The Daily Telegraph
I’m 55, with a good career… and homeless
I’ve had a pretty successful career. I’ve written articles and columns for magazines and newspapers for 26 years; presented a TV series and created another; and now have a podcast and two radio shows – one of them on the BBC.
So maybe you’ll be surprised to read that I’m not writing to you from a chichi study in my beautiful Heal’s furnished home; but instead from a table next to my bed in a scuzzy rented studio flat, waiting for the landlord to fix the faulty washing machine I told him about six weeks ago. (I’ve stopped mentioning the mould and broken window frame.)
For a decade, before moving into this flat of dreams, I was one of Britain’s “hidden homeless” – staying with friends, family and strangers.
According to the Government’s Housing Survey 2018-2019, there are two million adults “sofa surfing” and living in “concealed households” in England, and that was before the coronavirus crisis struck.
From March that could be me. I’ve been asked to leave my flat. I will be homeless again. At 55.
Let me unpack this story for you. I worked hard from the age of 18 and, at 35, with no help from Mummy and Daddy, or a partner, I bought my own flat in north London.
After five happy years living there, a neighbour moved in who would swear down the intercom at 3am and harass me on the street – and then my Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
My poor brain just wanted out. So I stupidly sold the flat instead of renting it out, and banked the profit to use as a deposit on the next place I bought.
But there was no next place. Instead, there was the 2008 recession. It took my career as a freelance writer and my financial security.
With work drying up and big grief (Dad died as the recession hit), I ended up living off the flat profits – and found myself back in the world of renting: where a one-bed flat in London (then) cost £1,200pcm.
I relocated to Manchester but missed my home city too much, so I returned to London where the average rent for a one-bed flat was now £1,500pcm. How could I afford that?
I stayed with a friend for a few weeks, then at my brother’s girlfriend’s for five months, after which I found a flatshare. But I moved out after a year, when the landlady rented the other room to a man she had met in the Post Office.
And on it went. In 10 years I moved 30 times; 19 in an especially delightful 24 months. I slept on a stranger’s sofa, and stayed in spare rooms belonging to friends of friends.
Once I had to pack up and move out midweek, as said acquaintance decided she didn’t want her boyfriend in the flat with me. In another – a flat with syringes in the bathroom – I had the joy of a man I’d never met walking into my room as I was naked in bed.
The highlight, though, was the damp, disgusting room I viewed only to be told I would be sharing the only bed with a stranger: “He works through the nights… so you’ll hardly see him.”
I had owned my own home. I had worked incredibly hard to own my own home. And now I had nothing. I was nothing. Surviving like this – firefighting every day – destroyed my self-worth, destroyed my mental health, destroyed my life.
Have you read about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? It’s a psychological five-tier model of human requirements.
And the basic needs – the needs we have to have to survive and thrive – are food, water, warmth, rest, security and safety. I had two of them. Even writing this now makes me cry.
Some of my relationships haven’t recovered from this time. I watched a homeless man on TV once, explaining the worst thing about being homeless.
“People start to resent you,” he said. “They help and then think you’re taking advantage.” He’s right. Some people helped me, beautifully, and some helped me and then punished me for taking their charity.
Three years ago, I moved to gorgeous Hove and started again. I had never stopped pitching and writing – I might not have inherited money when my parents died, but I got their great work ethic – but now I spread my media wings and started broadcasting more.
A new place, stability, some regular work gigs building up nicely. I’d been knocked about by life, but I was back. And then…
And then Lloyds bank delivered quite the sucker punch. In a move I cannot understand, my bank decided I wasn’t handling my account properly – despite that month clearing a third of my overdraft and work coming in – and closed it. Without discussing this life-changing decision with me first.
As one of their employees told me, “they pulled the rug from beneath you”. I complained to the Financial Ombudsman and my next move is to take them to court.
I’m hoping I can pay my legal team in kidneys.
Now my credit rating has been wrecked until I’m 59. That has taken away any chance of ever owning my own home again – and of coming off my antidepressants.
And if that isn’t horrific enough, I now have to find somewhere new to live. How? Prospective landlords will do credit checks (I guess I could pretend to have a heart attack to distract them) and paying six months’ rent in advance (the alternative) will be tough now that coronavirus has gobbled up many jobs.
So what am I going to do in March? (Actually, December. Despite being legally protected by the Covid laws, which say that no tenant can be evicted until March 2021, my landlord keeps sending me texts insisting I leave before Christmas.)
How can I start again? I feel anxious, hopeless and helpless – and worried about my age. Homeowners have security, investment, something to sell if they have to pay for care. They have mortgages that decrease as their earning capacity falls.
They have status and safety. Me? I have a history of working seven days a week and great hair. That’s it.
Today I was asked what I am going to actually do about my housing situation. And I actually do not know. But I am determined to do something to shine a light on people like me.
People who have found themselves with nowhere to live, often through no fault of their own.
I support the homeless charity Glass Door, and took part in its annual (socially distanced) “sleep out” at the weekend to raise money and awareness.
According to Glass Door, homelessness is predicted to rocket because of the economic fallout of Covid. The forthcoming recession will result in many people having their incomes slashed and having to survive in the hand-to-mouth way I’ve had to for years.
You’ll be surprised at who will need help: people like you, if the depression is as fierce as feared and your bank isn’t the listening kind. If it can happen to me – it can happen to anyone.
My credit rating has been wrecked until I’m 59 – how can I start again?