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“It’s all gone… it’s still a huge shock”

 The Big Issue UK 10 October 2019

Paula Daly earned £50,000 a year before the recession left her with nothing. She is just one victim of a deepening crisis pulling Britain’s middle class into homelessness. Adam Forrest talks to those at the centre of the storm, as UK street paper The Big Issue starts its fight to keep people in their homes. (1756 Words) - By Adam Forrest


BI Scotland_It’s all gone it’s still a huge shock

The Powell family. Photo: Rebecca Bernstein

Paula still has the tiny paper ticket that defines her personal downturn, her own ongoing financial crisis. Handed to her one year ago in a council office, it looks like the slip given out at the supermarket deli counter - but alongside the string of numbers is just one word: homelessness. She keeps it in a frame as a memento.

Before her life took "a surreal turn", Paula was earning around £50,000 a year as a communications and marketing consultant. She had also set up a boutique clothes store, Mouse to Minx, but the credit crunch forced her to shut her shop in Bristol and run the business online.

By the beginning of 2009 the bank had foreclosed on her business loan and her government consultancy contracts had almost completely dried up. Without work she struggled with her mortgage payments. In the summer, the bank started repossession proceedings. By the autumn Paula had lost her home. After a year of relying on a friend to cover deposits on rented accommodation, and without any family to fall back on, aged 47, she descended to a low she never imagined possible.

"I suppose people have an image of a rough sleeper in a doorway," she says. "But I found myself, despite being an accomplished professional, classed as a rough sleeper with no fixed abode during a very cold November. A very kind lady let me sleep on a mattress in her attic that winter.

"I had owned a beautiful home, worked hard, hadn't spent on cars and holidays. The amount of hours I put in was unbelievable, and I was successful by my own standards. And that's all gone now and nobody wants to know. It's beyond belief. To be honest, it's still a huge shock."

Like many people experiencing repossession, Paula has been unable to find a reputable letting agency willing to overlook the blemishes on her credit history. Since the start of 2011 she has been renting "a dump" of a flat in Bristol, in a building in which she feels the need to double-lock the door.

"It's not the best of times," she concedes. "I feel like a crash-test dummy for a lot of the country's safety-net systems, which I've found lacking. I'm utterly shocked by the council's lack of engagement with repossession. When I was going through that their approach was, 'Well, let's wait until you've lost the house'. Emotionally, I think I've been damaged by the whole experience. It's certainly going to haunt me, at least until I can feel secure again - and I don't know when that's going to be. To not have somewhere that feels like a home… I struggle to articulate the distress it causes."

Paula's is an anxiety being felt by many people who are unaccustomed to hardship. Our generation has grown used to the idea that property is the great wealth creator. Instead, unemployment, repossession, cuts to housing benefit and the rising costs of living mean people previously insulated from Britain's housing crisis are forced to worry about where they will be sleeping by the time their next bank statement arrives.

Last month's report by the charity Crisis, co-authored by academics at York and Heriot-Watt universities, warned that middle-class homelessness would be much more visible in the near future. There is already an alarming trend toward what the charity calls 'hidden' homelessness - where whole families are forced to stay with friends or squeeze into one room, or take on more debt to keep a roof over their heads. Crisis says 630,000 households across the country are now overcrowded.

For some, the changes forced by the downturn have been sudden and traumatic. Up until 2008, Lucy Cusack was working as a highly-qualified A&E nurse, while her husband, a building contractor, was earning six figures annually from lucrative development in Ireland. "We had a nice five-bedroom canal-side house in Hertfordshire and a couple of flats we rented out," she recalls.

"I was driving a Mercedes and having a holiday once a month, living the high life. When the Celtic Tiger economy broke down my husband was owed money and the people who owed him said lending had been withdrawn. As the property market crashed our houses got repossessed and sold for a lot less than we bought them for."

Following the breakdown of her marriage and the subsequent loss of her home, Lucy attempted suicide and spent a year recovering in emergency housing, receiving 24-hour care and treatment. For the past two years she has been living much more happily at a sheltered flat in London managed by the homeless charity St Mungo's. She runs a gardening group in Camden and, having just qualified as an acupuncturist, she wants to start a social enterprise to look after the health of the most vulnerable people in society.

Although Lucy sounds remarkably positive, financial problems have refused to disappear. She finally declared bankruptcy a few weeks ago. "At one point I worked out I was £980,000 in debt," she explains. "I went bankrupt for a £300,000 shortfall. Funnily enough, I actually had to save £500 because it costs that to declare yourself bankrupt. It is strange not having credit and wondering how it's going to affect the rest of my life. But at the same time, it feels like a weight has been lifted. I've seen quite a few heavies at the door telling me they want my assets. That's behind me. I'm not a debt slave anymore."

"Since recovering from my breakdown, I've realised I was living the life everyone wanted me to live," Lucy continues. "Since I hit rock bottom, I've actually been creating a new life - the one I want to live. I was quite materialistic, so I suppose it's a profound turnaround. I don't want to be marked by what I do for a living, what I have. Now I want to be known for who I am. I see friends with mortgages and I'm not at all envious."

The stories Paula and Lucy have to tell are not exceptional. Many of the organisations providing emergency accommodation across the country have told The Big Issue there is now a small but steady flow of former professionals and families in dire need of help. In most cases it is those who can no longer meet rent demands in the private sector (recently slashed housing benefit has not helped), and find they cannot advance on long council waiting lists for social housing.

Jenny Edwards, chief executive of homelessness umbrella body Homeless Link, explains that people just about holding it together independently for the past couple of years are now reaching rock bottom. "There is quite a long lag with people who have lost their job, who might have redundancy pay, might have some savings, or take out more loans, or call on friends and relatives before they show up as homeless statistics. That's why we're seeing the beginning of it now, which is why we have to be prepared and not act shocked. I'm afraid it'd be a miracle if we didn't see more of it."

In Cambridge, Brian Holman, manager of the city's Cyrenians charity, says someone who used to take home a six-figure salary had recently been staying with them in sheltered accommodation. "We'd never seen people like that before," he explains. "We didn't see the impact of the downturn in 2008 and 2009, but we can see it's really starting to have an impact now. We have a few from a background where, previously, we'd have expected them to be able find an alternative. We hope we can move them on quickly because the advantage they have is being better able to secure a new job, even if it is very low-paid and not the kind of job they would have secured in the past. I'm sure it's inevitable we'll see more of this because of cuts to the housing allowance. There's a lot of pressure on people in private rents."

There have also been substantial cuts to the Supporting People grants given to organisations that provide accommodation for homeless people since the coalition ended ring-fencing of the grants. Some hostels are struggling to cope with cuts of up to 60 per cent at a time when greater numbers of people are knocking at their door.

Two-thirds of homelessness organisations say there has been a rise in rough sleeping in their area. And since council house building remains depressingly sluggish, protecting people in the private-rental market is now more important than ever.

Some families are struggling to cope even when they enjoy steady, if low-paid, employment. Angie and Martin Powell found themselves at a loss when their landlord in Cornwall decided he wanted the house they lived back for his own children. Although Martin has been working for many years in a Newquay restaurant, he, Angie and their two young children, Jack (13) and Thalia (8), were forced to go into B&B for almost a month back in 2007.

"It proved virtually impossible to find anywhere we could afford and we'd already been on the council list for eight years," says Angie. "Two days before we were to move out the council said, 'You're going to have to go into bed and breakfast'. It was a bit of a shock - you don't want your kids to be living in a B&B. We tried to make it as much of an adventure for the kids as we could, but they do understand now that it was the time we were made homeless."

Although the Powells have benefited from an accommodation scheme run by their local Chapter 1 charity, which provides a secure tenancy, Angie remains puzzled and frustrated by Britain's dysfunctional housing market.

"Rents are way out of proportion with wages in Cornwall," she explains. "Families like ours are priced out. We don't feel alone; lots of families are going through it - I know it's a huge problem. You always think homelessness happens to other people but it can happen to anybody. It is happening. When I used to think of homeless people I'd think, 'They brought it on themselves'. You go through it and it changes how you think. It's given me a lot of empathy."

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