The grim reality of homelessness, sofa-surfing and the sharp end of renting in London

At Z2K we’ve begun a new project looking to amplify the voices of some of our clients. Rose and John co-write this piece detailing John's experiences of homelessness, sofa-surfing, and sharp end of renting in London.

Rose Bernstein and John*

John first became homeless in 1994, shortly after he arrived in the UK. After 3 and a half years in a hostel, he got a flat in North London. When he began studying, he moved to be nearer the university, but the crime in the area was terrible. His brother’s car was robbed, and he was harassed daily outside his flat, so when he finished his studies he left.

After that he was homeless again and lived in his car for more than 2 years. The threshold for getting emergency accommodation is high which means people like John very easily fall through the cracks:

“I went to the council but I’m single and I don’t have any medical issues, so there isn’t much help around for people like me.”

Eventually he was picked up by a housing charity who put him back into a hostel, where he stayed for 8 months until they found him a flat. He was there for 7 and a half years until a key worker told him they generally cater for people with addictions – which he didn’t have – and therefore had to leave.

They helped him find somewhere else, but 5 years later the landlord decided to sell and John was evicted back onto the street. This time it was 4 months before he was referred to Z2K to help him find a flat.

The place he lives in now tiny and he keeps a lot of things in the garden under a tarpaulin, but it’s somewhere. It’s owned by a private landlord, and as John says: “there’s a system where they take old houses and turn them into individual flats with showers, and they get a lot of housing benefit out of it.”

He’s got access to a washing machine and an oven, but he can’t use either unless the estate manager pays for the electricity. The last one never paid and they were left without hot water or cooking facilities, but the current manager is better. Still, it’s not perfect: “we’ve had sewage flood the garden four times.”

For John, the place where’s he’s living feels temporary – even after 3 years. He doesn’t know the area so he feels very isolated, but this is the only place he can afford. He also has no control over who he lives with, and he describes an assortment of other tenants, ranging from the aggressive and threatening to the seriously unwell: “My immediate neighbour was subletting to lots of men who drank very heavily. They slept in lines in his room.”

John didn’t mind but one day he left his door unlocked and someone broke into his filing cabinet and stole his money, his passport, and all his papers. He realised afterwards it was one of the men.

He felt like it was his fault: “I shouldn’t have left my door unlocked. I’ve just always done it I guess.”

The men would ask him to pay their electricity meter, because you needed a smart phone which they didn’t have. He did it for a while, “but one day I got cross – I was sick of doing it – so I said no. The next morning I came out and all my car tyres were slashed.”

He remembers other tenants more fondly: “there was an old lady who moved in, half-blind with leaking legs. I helped her to set up her mobile phone and electricity, and I did her shopping and groceries. She depended on me. Eventually she was moved on to supported housing, but I still visit her.”

John doesn’t mind living with other people, but he would like a choice about who they are – people like him who do the cleaning and sort the electrics when there are problems. He has looked for other places, but they “were horrendous and the smell was terrible.” John talks about the impact on your mental health: “you get demoralised when you’re alone, so I stopped looking really.”

John’s not alone. There are many like him who have come off the streets only to find themselves living for years somewhere that feels temporary and outside of their control. We must build more social housing and make fundamental changes to the private rented sector so that we as society can offer people like John something that’s less like a shelter and more like a home.

*A pseudonym has been used to protect our client’s identity

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