I was in the library in Manchester writing my dissertation when I got a phone call from my mum saying that our landlord had decided to sell off our house in Epping, out towards the Essex end of the Central line. It had been our family home for 13 years. We tried to find somewhere else, but there was nothing we could afford because of the dramatic rise in rents in the area. So I came back from uni, and in between my finals and graduation we put all our stuff into boxes and moved into a hostel – me, my mum and my 13-year-old sister.
Before it happened to me, I had preconceptions about who becomes homeless. Maybe I was a bit naive, but I didn’t think you could go so quickly from such security to having nowhere to live. It was a big shock.
The first hostel we moved into was a converted army barracks. It smelt stale and had really harsh unnatural light. It didn’t feel homey at all. We were lucky enough to get two rooms, so we put all the contents of our house in one room and lived in the other one – all three of us sleeping in one room. We shared a bathroom and a kitchen with another family. There was no internet, so applying for jobs was difficult. All the normality of going to bed, having a bath – it all goes. We were living on top of each other.
My mum loves cooking and a kitchen table is important to her – that’s where we share our day. But in the hostel, her self-esteem was so low that she didn’t cook any more. She was tired and stressed so sometimes we ended up just eating bags of chips, which probably feeds into the negative stereotypes about homeless families. It also affects your mood and motivation: we were eating shit because we felt shit. Living in the hostel definitely affected my mother’s mental health. She felt that it was her duty to put a roof over our heads. She felt like she’d let us down – though of course she hadn’t.
For my part, when I first came back from university I was really upset and felt powerless. I went for a drink with some friends and one of them said, ‘Why don’t you film it?’ I had never made a film before but I was really interested in documentaries, so I started filming. It was a way of taking the power back. The footage at the start of the film is visibly shaky because I didn’t even know how to hold a camera.
I’d been homeless for about three months when I got a job in London as a production assistant. I didn’t tell anyone at work that I was homeless. It was really tiring living a double life, especially because I was filming every evening too, but it’s also what kept me going: at least I was doing something.
I think that one thing to come out of the film is that our situation is nothing to be ashamed of. Homelessness can happen to anyone, and it’s closer than you think. According to Shelter, one in 51 Londoners is homeless. One woman in the hostel was an NHS nurse – she was on an Open University course but struggled because there was no internet. There was a man who worked for TfL living there too with his son.
The figures speak for themselves. The private rental sector is completely unaffordable. My family eventually got somewhere to live because there was a council house that we could move into. More people are relying on council housing than ever, but stocks are depleted. We need to build more. That’s the only way to fix this mess.
Interview by Cath Clarke.