I used to be married, with a daughter, a home and a job at an investment bank. When my daughter grew up and moved out, I decided to leave my husband and go travelling for a few years.
When I came back to the UK, I really struggled to find somewhere to live. I didn’t have a huge amount of money left and felt embarrassed about calling any of my friends for help. With the little money I had, I forked out for a hostel in London – the cheapest one I could find. When I ran out of money, I moved to a homeless hostel, but at least there I could use their computers to update my CV and apply for jobs.
I did start to get back on my feet, and even got a job which I stayed in for a few months. But by that point my depression had really set in, so my life took another turn for the worse.
High rents and “DSS discrimination” which meant that landlords wouldn’t let to me because I was on benefits soon meant that I was left with no other option but to sleep rough. Fortunately, I had access to a shop store room which closed at 2am and opened again at 7am. It was my saving grace that I knew I had a few hours a night that I could be safe and get some sleep.
The shop also let me register with their address at the doctors, which was invaluable. My mental health was so bad that I was eligible for some sickness benefits, which I used to feed myself through the time I was homeless. There was a gym in South East London too which let me go in and have a shower now and then. But with about four hours’ sleep a night I was tired all the time and became completely isolated.
Filling the time was the hardest thing to do. During the days – from 7am until 2am – I’d get on a bus and just ride around. I’d watch people get on with their lives, and just feel like I wasn’t part of the world. I felt like I’d messed up all my opportunities and was too embarrassed to ask anyone for help.
I couldn’t even tell my daughter where I was living. I was her mum, and she always knew me as the woman who got up at six in the morning and went to work. She would see me in a suit every day. And even though she would say to me, “I know the person you really are,” when she looked at me I just felt like I wasn’t the person I’m supposed to be. I’m just a homeless person.
There are a lot of preconceptions about homelessness – drink and drugs, and that it’s the person’s own fault. But a lot of it is to do with money. People just can’t afford the rent and then they find themselves homeless. But still, you’re made to feel like scum.
I was so embarrassed and my depression was so bad, it took my 18 months of sleeping rough to finally ask for help. My doctor had been on my case because it’s so hard to stay well when you’re homeless and I had a lot of health problems. So I just thought, I need to do something.
I rang Shelter who said to come down straight away, and they helped me immediately. I was put in temporary accommodation for a few weeks. Then Shelter arranged for me to view a few different properties, before finding this place I’m in now, where I’ve been since July.
My home is a little gem really. I love it so much I don’t even like going out now. I don’t have lots of money, but I try to make it nice.
I still can’t stop thinking about myself as the homeless person though. I’m not confident enough to go into an agency and ask them to find me a job. How do you say to someone that you’ve been walking round London and sleeping in a store room for 18 months. I’m 54 now, but I’m slowly trying to join in with life again.
It’s silly things like doing my washing or making my dinner that make me so happy – you don’t realise how much you take for granted. Even paying my council tax is something I like doing now! I feel like I’m back in society a bit.
I’m looking forward to Christmas. I spent last Christmas in the shop but didn’t celebrate or anything. I just sat there – it was just another day. But this year I’m going to have Christmas dinner and ask my family for something for my new home, like a toilet roll holder or something. It’s going to be great. And hopefully it’ll be snowing.
To find out more about Shelter, please visit www.shelter.org.uk
- To report a rough sleeper call 0300 500 0914 or visit Streetlink