It has recently been suggested that we stop saying “homelessness can happen to anyone” because it somehow obscures the real risk factors and prevents those in power from tackling big structural issues. Shelter Scotland Media Officer Susie Rose reflects on when homelessness happened to her. These views are hers and hers alone.
I’m 41 and the last time I was homeless I was only three years old and yet I can tell you the name of the Inverness District Housing Officer who gave my mum and me a home. He was called Peter. My mum must have told me a thousand times the story of how Peter gave us our first home.
She was the same age as I am now and had had enough of not knowing where she was going to be living. Her father was a farm labourer and so was her husband. By 41 she’d moved house almost 20 times. Having separated from my Dad, lived with her sister and then being let go from a live-in housekeeping job when the widower she worked for remarried, she was more than ready for a place of her own.
After being sent off to view rural houses she’d no hope of being given she realised she was getting nowhere. So, she packed a case and took me with her to camp out in the council’s offices. She told the charming Peter that she’d take the places no-one else wanted so long as she got one now – otherwise we weren’t leaving. Peter told her ‘I believe you Mrs Strachan’ and though he cautioned against the area we were moving to duly handed over keys to a two bedroom flat.
This flat in the ‘bad’ area of town was brilliant. It had under floor heating, good sized rooms, a walk-in cupboard that made an ideal den and a long hallway so big I practiced riding my bike in it. The stair was dark and often smelly from the rubbish chute but inside shone like a new pin.
That flat gave us so much. It was somewhere for mum to start again, reinventing herself as an independent person. The things we lacked were nothing compared to what we had. No-one would come and take that home from us. It was simultaneously nothing special and a kind of public policy magic. The permanence it offered gave mum almost 20 years of stable health and that stability allowed me to receive the gift of education which has been a passport to better work.
Mum told me the story of how Peter gave us the flat the same way someone might talk about a near death experience – a brush with a tiger in the jungle or a bullet that came within a whisker. It was a survival story. If we want more happy endings we need to build the social homes that can give people the foundations they need to thrive.
Today I am married, we both have jobs and we have a place we can afford to live. Exactly the same could have been said for my mum just a few years before she became homeless. Homelessness can happen to anyone. It happened to me. Mum was anyone – not part of a special class of people exclusively destined for homelessness.
No-one is suggesting for a minute that we all have an equal risk of homelessness and while my parents were poor there are plenty of people who have fallen further. What we have in common is the need for a safety net good enough and strong enough for all of us.