extract – being homeless

B&B accommodation and a council flat.

Eventually I stabilised on medication at hospital and then got somewhere to stay. I bumped into someone who worked at the Citizens Advice Bureau one day and he was certain that as I had recently been released from psychiatric hospital and was homeless, the local council had a legal duty to help me. I had no shoes and was walking the streets in just socks; my feet had blisters. (I think the shoelaces taken from me at police stations were not returned and then the shoes came off easily and I lost them.) My mum had come up to help – somehow, she found me. Maybe she collected me from a hospital or a police station. We stayed with Lucy’s mum for a few days, who was very helpful, and Marta bought me a pair of trainers.

With the CAB advice in mind, we went to the Lambeth Law Centre and what we had been told was confirmed, that the council was obliged to house me. After the interview, the solicitor gave me a compliment slip with their contact details.

The next day after going back to Lucy’s mums in Walthamstow we went to join the queue at the Lambeth council homeless service. Although we got there at 9am sharp, we weren’t seen until the end of the day. The man at the counter asked why I couldn’t stay with my mum. Marta replied that I was going back to college and moving to Bristol would mean I’d have to give up the printing management course I was half way through. He wasn’t impressed by this and persisted with his argument that I had somewhere to stay, though my mum didn’t have a spare bedroom or even a sofa for me to sleep on.

Then I remembered the comp slip from Lambeth Law Centre and I pressed it up against the glass window separating us, showing him the details. I said, ‘These people told me to see you.’ Immediately his attitude changed, he went to see his manager, came back after a few minutes and said, ‘Yes, we will help you with accommodation.’

My mum was very pleased but I was not at all reassured because I had heard about people being stuck in horrible B&Bs for years and years and I dreaded the prospect. I had been phoning places up, trying unsuccessfully to rent a room, but I still wasn’t well enough nor stable enough. I was given vouchers and the address of a B&B in Pimlico; despite my worries, I had no money for a deposit so I had to go along with it. I was pleased to be given somewhere to stay and a roof over my head, but I was petrified that I would be in a B&B for years.

The B&B was called Hotel Diana and had a landlord called ‘Mr Beg.’ I arrived there late that evening with my mum. I think she was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. Before saying goodbye, she warned me that I needed to continue to take the medication, that it was vitally important to stay well. I had such a low opinion of myself; it was demeaning to me, that I had to take medication just to be stable like everyone else.

My room in the B&B was a tiny box room on the ground floor, which had very old fashioned decor with dark wallpaper and dark maroon curtains. There was one small bed, a small old fashioned TV, a wardrobe and chest of drawers but no desk. All the electrical sockets were the two-pin foreign old type so you couldn’t use your own electrical equipment.

The breakfast was the stingiest breakfast imaginable: Two triangles of toast- one poached egg but the butter to spread on the toast was a measly thin 20mm x20mm square. No matter how thinly I spread it I couldn’t make it cover the two triangles of toast. Sometimes ants crawled along the dining room table. There were no other residents there, save a mother and two children but they couldn’t speak English so I didn’t have any company.

There was nowhere to shower. I had to wash using the basin in the toilet outside of my room. I could have a bath but had to ask special permission to use Mr Beg’s own bath. As you can imagine, I wasn’t that keen. But the absolute worst thing about living at the B&B was that I had to be in every night by 10pm and have the register signed each day. Mr Beg explained that if a Lambeth council housing officer visited and I wasn’t there, then I would lose my right to future accommodation and be chucked out, (because if I was elsewhere this supposedly meant that I had somewhere to stay) which consequently meant a severe restriction on my life. Mr Beg took pity on me and he was at least understanding about the unfairness of this so that he offered to sign to say I was there when I went to see my mum at Christmas.

I was desperately lonely, and I felt low and insecure from the come-down from the high I had experienced being manic. Marta, and Dad came to visit me once separately, right at the beginning of my moving in but I didn’t see many other people as I’d lost most of my friends due to my previous disturbing and sometimes aggressive manic behaviour.

Gradually I got used to being at the B&B and started to feel more comfortable there. I intended to go back to college but on my first day back it was evident this was not going to work as I sweated and shook physically from the medication. I also found the amount of college work I’d be doing intimidating. There was nothing for it but to ask for a year out and I thought maybe I could work instead for the year. I asked for references from college. I thought it would be helpful if I could try and get a job in the printing industry whilst I took a year off and I managed to obtain an interview. I had to try and sort out something suitable to wear and to be smart and this meant getting my ironing board. Dad had come up to London and helped me moved my stuff from the squat and into the council storage. Other people’s areas at the storage centre had beds, wardrobes, cookers and fridges and the like. My little allotted square was just a pitiful table, a chair, a mattress and a few bags of clothes & books plus the ironing board I now needed. I got the iron and ironing board out of storage and carried it on the bus back to the B&B.

Mr Beg then refused me permission to use my own iron and ironing board. I was annoyed and frustrated by this. He said I could only use his iron in his room and he even insisted on charging me 35p per item ironed for the electricity, which I thought was extremely petty.

After all that preparation, I didn’t get the job. Perhaps the interviewer thought I was selling myself short for asking for a low wage as he had asked me what I think I should earn. Maybe he wasn’t interested in hiring a young woman; given the considerable prejudice against women in the printing industry, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Or maybe I still looked shaky and unconfident, I am not sure, but it was disappointing.

To keep myself occupied and to help me talk to other human beings during the day, I enrolled for some adult classes at the local school opposite the B&B. I chose Spanish, Typing, Maths and Karate. I wrote out a timetable for me to do the work and decided to try and be positive about learning until I got a job.

Only a couple of weeks later, I saw a job in the job centre I was eligible for: Administrative Assistant in the Department of the Environment as only three ‘O’ levels were required. As I had the distinction in the BTEC national diploma in Business Studies, I thought this should suffice. I was offered an interview.

I paid my £1:05 to use the electricity to iron my interview clothes, went along and I was offered the job. I discovered years later, when I obtained my medical file, that they had contacted my GP to check that I would be okay as I had revealed that I had had a nervous breakdown on the form. Luckily for me, my GP said I should be fine.

The admin job at the Department of the Environment meant finally I had some regular income coming in so I cleared the debt that I had amassed when unwell. At the B&B there weren’t any cooking facilities available for the residents and having an off licence opposite meant I ended up buying bottles of lager and chocolate far too often. I put weight on and got spotty. But now I had a job I could go to the work cafe and afford cooked food.

I had to give up the day classes but I could at least continue with the evening typing course. At the class, when we were typing out our CVs, I wrote my address and the woman next to me in the class suggested I drop any reference to the B&B for prospective employers, which was embarrassing. She pointed out that having a B&B for an address would reveal that I was homeless and or without a stable base. However, I learned to touch type at this class, a skill which later proved very useful.

Regrettably, the job at the Department of the Environment turned out to be pretty monotonous as I had very little to do. My tasks comprised of ordering stationery and organising and distributing press cuttings, but that was about it. Also, it was for a project I didn’t even agree with: the privatisation of water. However, having the job meant that my overdraft cleared and I felt more like a member of society. I enjoyed talking to people at work and felt accepted because although we didn’t have much in common, the other colleagues were friendly and we got on okay. This improved my well-being because as I said I didn’t have many friends left.

I had a friend called Paul who was one of these few friends and he was very accommodating. I’d met him through Gina. I’d go up to his flat in Islington regularly and we’d hang out listening to music. Paul had an unusual background, he went to school in Uruguay, Tanzania and England and University in California, before settling in London. He was empathetic about my breakdown and I stayed in his room and relaxed often, not worrying about having to talk.

Whilst I was at the B&B I heard my dad had had a nervous breakdown; this, at least, is how his former partner had put it. I instinctively thought he had attempted suicide. It turned out this was correct. Like me, he had also gone to a bad place. He had effectively been constructively dismissed and he believed he had lost his new relationship too. He was living in a flat on his own. One day he cut his wrists and took an overdose. Maurice, a long-term friend of his from school, then phoned Dad to remind him they were due to go out for a drink and was wondering why he hadn’t shown up. So, Dad answered the phone, didn’t want to let his old friend down and so went out had a drink with him having wrapped his wrists with bandages. The mixture of the alcohol with the tablets Dad had taken made him vomit, and so expel the lethal concoction. I am forever grateful to Maurice because his actions saved my Dad.

Poor Dad, I felt for him. I knew what it was like to feel your life is not worth living anymore and think that people would be better off without you. We had both taken a big tumble at the same time.  Dad however managed to bounce back from this quite quickly though, without medication or therapy and he soldiered on.

I started driving lessons again, something I’d been meaning to do since abandoning the driving lessons at Greenham Common and then at Tufnell park when I wasn’t well. I found the perfect instructor, a confidence-inspiring woman.

Gradually I got better and I even started seeing someone, a self-assured woman I met in a nightclub but I wasn’t quite up to sex. That was a step too far, too scary and still a psychological minefield and I was unable to do anything more intimate than kissing. But it was nice to have someone to spend time with and be close to even though it fizzled out after a couple of months as she lost interest in me.

I asked the doctor at outpatients if I could come off the lithium as I was convinced it was making me feel very low. She refused to sanction this but she said some people do come off it and never have another manic episode again. I contacted a Lesbian and Gay organisation that provided counselling and was told someone would contact me two weeks later but for some reason no one ever did and I didn’t chase it up. I was allocated a new psychiatrist who I didn’t warm to in the slightest as he was distant and standoffish. He said I would be very likely to have another manic episode if I came off the lithium abruptly and that I’d be back in hospital within six months. I didn’t want to hear this. I ignored his advice and stopped taking it as it was making my world so grey and miserable.

The Department of Environment admin position was so boring that despite finding out in February that with the qualifications I had I could be in a higher, better paid position, I decided to leave and work as a cycle courier. I got a position with a successful courier company – called ‘On Yer Bike’. They had so many clients over a small geographical area that I could pick up more than one package, take it to an address and then pick up two more packages at that address. I was rarely ‘empty’ – I got a tremendous amount of satisfaction from the job, I liked the people and I felt like I was achieving something useful.

I returned from work one day to a major upheaval. I was told by a strange woman I hadn’t seen before at the B&B that Mr Beg had had a heart attack, was in hospital and that I had to leave the B&B immediately. Shocked by this terrible news, I was then jolted into action, into auto-pilot mode. I used the B&B phone and called the Lambeth Council emergency line. They said they would call me back. I waited anxiously. Half an hour later they called and said there would be a taxi arriving in an hour to take me somewhere else and they instructed me to pack my belongings.

I ran out to the grocery shop nearby, bought some bin liners and put all my stuff in them. I also had my ironing board to take. The other family went off in a different taxi. I explained to them the best I could what was happening. My taxi then took me to a B&B in King’s Cross which I had been told would be expecting me.

No such luck. When we arrived, the people at the B&B said they had no knowledge of my arrival at all but the driver didn’t care, he had done his bit and he just dumped all my stuff on the pavement. The front door was shut. I was left standing with all my belongings in the black bin liner bags on the pavement in King’s Cross, late at night with nowhere to go, I felt abandoned yet again. I rang the bell on the door of the B&B hoping to speak to someone about the situation. The B&B manager decided to let me stay for the night and said he would ask Lambeth Council about my situation in the morning. It did thankfully get sorted out the next day.

This B&B turned out to be far superior to the place in Pimlico. It had white walls and blue curtains and there was a lively, friendly young crowd staying there. You could also have cornflakes in the morning and toast. Such luxury. Breakfast was an enjoyable experience and people were upbeat. The only downside was that the TVs were coin operated. You’d be watching something good on telly and then without warning the screen would suddenly go black, which was annoying. It was common for residents to be asking others for 50p pieces at all hours.

After six months of living in a B&B, the housing team at Lambeth Council called me to inform me they had somewhere for me to live. I was ecstatic. I had had visions of being in a B&B for years, this was much quicker than I had thought. The housing team said I had three choices but not at the same time: if I turned down the first then I couldn’t change my mind on seeing the second place. I accepted the first choice, I knew I wouldn’t want to be in the position of turning one place down only to be offered one I desired less.

I contacted the solicitor at Lambeth Law centre and thanked her for all her help as she had been persistently writing letters to Lambeth Council for me, after it had been confirmed by my GP that I had been severely mentally ill requiring hospitalisation.

I collected the keys and went off to see the place in Brixton. It was a ground floor flat in a Victoria conversion. It looked okay, a bit dark inside but when I unlocked the door to my flat inside the communal corridor I was a bit disappointed. It was obvious that the council had just evicted a family, and very recently. There were personal items lying around, toys, clothes in the washing machine, even food had been left on the sideboard. It was upsetting to think I’d partly been responsible for their eviction.

The flat was also in dire need of repair. Floor boards were missing, there were big holes in the walls, the bathroom window was completely rotten and there was mould in the kitchen. I made a list of all the repairs needed and reported them. I also informed the council of all the items of furniture, the sofa, bed, wardrobe etc., which had also been left behind and that there were two enormous old TVs and a bath in the garden. Three months later, I was told all the repair works had been done and that I could move in. I turned up to view again, excited, but was dismayed to discover that only the furniture which was in good condition had been removed, probably because it was sellable.

The TVs and the bath were still in the garden and there were many repair jobs outstanding but I was just so desperate to leave the B&B that I could wait no longer. I accepted the flat and signed the forms. The rent was only £17 a week. It might have been in a terrible state but it was affordable and more to the point, it was now my place, my very own place. I was supremely grateful to Lambeth Council for providing me with a home and therefore some stability.

The next day I moved in. I chucked out all the old food, toys and clothes. I opened a cupboard door and was sad to discover a box of birthday cards and wedding cards left behind by the family. I waited a few months, in case they returned to collect them, but then these also had to be chucked, as realistically I had no way of contacting the people they belonged to.

There was no central heating in the flat. I had one gas fire in the front room, in winter months later I would sit down by the fire burning my legs, trying to get warm. I bought a cheap convector heater which worked well in the bedroom and I got dressed straddled right over it trying to get warm. The bathroom was at the extreme end of the flat past a very badly designed kitchen which regularly suffered from a leaking washing machine above. I returned one day from a night out to discover the bathroom ceiling in the bath. I also discovered Victorian conversions don’t tend to work very well in terms of noise, insulation and layout.

Despite this, it was such a privilege to have my own place. I felt like I’d be there forever. When it was later suggested I bought it under the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, I considered it, but I felt that the council had helped me when I desperately needed it and consequently I wanted it to stay council property for the next person.

I had complete control over the bills and everything down to the atmosphere within the flat which was a liberating feeling. Life started to improve after moving in. I felt positive and confirmed with college that I would return to finish the HND in Printing Management that September. Although I was still on medication, it was only lithium now so I didn’t have to suffer from the ‘largactil shuffle’ or twitchiness which had prevented me from returning the previous year.

Notification of my driving test day arrived in the post, set for May 24th. I was given permission to take the morning off work. It went well, when the instructor turned to me at the end and said, ‘That was a lovely smooth drive; You’ve passed,’ tears welled up in my eyes; I was overjoyed. I had passed first time.

I stopped off at a phone box in Clerkenwell in the afternoon, after I’d dropped a parcel off and phoned Marta to give her the good news. She sang ‘congratulations’ to me. I was so happy. It felt like more than an average achievement for me because I had learnt to drive whilst I was at rock-bottom, homeless and living in a B&B with barely any friends. Now I had somewhere to live, a job and had a driving licence. At the age of twenty-two, things were looking up.