Elizabeth* is a working mother in her early forties with a Master’s degree in Design, but for the last three years, she and her family have been homeless in Hackney. She is one of the rising number of professionals with children who have been forced into hostels due to a combination of soaring London rents and frozen wages.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies released a report last October revealing that on average Londoners spend around 40 per cent of their income on rent alone, compared to 28 per cent elsewhere in the country. The report also revealed that in 2008, the amount of income spent on private renting sharply increased by more than five per cent. This is around the same time Elizabeth said she noticed a change in the renting market.
She and her husband initially had a nice one-bedroom flat in Hackney, a car, and felt comfortably well off. But the arrival of their child four years ago changed everything.
“We had a good standard of living,” Elizabeth told EastLondonLines. “I never thought for one moment that we wouldn’t be able to care for our daughter.”
But with Elizabeth out of work, the family were down to one pay cheque and so sought help from the council with their rent while she was on maternity leave. Only, she discovered that her family were entitled to nothing.
“The person I spoke to mentioned that many families were moving out of London for cheaper rent. It felt unprofessional and so wrong but that’s what we did.”
Her husband was offered a job in Surrey, which included a flat near his workplace. As a result, they were forced to prematurely end their tenancy in Hackney, which lost them their deposit, and were told they had to continue paying council tax to Hackney for the remainder of the year.
After three months in Surrey, her husband had not been paid. His new boss had conned him into working for free, meaning the family had to use the remainder of their savings to live during that time.
“We were paying council tax to two councils, we had bills, food and petrol to fund but no income. We went to the local council but because we had only been there for a few months, they couldn’t help us. We were still the responsibility of Hackney. But we had no money for a deposit on a new place. We had lost everything.”
A recent report conducted by homeless charity Shelter revealed that one in 44 people in Hackney are homeless, making it the tenth worst area for homelessness in England. They estimate around 6,150 people are living in temporary accommodation in the borough.
The report also refers to homelessness as a “trap”, with unexpected costs eating into any money families might save. Elizabeth pays £100 per month to keep their furniture in storage, as well as extortionate fees to the hostel in rent.
The self-contained room they were offered in Dalston cost £260 per week, around the same price as a one-bedroom flat. As a result, all their earnings went straight to the hostel, and made it impossible to save for a deposit. If they had refused the hostel, they would have been classified as making themselves “intentionally” homeless and pushed to the bottom of the waiting list.
“We had no choice but to take this place and accept the high rent,” Elizabeth says.
This is where they remained for three years; three people living in one room. There are no laws restricting the amount of time a family stays in a hostel so there was little they could do. No visitors were allowed, which meant one parent always had to be there to look after their child.
“We both worked part-time,” Elizabeth says. “We never saw each other, or only briefly when would meet at the tube to hand over the child while the other went to work.”
The family was eventually offered permanent residence in a two bedroom flat just before Christmas, and although it had no furniture, cooker or fridge, at least they had space: “My daughter is so proud of our new home. She had to sleep on the floor in a pile of clothes for a while, but we can have visitors and she loves to show them around. She has her own room for the first time and has laid out her toys.“
It’s the little things you used to take for granted, Elizabeth says, that are the best – like having someone round, or being able to relax on your own: “My favourite thing now is to read a book in the evening. I don’t have to worry about the light keeping anyone awake. I can just read. “
*name changed to protect identity.