Rarely can we witness, at close hand, the stark realities of homelessness in Britain today. Half Way tells the personal story of Director Daisy-May Hudson who, over a year, filmed her own family’s fight to retain their dignity while waiting for council rehousing. But this is not the usual tale of gloom and dependency in an increasingly difficult economic climate.
This is an extraordinary journey of courage and determination, as featured in Huck 53: The Change Issue; a story of family bonds that is both heart-breaking and life-affirming, combining moments of tremendous tenderness and grit with some unexpectedly side-splitting humour.
Half Way, by Daisy-May Hudson
It was a surreal feeling watching my life play out on the silver screen as I sat drinking Prosecco in fancy orange cinema seats during the private preview of Half Way. I could feel my sister’s arm tense and we’d squeeze hands tighter every time she appeared baring her soul to what initially was just me holding a camera but is now a feature film playing to audiences around the UK. Filming your family is an incredibly difficult thing; in those personal moments of despair do you switch the camera off or leave it on? When your little sister, who meets her friends around the corner before school just so they don’t realise she’s homeless, asks you, “Please don’t film tonight”, should you?
My frustration at how powerless we were in that situation answered the question every time. Leave it on. Let them see how deeply living without a home affects a family who has always prided itself on its unity and strength. I was never sure who the “them” would be, but at the time, when all our autonomy was taken away as we walked into the council office to declare ourselves homeless, I felt that by somehow capturing all the bureaucracy, all the unaccountability and all the heartache, we wouldn’t just be Britain’s dirty little secret anymore.
In 2013, after privately renting our house while being on the council waiting list for thirteen years, we were evicted. Tesco, our landlord, sold off its assets and we had to look for somewhere else to live. Despite having lived and worked in Epping, Essex, all her life, my mum could no longer afford the area’s skyrocketing rent and had no choice but to declare us homeless. Packing up all our belongings into boxes, we moved the contents of our house into storage and ourselves into two rooms in a hostel – a luxury compared to families forced to sleep four or five to a room.
Hidden homelessness is the temporary, timeless purgatory between having nowhere to live and waiting for a council house. As an increasingly frightening number of people are unable to buy their own house, or keep up with unaffordable rent payments, more and more families are relying on council housing as the only affordable option in the UK. But with depleting council housing stock, and increasing waiting lists, people are being forced to live in hostels. When hostels are full to the brim, families are put in one-room bedsits. If there’s no room in the bedsits, and the families aren’t considered “vulnerable” enough, their only option is friends’ sofas or cars. This is the reality of the housing crisis and the government’s systemic failures.
Tucked out of sight, the hidden homeless try to carry on their lives as normal. Like most of my friends, I left university with the ‘graduate blues’; I was having the biggest comedown of my life, sharing a room with my mum and little sister. With no Internet, applying for jobs was difficult. I would go to the local library to send my CV to production companies and take a few days “running” work wherever I could get it. When I finally got an internship at Vice, I didn’t tell anyone I was living in a hostel. I’d sashay into work with my fur coat, red lipstick and huge smile, getting in early and staying late, not telling anyone how difficult it was for me to get back to the hostel if I missed the train. Losing our home had affected me enough; I wasn’t prepared to let it seep into my future.
Hidden homelessness means instead of leaving work and going back to a home, we came back to a hostel, unable to wash away the dirt of our daily routine. My mum said she felt like she could never get clean; she would wash our clothes obsessively. Having been conditioned to associate homelessness with shame, it was hard for her to let go of the stigma. She says she’ll never look at a homeless person in the same way, because it’s so easy to get there. But even today, when 93,000 families are living without a home, homelessness is taboo; partly the reason why so few people visited us in the hostel, or asked me how I was.
When we lost our home, my mum felt like she had failed as a mother. She would leave for work at 5am every morning after a bad night’s sleep caused by playing out all the decisions she’s ever made in her head. That’s the problem with our society; it has a culture of blaming the individual and not the archaic, profit-reaping system that allows things like this to happen. This is evident in the “scrounge” narrative that plays out in the media and in politician’s speeches.
Isolation and anxiety became a part of our everyday life. Coming home to the grim, grey walls of the hostel from a long day at work, I would wait to see if my mum was happy or sad. If she was sad, the air felt thick and heavy and we could feel it wherever she went in the room. I knew I would be in for a long night, doing anything I could to make her feel human again. We felt as if we were invisible to the outside world. Hidden in a hostel at the back of Epping Forest, nobody had to think about us. Trying to get answers from the nine-to-fivers at the council, who would leave their job every day and go back to a warm home, was impossible; they didn’t understand our desperation. But in our darkest moments, the camera was always there – so for us, our stalemate wasn’t in vain.
The camera became an extension of me, and we would chat through it. But sometimes when my mum had some fire in her belly, I knew she was speaking directly to her audience: other people going through this, and anyone that made judgements about people like us. We wanted the world to see how badly we were spoken to by the council, from the dismissive and superior tone on the phone, to careless letters telling us they were going to “discharge their duty” to house us because we had supposedly made ourselves “intentionally homeless”.
Recent law changes mean that families are only offered one choice of accommodation, where once they were offered three. If they refuse it, the council no longer have a duty to house them. Council’s are free to make up their own minds as to whether a home or location is acceptable for a family’s needs, but “suitability” is subjective. We were offered a property in an area that would take my sister two hours to get to school, on an estate where there had been recent stabbings of children her age. When we refused, we were told we were going to be evicted from the hostel.
Earlier this year, while supporting a disabled man who was evicted from Sweets Way Estate in Barnet, I saw firsthand the selective reading of evidence provided by doctors. Mostafa and his family were placed in priority bracket four, but as a disabled homeless man, he should have been given somewhere to live immediately. Despite numerous medical reports, the council failed to recognise his inability to walk and they offered him a property without wheelchair access. When he refused the offer, they threatened him with eviction and sent high-court bailiffs. As I watched him being carried out of his temporary accommodation in a wheelchair by men in boiler suits, I cried. This is the violent reality of the bureaucracy that wants to get you out of the system as quickly as possible.
Ultimately, the housing crisis is a giant mess of power play between developers, councils after profit, and people in desperate situations. Homelessness has risen by fifty-five per cent since David Cameron has been in power, and the numbers continue to rise. Since becoming something of an “expert” on the housing crisis, I’m often invited to offer my opinion. Truth is, the government already know how to solve it, but there’s too many people making money from it, exactly the way it is.
We are at a crisis point, but Cameron’s “solutions” are counter-productive – a Thatcherite ideological attack on working-class families who are struggling to live. The housing crisis doesn’t just affect those on the margins, it affects everyone: from people struggling with rogue landlords, to young professionals living with their parents. Housing is a basic human right – and right now that is being taken away.
Every day I wonder why there hasn’t been stronger collective action. Civil rights activist Assatta Shakur said, “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them,” and I agree. But the problem with the people that spoke down to my mum in the council office, or the director of housing who said it wouldn’t be unreasonable for my sister to move schools, or the bailiffs that carried Mostafa out of his home that day, is that they don’t know the profound impact that losing your home has on every aspect of your life.
I only cried once in the whole year we were in the hostel. I felt like if I showed I was upset, my mum would break. In some ways, our ending was a happy one. When we finally got our home, my mum had to go through a process of de-institutionalisation, re-learning how to make somewhere feel like a home, and not to leave little piles of things in boxes everywhere. Like my mum says, “We’re still getting through it.”
I hope that this film, in all its brutal, hilarious and heart-wrenching honesty may encourage more people to demand that every single person in the UK has somewhere to call home.”
This article originally appeared in Huck 53 – The Change Issue.