The following is a reflective account, based on the experiences of a family who JustUs was able to support into their new home.
'Adapting to chronic disability is not a linear process from denial to acceptance in which progress can be measured, rather it is in the telling of a unique story that the assimilation of disability into a person’s life is illuminated'[i]
I ponder on these words, heralded by nurse researchers, on an autumnal walk to meet Jane* in the privately rented house she now calls home. Jane has a chronic disability, triggered by a heart attack ten years ago. Together with her three teenage children, she had experienced a traumatic period of homelessness, lasting over a year. I am intrigued to meet her, to gain deeper insights into family homelessness: why had they become homeless and what impact had homelessness had on a disabled woman and her teenage children? I want to hear her unique story.
Breathless from her heart condition, Jane holds onto the hall walls to steady herself as she welcomes me into the cosy sitting-room where her eldest son, 22-year-old Chris, joins us. Jane gratefully exudes how JustUs guided her out of homelessness into this three-bedroomed terraced house where we are now sitting. She wants to share her story to prevent other families from going through what they had experienced. Jane’s other children are now 17 and 15 years old.
“It happened just a week before Christmas in 2015”, she sighs, “…. I was so shocked when the housing team said I was intentionally homeless.”
I consider the Housing Act 1996 s.191 definition of intentionally homeless[ii]. It states that a person is intentionally homeless if,
What could Jane have deliberately done to cause homelessness, I wondered.
Jane eagerly illuminates her perspective. She and her sons had been living in a private rented house for nine years without problems. When her eldest son left school and started work, her Housing Benefit entitlement was significantly reduced. The landlord agreed to a rent reduction of £40 per week for 6 months to be then paid back over an unspecified period. Around a year later Jane had significant health problems and, whilst she was in hospital, her benefits were stopped. Hospital admission had seemingly triggered a domino effect into homelessness! As rent arrears arguably grew to around £2,000, the landlord evicted the family – although the amount that could reasonably be blamed on Jane was a few hundred pounds, hardly enough to be evicted for. Despite housing officers having seen the landlord’s record of a reduced rent agreement, a decision that Jane was intentionally homeless was upheld on review by the Council’s housing team.
Jane sighs, “Nobody listened to me. They didn’t believe me. They were so rude to me, it felt like I was being blamed for being ill”.
Being deemed intentionally homeless holds can be a pathway into rough sleeping[iii]. In Jane’s case, because she had three teenage children, the family was referred by a housing officer to Children’s Services for housing support.
She laments, “I still felt some hope that we’d be settled in accommodation before Christmas.”
Instead, their homelessness situation deepened. Whilst Jane and her two youngest children were offered bed and breakfast accommodation, Children’s Services refused to house her older son Chris, saying they held no duty to do so because of his age – on the cusp of adulthood. In an abrupt response to Jane’s concern about what Chris was supposed to do, the social worker simply exclaimed,
“Go pitch a tent in the park!”
Go pitch a tent in the park
As Jane’s recalls the encounter, her voice fills with anguish, her wide eyes moisten and her face becomes flushed. She still holds the utter disbelief that a professional person could voice a such a comment to anyone in distress.
The leading global organisational thinker Margaret Wheatley[iv] states how it is in simple everyday conversations that we turn to one another to make sense of things. In our conversation, Jane turns to me to make sense of the social worker’s words. Perhaps in the demanding social services world, I suggest, this social worker had become a victim of lost compassion. Compassion …. Shelia Roach[v] in The Human Act of Caring, describes compassion as,
…. a way of living born out of an awareness of one’s relationship to others…. A sensitivity to the pain and brokenness of the other; a quality of presence which makes room for the other.
In her response, the social worker had simply disengaged from the inter-relationship between Chris and the support he gave on a daily basis to the family. It was Chris who offered vital care for Jane, pushing her wheelchair, taking the younger brothers to school, doing the shopping. How would the family cope without him when Jane was in such poor health?
“…. And how,” Jane proclaims “could I allow my child to pitch a tent in the park? As a mother, I wasn’t going to let that happen!”
She reflects again, “Nobody listened, but I was determined to keep my family together.”
Drawing on a resilience born from what Sara Ruddick calls maternal thinking,[vi] Jane sought to generate her own homelessness solution, bridging the perceived gap between Housing and Children’s Services provision for homeless families. She accepted an invitation to use a friend’s caravan; the family lived in it for five months.
“It was small but we were together and that’s what mattered.” She laughs with Chris, as they recall their caravan days, using a paddling pool and a car-powered shower to keep clean, “Just because we were homeless, didn’t mean we were going to be dirty!”, she exclaims.
Amidst the laughter, they recall the hardship: the physical coldness of the caravan as well as the cold stigma they experienced from others. The author, Arthur Frank,[vii] notes that originally, stigma literally meant a physical sign that was marked on the body, signifying that someone was dangerous, guilty, unclean. The stigmatised were expected to go to the margins of society and hide themselves.
This family were already on the edge of society …. and being pushed further into the margins by caravan site managers who became aware that the family were homeless. Chris elucidates, “By staying on the site continuously, we were breaching the tenancy agreement but we had nowhere else to go”. The managers sought to evict them.
Against this hard reality, the health effects of homelessness on Jane’s younger sons became apparent. Peter Vostanis[viii], an eminent paediatrician, has written extensively about the variety of problems encountered by homeless children as a result of the insecurity of their situation. They include physical health problems like developmental delay but also behavioural and emotional difficultie such as hyperactivity, eating problems, sleep problems, depression. In addition, being homelessness means it is less easy to access health and other services.
Jane lowers her head as she slowly discloses that her youngest son begged her not to let the teacher know he was living in a caravan. He was ashamed…. The stigma had taken its toll. “He began to self-harm” … after a pause she clarifies, “He cut his arms with razors.”
Cutting away his emotional pain continued until the family were in settled housing. I resonate with what she is saying as I recall the number of homeless teenagers I have met in local hostels who had self-harmed.
“What changed your situation, Jane?” I ask. Jane suddenly beams with joy,
“The JustUs case-worker. He sat down and looked at all the paper work… silent to begin with, he swiftly said “let’s get acting on this.””
Within days of the JustUs visit, the whole family was placed in bed and breakfast accommodation by the original Housing team who had previously deemed them intentionally homeless – even on review.
“If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know where we’d be!”
Mike takes up the story.
“We received the referral from another homelessness charity who were concerned at what was happening to the family. It was clear from reading Jane’s papers that two approaches to the Housing team could be made.
The first was to challenge the original Intentionally Homeless decision because there was written evidence from the first landlord (above) that a lower rent had been agreed, exactly as Jane said it had - we’re not sure why, but this evidence was not taken into account in the original inquiries and appeal.
Secondly, a fresh approach could be made, which was to make a homelessness application on behalf of Chris, Jane’s eldest son for the whole family. As well as having ADHD, Chris had injured his spine in a work accident resulting in irreparable damage, evidenced by an X-ray. This is the approach we took.”
“The homelessness application was accepted and all the family were then accommodated by the council in temporary accommodation (TA). It was grotty with mould and damp throughout (pictured left) – but four months after the application was triggered, the family were placed in private rented accommodation.”
Sitting with Jane and Chris now in their private rented accommodation, we continue to try to make sense of what the family had experienced over the past year or two. Jane’s disability has increasingly impacted on her life. She uses a wheelchair outside. She is regularly seen at a regional hospital and awaits a mitral-valve replacement – if it becomes safe to perform one. The impact of disability on her life is clear but her unique story has almost exclusively centred on the raw situation of homelessness that nearly split her family apart. To conclude our dialogue together, I ask her to summarise the worst moments of being homeless.
“Not being listened too by anyone….” she asserts, and afterwards continues, “…except for JustUs. They still support us with repairs and furniture. It’s been amazing.”
Then, after a short but deep pause, a sting-in-the-tail emerges.
“Actually, do you know what the worst moment was? It was the day the children’s father rolled up to the caravan in a new sports car! He said that living in a caravan was like being on holiday’. I’ve never felt such anger, such hatred. He could have saved us from all this but he didn’t.”
The ethics surrounding homelessness hangs heavily in the air: the political, the professional, and the personal. Yet, the ethical demand in homelessness is clear: to care enough to engage with its suffering, to help to alleviate it. The Dutch philosopher and theologian Logstrup[ix] poetically sums up the ethical demand when he says,
Herein lies the unarticulated and one might say anonymous demand that we take care of the love which trust has placed into our hands.
Clearly, the ethical demand in homelessness is a challenge for us all.
8th November 2017
The early morning November mist is clearing as I make my return journey to Jane. We have agreed to meet to review ‘A mother's journey through homelessness’ so that Jane can amend details which I may not have accurately grasped. It adds coherence in the form of face validity to the process of writing a narrative about this family’s homelessness journey.
Pleasingly, she feels the family’s homelessness story has been captured very well and adds, “It feels surreal, as if it has happened to someone else, not us.” Her words remind me of the work of Lea Gados[x] a nurse and artist who painted her patients’ trauma within the context of their life journey and then reviewed the painting with them. Gados notes how, as the patient watched themselves through the artist’s eyes almost as a bystander in their personal story, the therapeutic journey was advanced. They began to view themselves more easily as survivors, not victims. Jane is doing the same today; she strongly sees herself and her children as survivors. She notes,
“Being homeless has made my children stronger, better people… they’ve survived the rougher side of life and won’t turn their noses up at other homeless people. My youngest son is supporting someone at school who’s fostered. If he hadn’t been through this, I doubt if he could do that in the same way. We’ve got through it – and it’s made us more sensitive to the needs of other people.”
Jane’s humbling words conclude this family’s homelessness story. Much like the opening quote in this narrative account, I muse that it has been in the telling of her unique story that the assimilation of homelessness alongside Jane’s disability has been illuminated. As Jane lingers with the good that has emerged from their unique homelessness experience, I recognise that this family are moving graciously on in the healing of their homelessness trauma.
– Dr Maria Fordham, 2018
*The names and certain details of this account have been changed to ensure the anonymity of the family, but the substance of the account is accurate.
[i] J Adv Nurs. 2006 Aug;55(4):457-64. Acceptance and denial: implications for people adapting to chronic illness: literature review. Telford K1, Kralik D, Koch T
[ii] Arden A. Orme E, Vanhegan T. (2012) Homelessness and Allocations 9th Ed HMSO, London
[iii] The council has a duty to provide temporary accommodation for as long as the authority thinks is reasonable for the applicant to get accommodation
[iv] Wheatley M (2002) Turning to one another Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco
[v] Roach S. (1992, p2) The Human Act of Caring, Canadian Hospital Association Press, Ottawa, Canada
[vi] Ruddick S.(1989) Maternal Thinking; Toward a Politics of Peace, Beacon Press, Boston
[vii] Frank A. (2002) At the will of the Body; Reflections on illness. Mariner Books, New York
[viii] Vostanis P and Cumella S (1999) Homeless Children Jessica Kingsley, London
[ix] Logstrup KE. (1997) The Ethical Demand. University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN
[x] Gados L. (2005) understanding Personal Narratives Journal of Advanced Nursing 22 (2) 152-164