I went to the caravan park yesterday. It wasn’t as easy to find them as I thought it would be. Even in this cold, horrible Autumn weather, it appeared that most of the caravans–at least the larger ones, were occupied. I had to knock on two caravan doors before I was directed to the right one. And the residents of those caravans seemed to be in just as difficult a situation as the woman I was going to see.
She looked surprised to see me. All I could do was stand in the doorway. The children were sitting on a bench that served as a bed at night, plastic dishes were sitting in a large bowl, and the caravan reeked of dirty nappies and body odour. The two children had a small plastic lorry that they were pushing back and forth along the bench top.
I asked the mother if she had been in contact again with Social Services. She repeated the same thing she had told me the day before–that they said they couldn’t help her until she had a proper address. She showed me a form letter a staff member had handed her, where they had written down a case number and had ticked why she was not qualifying for any assistance. The form said the woman already lived in ‘supported accommodation,’ somewhere up north. I asked the woman about it.
It was clear that she didn’t possess the mental inventory, nor the social skills to effectively communicate her case. To me it made sense. She was in an abusive relationship, he left the house for a moment, and whilst it was safe for her to do so, she gathered up the children and left, fearful that he would soon return.
But Social Services had interpreted it as ‘she had left her accommodation of her own free will and because her partner wasn’t there at the time, she and the children were under no threat or impending danger. She clearly was in a paradoxical situation and she was unable to effectively explain her situation to the ‘form tickers’ at Social Services.
It would have been impossible for her and the children to ride the multiple busses necessary for her to get back to the Social Service office. Considering the time of day I had come, it also would have taken the entire day. I agreed to take her.
After all the palaver of getting the children out of the car, getting into the building and standing in what appeared to be an endless queue, we finally arrived at a security glassed window. I spoke on her behalf. I learned that we were at the wrong place. "And besides, she would have to be declared 'resident' somewhere before they could help her." We would have to drive 15 miles to another location and first declare her as homeless. Then she would be granted emergency accommodation. So off we headed.
The man who helped us was appallingly disinterested and curt. So much so that I became angry. The man more or less sighed at my obvious frustration. He told me that he gets ‘dozens just like her every day.’ I pointed out to him that whilst he might hear this every hour on the hour, it’s the first time she is there and she deserves to be listened to with the compassion that his job description detailed and that if he were unable to do this, then I’d be pleased to help her file a formal complaint against him. He changed his attitude. Thank goodness.
According to their ‘rules’ the woman couldn’t be declared homeless or in crisis if she already had accommodation somewhere else. She had made the statement that her partner wasn’t there when she left, so with this pathetic ‘means testing’ guideline, the housing chap had to follow, took them in the direction that she and the children were not at risk.
I helped her convey the situation more effectively. Plus, I learned that the police had been called to their home on several occasions due to her partner’s aggression. Therefore, this helped to ‘qualify’ them for the ‘next step.’
After whatever fiddling about the man had to do, which required him telling us to leave and come back in an hour, and then finding the office was closed till 2, we eventually were able to see him again. Oh joy.
Good. She had now ‘qualified’ for emergency housing assistance. The cretin..excuse me...housing officer had to add that 'the only reason she qualified was because of the children.' They would now have a place to stay. Unfortunately, however, there was no place in my community, nor was there anything available near where she had been staying. The closest was in Eastbourne, about 45 minutes away in the opposite direction. The housing clerk gave the woman a sheet of paper for the allotment of a room in one of Eastbourne's grubbier B&B's and another document to present to the Social Service office where she could get some emergency money.
I felt terrible because by this time it was late in the afternoon and I dreaded going back to that office again. There are literally hundreds of people there, all in the direst of situations and you have to wait. But we had no choice. She needed money for food. So off we went to the office again.
But once I found a place to park, got the children out, and traipsed up the hill to the office, as I walked up to the counter, the receptionist told me they were unable to take any more applicants for the day. I told her that this was an emergency. But she told me there was nothing she could do. We’d have to come back tomorrow.
I know the poor woman I was with didn’t realise it, but transportation the following morning for her would have been an absolute nightmare, and most likely 3–4 busses just for her to get back to this place. I looked at the children and imagined the emotional exhaustion she must have felt. She said very little to me - I gather she was grateful someone else was doing the fighting for her.
I tried to put a good face on the situation. I said ‘never mind, we’ll come back tomorrow.’ I told her we’d pick up some groceries on the way to the B&B.
The term ‘B&B’ can have some dramatic interpretations in Britain. Don’t think of a warm fluffy welcome, frilly sheets, and a comfortable sitting room. This place was appalling! There was a communal kitchen. Nothing was in it. A sitting room with three sofas and an ancient telly. The walls were tan with stained cigarette smoke. But otherwise, the rest of the place met the legal requirements. There were fire doors, alarms, a secure door on their room. But the communal bathroom was just like the rest of the place. The linens were left on the bed. They were clean and probably from an industrial laundry. There were 4 single beds in the room, a sink, and a table that could seat two, a small wardrobe and 2 chairs. But at least it was warm and certainly safer than the caravan they were in.
I felt badly about leaving them. We had picked up their meagre belongings at the caravan and taken them with us to the B&B. And we picked up groceries along the way. But as I left, I went back to the supermarket and bought some crayons, colouring books, a story–book, some much needed shampoo, a hairbrush, and a few little packages of toys and I went back to the B&B.
When the woman opened the door, she was smiling. She told me they were all happy and they loved their room. I glanced around once more trying to see what she saw that would make anyone happy. It touched me deeply.
I’ll go back in the morning, so I can take them back to the Social Service office so she can collect the small pittance they will give her to help them start their new life.
I’m feeling guilty this morning because no matter how I try, I can’t clearly recall the children’s faces. That’s not the norm for me.