The first Guest Editor post from JustUs is written by 14-year-old Kieran and powerfully describes the often overlooked impact of homelessness on children.
My dad fought for years to win custody of me. When he went to Father’s For Justice they told him, ‘you’ve got no chance mate’.
But he kept fighting, learning court etiquette as he went up against solicitors, learnt his rights and proved to social services he was a good father.
With all that time and money the system spent on the case, with all the professionals sent in to try to demonise my dad, the moment he got custody of me everyone disappeared, but it had taken a huge toll on him.
He held it together but became very disillusioned, and it made it all the harder to keep meeting the demands of all the bureaucrats acting on our life. Dealing with it when you’re down is much harder than you realise, the system is so cold, so sly.
Homeless in London
We became homeless in London because my dad couldn’t afford the rent. I spent my 12th birthday at a foodbank there – an old lady volunteering there gave me some money.
So we came to Bedford where my dad is from, where we have family.
When we went to the Council we thought we’d get some empathy, but were kept waiting for ages in the Customer Service Centre, even though we could see no one else was being seen by the officer.
When we were finally summoned into the interview room the officer took one look at me and said to my Dad, as if I wasn’t there, “well, this isn’t happening, I won’t deal with you whilst he’s in the room”.
My Dad asked her what she was going to say that I couldn’t hear, but she insisted, sending me out back into the waiting area.
I don’t know what I felt, but the security guard there was great, he stayed with me, I could tell he was looking out for me and was picking up on my stress. He didn’t understand why I couldn’t be in the room.
After 10 minutes I just wanted to be with my dad, I knew how hard he was trying. The security guard talked to some colleagues who rang through to the officer and told her that I should be let in.
When I went in the Housing Officer acted like we were the ones being unreasonable, I got the feeling straight away that she would not help – she just wanted us out.
She was asking for loads of documents my dad didn’t have on him – who carries a residency order around with them anyway? But she said she couldn’t help unless my dad gave her all the paperwork – I genuinely thought we were going to be sleeping rough – I was thinking ahead of how to prepare for it – it was already dark outside – the Customer Service Centre doors had been locked.
We just felt like two little people against this big machine.
The officer kept asking why we’d come to Bedford, she didn’t seem to believe anything my Dad said. I said he was telling the truth but she just held a finger out to me, didn’t even look at me, and shushed me.
I told her I had as much right to talk as anyone, but she didn’t change course. She was brutal, it was like an interrogation. She still said she wouldn’t help. She was so cold, callous like she had been handpicked not to help. My dad was shaking, we left the room and went to leave, but the security guard persuaded us to stay. My dad told him that we wouldn’t deal with that officer anymore.
The security guard was the only one who seemed to be able to put themself in our shoes. He de-escalated the situation, it took 10 minutes but he got a second officer to see us.
She was the opposite of the first officer and apologised for her colleague. She said the first thing she would do is get us accommodation that night. By then It was 5.15pm.
Most of the other people in the accommodation were single people who didn’t look so well, my dad said he thought they might be drug addicts, but no one was bad around me.
We were told we’d only there for a night, but my dad had to ring them a few times and after 10 days we were moved to a flat but weren’t told if it was permanent or temporary – it was unfurnished and we had nothing.
My dad didn’t want to say anything in case it annoyed them and used it against us.
We had to go for another interview with a third officer. She was nice, but said that because my dad had rent arrears in our old flat they would only house me and not him. My dad asked whether I would be removed into care. She didn’t answer him.
I don’t know what I felt. I read between the lines. Back into care? My dad was told that they could send me back to London or find us intentionally homeless. But what would we do in London? If Bedford said we were intentionally homeless, wouldn’t they say the same there? My dad said it made no sense to go back so we left with it up in the air and returned to our accommodation.
We didn’t know what else to do.
I rang Childline but they said they couldn’t help. It was a few days before Christmas and my Dad got a letter from the council saying we were intentionally homeless. It was all in legal speak and we misread it and thought we were going to be evicted on Christmas Eve.
We spent our time in the day in the library, the staff there were so nice. They would sit next to me and help. Once I trusted them, I told them what I was going through – I learned how to approach people for help, even though it was hard.
They looked shocked, but understood why I was in the library so much. We saw a Councillor there, Lucy Bywater. She gave us some details of some services that could help.
We went to the Prebend Daycentre who were lovely and gave us blankets. When we explained what was going on the worker dropped everything and looked at the letter and went upstairs. He came down with a letter he’d written to take back to the council. It said how much we needed housing, but it didn’t make any difference to them.
My dad found it really hard to tell our family about it – he thought it might cause more pain, he said he already felt like the world’s biggest failure, but once he did tell them they helped us out, so we had the basics.
One of the things you don’t think about homelessness is the lack of privacy – sharing a room all the time, and the heating in the accommodation was so expensive, we couldn’t afford to have the storage heaters on. The sleeplessness is another thing people don’t realise about homelessness – months of it, fearing the worst.
I missed three months of school when I was homeless, and I found it difficult to make connections when I did go.
At the start, they didn’t know what I’d been through but when they found out they were really concerned – the student support worker cried when I explained it. I went to the pupil support room every day for the last half hour to be with other kids having a hard time and could speak to staff.
Expecting the worst
Everything went quiet during Christmas week, but I rang another number that Lucy Bywater had given us – JustUs.
The worker came to see us in our temporary accommodation. The very first thing he said to us was “you won’t be split from your dad”.
The anxiety had been building up each day, but it was the first time it felt like someone knew what they were talking about. We had a peaceful Christmas dinner that night.
Reassurance is paramount – otherwise, you just live with the dark thoughts, expecting the worst. Even the people who were friendly weren’t able to reassure us because they didn’t know the system and weren’t prepared to clash with the council.
Over the next few weeks, the JustUs worker spoke with the council a lot and argued that we weren’t intentionally homeless because of the circumstances around my dad’s wellbeing and financial situation.
Not long after we moved into our home, and have been there ever since.
Looking back, I think housing should be a right.
The things the government spend money on is ridiculous when so many families are homeless, and we saw so many empty properties as we walked around all day. There should be specific support for families, proper, trained, child-friendly resettlement officers. The sooner you get the child settled the less trauma is caused.
Homelessness definitely changed me. I felt excluded, like, deliberately excluded from society. You wouldn’t believe what some officers are like unless you saw it for yourself – they act like they have so much power.
Lots of children are suffering in the current system but everyone should have the right to a roof in a first world country.
Written by Kieran and published unedited.