I am very lucky. It wouldn’t seem that way to a lot of people, but I am. Yes, I have experienced nine years of on and off homelessness. But, by accident of my birth, I am lucky. Even so, I spent much of my life avoiding problems. This eventually causes even more problems. Now, I face problems head on, and I enjoy resolving them. I even take on other people’s problems for fun. Letting problems fester makes them worse. Engaging with them can be curiously satisfying and productive.
I have a week of holiday and I have some time for recreation. On holiday most people want to relax. I like doing things. I have several volunteer roles. As such, I talk to the research department of one homeless charity about the cost-of-living crisis, and the same week I talk to another on the same subject. I say things to both that are deeply uncomfortable for them.
I admit to one of the charities that I am at real risk of homelessness at the moment. I explain the major factor that makes me at risk of homelessness is that I have been homeless before. Therefore, I don’t feel any fear of being homeless. This significantly reduces the barrier to future homelessness. If homelessness was criminal, it would be called recidivism. Cyclical homelessness comes from much the same sources as criminal recidivism, lack of fear of the consequences, and failure to escape the problems that got you into trouble in the first place. I suffer the same warped worldview of many other formerly homeless people. I don’t really understand the “real” world anymore.
The worries of “normal” people seem often trivial, to me. I have already been evicted from a rental property. I have bad credit (historical unpaid debts and no active credit). I have little money in savings. If I lose my current housing due to bad behaviour (which is easily possible and by historical precedent, probably inevitable), then I will end up living four nights a week in a hotel or Airbnb (Sun, Mon, Tues, Wed, Thurs) and three nights in a tent. I have room to store a limited amount of stuff at work. It wouldn’t be too bad at all. It would be manageable. Until I lose my job. Then the cycle begins again.
Along with nearly all formerly homeless people, I live a life only a small reckless bit of behaviour away from the streets. Call this small distance the “bad behaviour buffer”. I don’t feel very stressed about this myself because I am lucky. I still have friends. I am obnoxious, awful, and can be very badly behaved. But through it all I have managed to tenuously keep hold of some friends. This is another significant buffer, and it really helps. It is a bit like having an emergency credit card with a large credit limit.
I also don’t have a lot of the problems of homeless people. When I am on holiday my self-destructive activities are mainly winding up members of self-important charities and getting into fights with words. I drink, but don’t smoke any spice or use any other drugs. I also have the privilege of knowing at least some of my rights and entitlements. This supplies another type of buffer. I can forcibly argue my way out of a great deal of trouble.
I have been trying to help out a friend with her problem with an energy supplier. This friend isn’t rich. She gets Universal Credit, but also works, so would be described as working poor. Her rent is cheap. But she lives in an uninsulated dwelling and has no gas supply. The four major uses of energy in the home are heating, hot water, laundry, and cooking. For just generating plain heat (three of the four) electricity is around four times as expensive as gas. Those with only electricity were handicapped years ago, now it is three times as bad. Having poor insulation further compounds this problem.
Energy poverty isn’t just about having no money or prepayment meters, it is also having the wrong type of energy supplied. Poor insulation and the expensive energy are a very bad combination. This effect multiplies nastily.
My poor friend has suffered from being a bit of an ostrich. She has just pretended that the problems that have been mounting for three years were not a problem. She is slowly facing up to them. But this comes when energy costs are tripled, so sorting any historical problems, and dealing with the present is going to be near impossible.
But this crisis has been mounting. She has a £1,500 debt to her energy supplier, and bills are only going to increase. This seems appallingly bad until you compare her situation to others on low income. Although having a massive energy debt on a low income is stressful, it isn’t that bad. Because she isn’t on a prepayment meter.
This winter she has a buffer. They haven’t installed her prepayment meter yet. They haven’t started to take a deduction from benefits, either. She also has a friend who likes to fight on his holidays.
If there was a prepayment meter, there would be a single choice. Find the money to feed it. Not much buffer at all.
But because there is the choice to argue about the debt, the waters can be muddied. In the end after days of fighting over web chat with her energy supplier, Citizens Advice is contacted (by web chat). I’ve accidentally picked up a lot of information about debt in the last few years. Strangely, if you know where to go, then debt can become quite optional. It becomes a tactical choice whether to repay it or not. Unlike feeding the prepayment meter.
When you are paying monthly you can threaten not to pay at all. It is absolutely legitimate, and a right. After discussion the instructions from the Citizens Advice Bureau are simple. In this, admittedly complex case, notify the energy company that the debt is to be frozen. Then wait until the matter has been resolved by the CAB’s Extra Help Unit. The waters are so muddied now that they aren’t likely to have to pay another energy bill for three months or more.
Why does this matter? What does it have to do with homelessness?
My friend has the option to not pay and to ask for help; When I cannot help, I ask an outside agency for help. There is a far bigger buffer here than someone who has recently pressed the blue button on their prepayment meter and emergency credit has run out. They can’t have a cup of tea, let alone a shower or a hot meal. My friend could use £1,500 of electricity in the next few months with no problem. She doesn’t need to freeze this winter unless she wants to make choices in her long-term interest.
Even the pay monthly position is far less humiliating than having to beg an outside agency for meter key credit. Instead, she asks me for help, and I go and ask for extra help. This help might actually turn into £1,500 in no consequence forgiven debt or some sizable fraction of that. What I have done is buy her a few more months. This has a value, but getting that help has not been painful or humiliating, another barrier to reaching out.
So why do the most vulnerable live the most precarious and stressful lives? Because they don’t have the luxury of having a friend who wants to battle with their electricity supplier for fun. They don’t have buffers; they don’t have choices. No one wants to understand this. Even most of the charities that are supposed to help the vulnerable don’t understand the realities of their clients’ lives.
As a result, won’t be called back by the research department of a leading homeless charity. Because in their screening call I told the truth. I said: “When I was precariously housed with a rapacious and criminal private landlord as a former street homeless person, no one paid any bills. We all thought that we would be evicted before any of the utilities were cut off.”
It was certainly correct in my case. My second point was clear. If you don’t actually pay any bills, then the cost-of-living crisis isn’t so bad. You are used to being in the shit. In fact, you are getting a whole load of extra benefit money paid by the government this year. £700 of free and clear extra money is a shitload for people in this situation.
Unlike those on the edge, which is more and more “normal” people. Those who have lived on the edge for a long time find it hard to give that much of a fuck. You know the pressures of life and you live with them, badly. But you kind of cope.
It is the rest of you that need to really worry. You don’t know what life is like with no buffer. Good luck to you this winter. You are going to need it.