How eviction leads to homelessness: ‘My youngest child doesn’t know what a home is’
The single biggest cause of homelessness today is loss of tenancy – in other words, an eviction. An increasing number of these are “no-fault evictions” – meaning the landlord need not give any reason why they are turfing someone out of their home.
This year, a study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research found that 80% of private-sector evictions in 2015 occurred under these provisions, which fall under section 21 of the Act 1988.
A tenant can’t appeal against a section 21 eviction unless they can demonstrate it was retaliation for complaints made about problems in their home and that their home was unsafe to live in. The Guardian has reported on people for reasons as minor as asking for hot water.
The rise in this type of eviction has accompanied an out-of-control housing market that increasingly works in favour of the landlord. In the last eight years, loss of a tenancy has increased threefold. According to the English Housing Survey, a branch of the Department for and Local Government that collects data on people’s housing circumstances, 63% of evictions happen when a landlord wants to sell up or use the property for a different purpose.
After a certain period, enshrined in short-term tenancy agreements, residents can be given just two months’ notice. What happens after that depends largely on luck. Because it is technically an eviction, the tenant may not be looked upon kindly by their local authority – they may even be seen as having made themselves “intentionally homeless”, in which case they won’t be entitled to support from the council and so might find themselves sleeping on sofas or the streets.
If the tenant is lucky enough to avoid that fate, they might get put into temporary accommodation, which varies hugely in quality: a B&B, hostel, or a room in a budget hotel. Families often live in a single room, with siblings sharing a bed, and they may have to share facilities with people they do not know. The wait for a more permanent home can be long. In some boroughs, such as Croydon and Tower Hamlets in London, families have been living like this for more than a decade. Some children will spend their formative years living in accommodation similar to that pictured below. Poppy Noor
Pauline, a single mother, spent her 37th birthday not out celebrating, or even putting her feet up at home, but at the dentist with one of her children. “It wasn’t the greatest of birthdays,” she says. “I feel guilty. He needs root canal work because I haven’t been able to get him to the dentist regularly. I feel horrible about it. The kids are my life.”
Pauline is living in temporary accommodation, a redbrick house in a north resort, with nine children aged between three and 17. She moved to the area from the north-west of England when a relationship broke down. “It was move or risk losing the kids,” she says.
The family has lived in nine houses in six years. Over that period, some of the children have been in six different schools; one has missed three years of education. “It’s not fair on them,” she says. The family was evicted from one private house on a section 21 notice and had just a fortnight to get out.
She says of her youngest child: “It’s been hell for her. She has been in five houses already since she was born. She doesn’t know what a home is, she doesn’t know what stability is.”
Another of her children, aged seven, has been diagnosed as having autism. “It’s a nightmare getting her to adjust when we move. She had meltdowns in school – panicking, wondering what would happen if we were kicked out again.”
Her present house, which the council found for them in June, has five bedrooms and the three youngest have to share a room, sleeping on mattresses on the floor. “It’s hard. I can be fighting with them until 11.30pm to get them to sleep. I have never been able to get them into a proper routine. You get into one and then you’re moving. Everything goes back to square one, over and over again.
“This is a shit-hole, to put it nicely. It’s full of damp. The light in one of the downstairs rooms has broken. It’s full of boxes where our clothes are as well as the freezer, so finding clothes and food is a nightmare.” There is only one bathroom – which has the only toilet, “so bath times are awful when someone suddenly needs the toilet”. Meal times can also be fraught. “I’ve always had the kids sit down at tables until we moved here. Our dining table is in storage.”
Pauline’s health is not good. She has a heart condition, depression and anxiety. But she has ambitions for herself and her children: she will start training as a support worker next year. “I don’t like living on benefits. People think it’s so easy, but it’s not easy at all. I get food in the kids’ stomachs and that’s the main thing. Sometimes, we struggle for things like a pair of shoes. We get by, but I want more for me and for the kids, and it’s hard to get that when you’re not settled.”
Ideally, Pauline needs a six- or seven-bedroom house with two bathrooms. She has just been told she and her family must move again – to a 10th house in six years. She is waiting to find out details of it, but again it will only be temporary. “Everybody needs a home. It’s a big part of children’s development – being at the same school, staying with the same friends, having that sense of security.”
Kelsie and Shaun
The tiny one-bedroom chalet where Kelsie and Shaun are hunkered down on the coast of north Wales would be ideal as a summer holiday retreat. But as a home for two adults, a two-year-old and a newborn baby, it is far from perfect. “We’ve been here four months,” says Kelsie, 25. “It can be cold at night. We’ve got an electric heater, but I’m constantly worried that Phoebe [her two-year-old] is going to fall over and burn herself. I don’t feel it’s safe. We keep getting ill and we’re living in clutter all the time.”
Kelsie’s second child, Cory, arrived three months early and she and her husband, Shaun, put that down to stress. “I’m on edge; I don’t feel happy,” says Kelsie, who has depression and anxiety. A double bed almost fills the chalet’s living area. Beside it is Cory’s moses basket, while Phoebe sleeps in the bedroom. The family lives on microwave meals and what they can rustle up on a portable electric hob in the galley kitchen.
They try to create a sense of normality for Phoebe, sitting her at the table for meals while the adults perch on the double bed. There is no bath, only a small shower room crammed with piles of washing. They work desperately hard to keep the place tidy, fearing they could be thrown out if a spot check finds they are neglecting the chalet. They do not know their neighbours and feel isolated. When there is an event at the Pontins holiday park behind the chalet they hear the sound of people partying and arguing in the car park.
The family’s journey here began when their benefits stopped without warning. At the time, Shaun was not working and Kelsie was pregnant. They were living in privately owned accommodation, but fell behind with their rent and were served with a section 21 eviction notice. “[The owners] told us that, even if we paid the arrears, they would kick us out,” says Shaun, 33. “I think, really, they wanted to put the place on the market.”
The couple were put into emergency B&B accommodation before being moved to the chalet. Shaun has since found work as a labourer and is employed building student apartments in Chester. The couple have worked hard to pay off the rent arrears and are on the housing list. “But we have been told it could be months, perhaps years, before we get a place,” says Shaun. They have been advised to go back to the private sector, but believe their problems at their last place will count against them.
“We’ve got no chance of getting a mortgage and we don’t think we’re going to get a council house,” says Shaun. “We feel stuck here – trapped. The government sold all the council houses and they weren’t theirs to sell. We need a bit more space. We just want somewhere secure for the kids.”
As a young man, Tim worked in a coalmine in Staffordshire and managed to buy a house in Shropshire. But then he and his wife split up and he moved to north Wales so that his family could help him bring up his young son.
“I thought I’d live in my own house for ever, but I had to stop working to look after my son and handed the keys back to the mortgage company,” he says. Now, aged 54, he doesn’t believe he’ll ever own a place again. “No chance. I’ve had it.”
Tim was living with his father, but after his death he was told he had to leave as the tenancy agreement was in his father’s name. He had been working as a labourer at a quarry and as a security guard, but he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. He had his big toes amputated and underwent vein bypass surgery.
Tim moved into a private flat, but when he had to cut his hours because of his ill health, he could not afford the rent. Facing a section 21 notice, he moved out. He briefly lived with a relative until they moved out of the area and ended up sleeping in a car lent to him by his boss at the cleaning company where he now works part-time.
“I spent a week sleeping in the back of the car. I’d park up, get the car warm and then jump in the back under a quilt. I don’t put on anybody – I’d rather sleep in the car than on one of my grown-up children’s sofas.”
Tim is now living in B&B accommodation. He can only work around 11 hours a week because of his ill health. “It’s frustrating. I’ve worked all my life. I used to work more than 80 hours a week. To have to cut it down to just 11 is soul-destroying. I won’t live on the dole. I might be better off if I did, but it’s so boring.
“I’m applying for jobs every day. The GP has said I shouldn’t work because my feet aren’t healed properly. I can’t do it – I’ve got to work. Sitting down all day does my head in.
“I know I’ll never have a home of my own now. I’d just like a little rented bedsit so I can get back on the ladder.”
Siaron, a single mother, keeps the pictures her 10-year-old daughter Caitlin drew as a response to their housing crisis in her handbag. One shows a stick figure crying at a school desk while another is of a mother and child standing outside a house and is captioned – in Welsh – “Where are we going?”
“The uncertainty has been really difficult for us,” says Siaron, 47. “Caitlin was crying at school and couldn’t do her work. She couldn’t sleep. It’s been stressful. You try to keep it all away from her, but she picks it up.”
Siaron and her daughter had to leave their home in July 2015 after a relationship broke down. They found a private two-bedroom bungalow in a north Wales resort, where they enjoyed some sort of stability. On the day her section 21 notice arrived, Siaron had been to a job club to discuss her dream of setting up a company hiring out vintage props. “I was buzzing; then I opened the letter and was deflated,” she says.
Thanks to the charity – which has worked with all the people in this article – eviction day was delayed and Siaron managed to get into band one of the housing list, meaning their need was judged urgent. A housing association home was found, but there was a delay and Siaron and her daughter had to move into B&B accommodation.