The scandal of those in Britain with no shelter at all is well-known, but what of the "housed homeless" and the hundreds of thousands of sub-standard and squalid living spaces in the towns and cities where the poorest try to raise their families?
The tower block stood in a pool of oily water, an island in the scrubby grassland stretching towards seemingly endless blocks of flats - humongous slabs of despair against the granite skyline. It was mid-morning and eerily quiet.
I was, frankly, jittery at the prospect of going up to the 19th floor where I was to meet Mary in her home. The choice was between filthy concrete stairs with the cliché of hypodermic needles discarded among the litter in the stairwell or the insubstantial looking metal lift that smelt of urine and which, had it jammed on its journey to the 26th floor, would have made for an experience beyond terrifying. I opted for the stairs, pausing on the half landings of the stairwell to listen for sounds of people coming, sounds that might indicate whether they would ignore me, be friendly or be dangerously hostile. In fact I reached the 19th floor without meeting anyone.
Mary had the chain on the door and she opened it very slightly to peer at me before the door was opened fully. She could have been a strikingly attractive 24-year-old if her long dark curls had been glossy not lustreless and matted, if the pale complexion had had colour, her blue eyes a spark of animation. In fact she looked weary and depressed beyond measure.
Who’ll watch the kids?
The apartment - home to Mary and her two sons, aged four and six - was a single floor with a narrow hallway off which were two small bedrooms and a living room. A grease-ingrained kitchen was equipped with a cooker circa 1960s and chipboard cupboards whose doors were worn at the away at the edges. The paint on the walls had dark patches where blisters of plaster were erupting; a window in the living room was broken and patched with a sheet of cardboard; damp mould clumped around the ceiling of the bathroom; the boys’ bedroom smelled of damp.
Once Mary began talking she couldn’t stop, a deluge of words telling how she had lived here three years; how the council never responded to her pleas for them to fix the window and the damp; how she was scared to go out after 5pm. And how, in fact, it was difficult to go out whenever she was with the children – “Who would look after the kids?”
To my enquiry - didn’t she know other mothers in the block willing to share a bit of childcare? - she gave me a look of pure panic. “I wouldn’t trust anyone here. No, not the other mums, neither.”
Mary’s husband had gone out one evening a year before and never come back. Her sons had veered between aggression and depression. Today, the elder, inclined to hyperactivity she told me, was running up and down the hall, in and out the bedrooms, impervious to Mary's weary demands that he stop.
“Welcome to my home, welcome to my hell”, was what she said.
Sanctuary and shelter
We assume that those with a home have the support system and sanctuary and shelter offers, but how could I have failed to see that the efforts of this young woman, struggling to bring up her children, were impeded rather than helped by the place she called home. For Mary and the ever-increasing number of people in Britain today who have no choice but to live in the most degraded homes, home does not equate to safety and nurture.
How could anyone say that such accommodation aids the ability to thrive, as the World Health Organisation believes housing should do?
The shocking number of homeless people in Britain is a well-aired scandal, but I am talking here of those who have some sort of shelter but shelter which makes a mockery of the concept of home as a sanctuary and place of safety.
People living thus are known by Shelter, the housing charity, as the “homed homeless”. The charity established during the 1970s homeless crisis, speaks angrily of how much worse the situation is about to become. Its Chief Executive stated: “the dangerous cocktail of cuts to housing benefit and spiralling rents is making finding a decent home increasingly unaffordable for families across the country."
The Housing Report 2, co-authored by Shelter and the National Housing Federation, added: “We are really concerned that government policy to cut the safety net for homeowners at a time of increasing unemployment will inevitably lead to more householders facing the devastation of losing their home.”
And all this comes at a time when government-funded housebuilding is at its lowest for 13 years despite a Conservative Party pledge to “get Britain building”.
When the pressures for the least advantaged become so acute, the support of a known community becomes critical. For Mary, it should be neighbours of longstanding that she can rely on for emotional support. But, hey, for all its flowery talk of Big Society and supporting families, the Coalition Government has introduced changes to housing benefit that result in people who can no longer afford the homes they live in being moved away from their known territory. Those who refuse to leave such support, or work, as they have are likely to be expected to live in crowded or appalling conditions, Shelter has reported.
The worst of everything
Lynsey Hanley, author of the highly praised book Estates has described just what it means to be brought up in the worst of housing, learning young that you are less worthy than others, that somehow this is your destiny. She grew up on one of Europe’s largest council estates - a cluster of inhospitable high-rise flats outside Birmingham. She has no sentimental memories: “It can sap the spirit, suck out hope and ambition, and draw in apathy and nihilism,” she has written.
So let us step for a moment into such a life. Imagine how it would feel to know that if you lived on the lowest of incomes and were reliant on social housing, your children would probably be top of the list for the worst of everything. The Family and Children's Longitudinal study (commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions) conducted over 2001-05, found that children living in the 20 most deprived areas in England were the most likely to experience homes seriously in need of repair. We are talking of rats, mice, mites, crumbling masonry, dilapidated interiors, rising damp, mould, windows falling from their frames and so on.
In its 2010 report Full House: how overcrowding affects families, Shelter revealed that a quarter of children in overcrowded homes were sleeping in living and dining rooms (and in one case a broom cupboard under the stairs). In 2011, Shelter reported that 7.4 million homes in England failed to meet the government's own Decent Homes Standard. As the bottom line for homes that enable children and adults to thrive Shelter listed: “privacy, security, adequate space, affordable costs...”
Researchers from the University of London's Institute of Education and the University of Sussex analysed the progress of 18,000 children between the ages of nine months and five years and reported in February this year. They found that children were likely to have stunted intellectual development if they were exposed to two or more disadvantages, one being living in an overcrowded home.
And yet, politicians are mercilessly quick to turn their backs on such findings. Such failures to reach potential at school are seen as a failure of the child, or the teacher, but not of society. Yet more than three-quarters of families asked have claimed their relationships had been affected by living conditions.
Should those in power ignore the fact that growing children thrust into over-crowded proximity, where frustrations and stress are hot-housed, often feel unhappy with their families?
In his work The Poetics of Space (Beacon) the philosopher Gaston Bachelard talks of home as the place central to our emotional and psychic well-being and describes it thus:
"The importance of home as a place to dream, a place where the imagination can stretch itself outwards, upwards, supple as a gymnast’s body. Our house is our corner of the world … Without it man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life."
Is it right that those in society already least favoured in terms of wealth, employment and health, should also be deprived of such a place?
Angela Neustatter’s book A Home For The Heart: Home As The Key To Happiness will be published 21 July by Gibson Square.