Homeless Woman | ELLE UK

What It's Like To Be A 33-Year-Old Mother Who Is Homeless At Christmas

Last December, Clavia Chambers was in the throes of buying Christmas presents for her two children. This year, they don't even have a home. We caught up with the Londoner to find out what it's really like to find yourself homeless at Christmas.

A bitter breeze seeps through the air vents into the living room as Clavia tucks another wool blanket over her daughter and son; the sole radiator in the third-floor council flat struggling to heat the family home.

The off-white walls, speckled with mildew and mould, glisten from droplets of November rain. The odour of bubbling crack cocaine from the next door flat permeates the air.

For most people, this bleak description of a family night in sounds like a nightmare. But, for mother-of-two Clavia Chambers, she'd do anything to go back to that flat.

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Why?

Because this Christmas, the Jamaica-born mum, her eight-year-old daughter and two-year-old son will be homeless.

With a few bin bags of clothes to their name and not even a temporary abode, unfortunately, their situation is far too common in Britain.

According to figures released by housing and homelessness charity Shelter, more than 300,000 people in Britain – equivalent to one in every 200 – will be officially recorded as without a home or living in inadequate accommodation this year.

More than 60,000 women are currently estimated to be homeless in England alone, with a life expectancy of just 43-years, while a staggering 125,000 children are believed to be without a permanent roof over their heads.

So, with figures already sky high, it's frightening to learn that Clavia's family are part of a phenomenon known as 'hidden homelessness'; people who fall through the cracks of official homelessness figures and are forced into 'sofa-surfing' with friends, residing in squats or other insecure accommodation.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, tells ELLE UK: 'The sad fact is, homelessness can happen to anyone irrespective of gender. Street homelessness is just the visible tip of the iceberg.'

Life as a single mother

Until 2009, Clavia had been privately renting alone when she fell pregnant with her first child. What followed for the single-parent was an eight-year-long series of house moves between hostels and temporary accommodation across South London.

'In one flat, the council forgot to give me a key to the main communal door. For two months I was forced to wait outside the property every day until someone let me into the building, baby in arm,' Clavia recalls as we sit in her friend's living room in Tooting.

'On the day I moved in, I found myself standing in an unfurnished flat without a cooker or bed. I slept with my baby on the carpet until I could afford to buy furniture. This was before the two sewage leaks,' she says, matter of factly.

However, things took a turn for the worse this year - hard as it is to believe - when, on August 9, her family was evicted from their temporary, part-subsidised accommodation due to alleged failure to pay rent arrears - the amount accrued from the date on which the first missed payment was due - according to Lambeth Council.

I slept with my baby on the carpet until I could afford to buy furniture

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While the reason for the eviction continues to be disputed by both Clavia and the council, the mum-of-two claims: 'I started paying as soon as I could but the more I paid, the more the amount they were asking for seemed to go up. It was as if I was always chasing the payments. In 2014, I stopped.'

Following several months of court appearances, correspondence with solicitors and pleas with the council to recalculate the arrears, Clavia was deemed 'intentionally homeless' in May and given three months to pack up her scarce belongings.

Becoming homeless

Unfortunately, Clavia's situation isn't an uncommon phenomenon in Britain.

Earlier this year, Shelter warned that more than a million UK households are at risk of becoming homeless by 2020 as a result of a rising numbers of families on low incomes struggling to pay even the lowest available private sector rents.

'The failure of successive governments to build social housing means there just aren't enough affordable homes for people who need them. This, combined with the impact of the housing benefit freeze, means that even those in work and on decent incomes can struggle to afford their housing costs,' says Shelter's Polly Neate.

For Clavia, the memory of bailiffs arriving at her door is one she'll never forget. 'It was raining all day and myself and the children were soaking wet,' she recalls.

'It was only when we turned up at International House - a children and young people's service in Brixton - to find help that I realised the employees were heading home for the day and it hit me - we were homeless.'

As we all know, people become homeless for a range of reasons, be it a lack of affordable housing, poverty and unemployment, or personal life events.

It also takes many forms, whether it be rough sleeping, statutory homelessness (where local authorities define a household as homeless within the terms of the homelessness legislation), and hidden homelessness.

Yet, prior to her eviction, the mother-of-two had never really considered what it truly meant to live without a home. 'Like most people, I thought homeless people were those you see lying on the street or substance users,' she says.

'When it doesn't affect you, you don't have an understanding of the true meaning of homelessness. I certainly didn't until now; relying on people, living in someone's house, taking up someone's space. I feel like a burden to the people helping me and the system.'

Christmas without a home

Since her eviction, Clavia and her children have been 'sofa-hopping' between friends and family members.

Explaining their usual bedtime routine, she says: 'I normally tuck the two kids in bed on the sofa and I sleep on the floor. It's heartbreaking. How can I explain to them that we don't have anywhere to live?'

It's a dire situation for any family, especially one accustomed to celebrating Christmas, surrounded by festive decorations and presents under a tree.

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'Christmas has always been a joyful time for myself and the children because it usually meant I was in employment [Clavia previously worked seasonal shifts at a well-known British supermarket]. Regardless of how much we've struggled over the years, I've always made sure I could afford to get my children at least a few presents. Christmas time is important - kids expect you to make a fuss,' she admits.

One of Clavia's favourite Yuletide memories was last year when she hosted Christmas dinner for her large Jamaican family; the kitchen overflowing with platefuls of curried goat, jerk chicken and pork from her mother, aunties and sisters.

Christmas time is important - kids expect you to make a fuss

'Christmas with the family is a feast. You're always told to bring your container because there's so much food,' she chuckles. 'My eldest loves to decorate the Christmas tree but when she goes to sleep, I like to put up decorations all around the house so she wakes up to a surprise in the morning.'

This year, however, Clavia refuses to entertain conversations about Christmas. Wiping away tears, she admits: 'In my head, if I start to think about it, I start crying.'

But for someone in such a precarious financial and living situation, Clavia refuses to crumble under the pressure.

With regular visits to the doctor ('I sometimes go to her to vent my frustrations, have a cry, and get a cuddle'), the mother-of-two has been diagnosed with depression. However, she is reluctant to take her prescribed antidepressants, despite Crisis claiming that homeless people are nine times more likely to take their own life than the general population.

'As a lone parent you don't want to be hooked on any form of prescription drugs,' she explains. 'You have no choice but to keep going. Folding isn't an option. What would happen to my children if I folded under the pressure?'

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'Being homeless has taught me you have to be strong, both mentally and physically. Sometimes, my body doesn't want to do anything - I just want to crawl up into bed and forget it's all happening. But that's not an option. I have to keep going, praying and I believe everything is for a reason.'

In the meantime, Clavia has launched a petition in association with Lambeth Housing Activists to urge the head of her local council to help her find accommodation in time for Christmas. She's also working to spread awareness of the term 'intentionally homeless,' which she claims leaves vulnerable members of society without a reference or rent guarantor and unlikely to be accepted for accommodation by private sector landlords.

'I don't understand how you can deem a lone parent with two children intentionally homeless,' says Clavia. 'I'm not sure how it's an intentional act. It's a stigma and a horrible tag to put on someone.'

Folding isn't an option. What would happen to my children if I folded under the pressure?

For Shelter, the answer to Clavia's situation is simple.

'The most important things which will help these women is for the government to set housing benefit at a level which allows them to pay their rent each month and in the long term, build more homes that people can actually afford to rent,' says Neate.

Despite her fighting spirit, Clavia can't help but feel like a failure as a mother. 'You simply want to provide a meal and home for your kids, and love and support and I'm missing the main one – the home,' she says.

For now, she's taking comfort in knowing her fight to tackle stigmas of homelessness might help other families in a similar situation in the future.

'I should see it as a positive,' she says. 'As harsh as it is, I'm bringing awareness to homelessness and letting people know its effects. Perhaps this is my purpose in life – to make change.'


We reached out to Lambeth Council, for a response to Clavia's allegations. This is a truncated version of their reply:

'In this case, the council tried to work with Ms Chambers over several years to rectify the substantial rent arrears she had built up. The council contacted Ms Chambers on almost 40 occasions to try to resolve this, but opportunities to arrange payment were not taken. When she was evicted her arrears were several thousand pounds; this was not due to delays or under-payments of Housing Benefit, but to non-payment of rent during the periods she was working.

'Officers have checked the claims that housing benefit errors are the reason for the arrears, and they are confident that this is not the case. We have also offered to assist Ms Chambers with raising funds so that she can rent a property in the private sector.'

To support Shelter's urgent Christmas appeal please visit www.shelter.org.uk or text SHELTER to 70080 to donate £3.

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