room, taking it in turns to sleep with one child in the single bed or on the floor with the other child. My husband could not find any work and after two months I was working on temporary jobs once my daughter was back at school. However, our friends could not keep supporting us and we decided that after the October half term we would have to go to the council and declare ourselves homeless.  

With my daughter back at school on that first Monday in November the three of us went to the local authority who, after many hours, advised us they had found us a room at a hotel in Catford, South East London, some 10 miles away around the very busy South Circular Road. We collected our daughter from school and drove to the hotel.  When we arrived there we were given a key to a room. We should have been happy to have a roof over our head but the room was filthy, with thick grease covering every surface and cockroaches under the beds. There was a double bed with a single duvet in a double duvet cover, a single bed with duvet and then another bed to pull out from under the double bed, taking up the remaining floor space. The bathroom had a filthy bath in it that I doubted anyone used and the toilet seat had a complete slit in it, making sitting on it precarious as you were likely to feel the pinch on getting up!  

Access to the kitchen was severely restricted with 10 families using the one facility and two neighbouring houses had been repurposed similarly. We needed to leave to take my daughter to school at 8am to ensure she was on time and the kitchen only opened at 8am so that meant buying milk and some cereal to ensure she had something to start her day. After two nights of this very unsatisfactory arrangement we took our daughter to school on the third day and decided to take her out of school for the rest of the week and drive down to my parents in Brighton for two nights.

Before being made homeless I had done some research on local housing associations and we had secured an appointment with one of them on the Friday of that week. We drove back to South East London for that meeting, hoping against hope that they would have something to offer us.

They advised us that they could indeed house us but not yet, as nothing was available. We called our daughter’s godparents as they had said they would help us if they could. They kindly offered to put us up for a while in South West London. We were lucky as they didn’t have children and we could sleep in beds in their house. I home-schooled my daughter to try and ensure she did not miss out, but without any guidance or support from her school, and of course I was unable to work at that time. Nevertheless two months with small children who have not yet learned that they should not draw on walls or take loose wallpaper off the walls, and other family situations that childless couples always struggle accepting, did put a massive strain on our relationship, eventually breaking it completely.

However, the housing association came good with the offer of a house close to where my daughter had been at school. The only problem was that it had been empty for years and needed a complete rewire. My husband offered to do that if they paid for all the materials to speed things up. For around three weeks he would set off daily all the way around the South Circular Road to the house to work on fitting the new wiring. Finally, we were able to move in for the new year despite only having power upstairs and limited power downstairs. It was easier to finish once on site and friends lent us mattresses and other necessities to tide us over until we could finally ask the removal company to deliver our precious belongings from our former life.

Life wasn’t easy, and our marriage was not strong after all the trauma we had gone through. Just over three years later I knew our marriage was over. I contacted the housing association again and they advised me that if I left the family home they would offer me a two-bedroom flat on a provisional basis but if my husband left the family home they would not rehouse him. He still had no regular income and he refused anyway to leave the children.  What choice did I have? I wanted to share the children but it would not be easy in a small flat and he said it was too unsettling for them.   

But, after our earlier experience, I couldn’t make my husband homeless again. Could I?

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