Bells are ringing

It’s that time of year again.  Jessie J switched on the Oxford Street Christmas lights last week, Santa’s Grottos are springing up in shopping centres all over the country and the TV ad campaigns promote nostalgic images of us ordinary Brits enjoying Christmas in our homes, with the neighbours popping in for some Christmas cheer and the family sitting down to the traditional roast.

Home, family and neighbours are where our thoughts naturally start to turn at this time of year.

But at Shelter’s helpline, bells of a different kind start ringing.  Last December, more than 12,600 people called our national helpline in Sheffield –15 per cent more than in 2011 – and this year we’re predicting an even larger number over the festive period.  And the questions our advisers deal with are very different from typical family talk over sherry.  Can I really be evicted on Christmas Eve? (yes: it’s an ordinary working day).  How much longer do you think me and the girls will have to stay in the B&B?  What can we do if the rent goes up again next year? Might we have to tell the children we’re going to lose our home?

The reality is that these questions haunt a growing number of us.  More and more families are struggling to hang onto their homes: and with it their memories of Christmases past and room to sit down with the family and pull a cracker.  Losing a home means losing the source of family memories, losing neighbours who’ve watched the children grow, losing stability, losing confidence and peace of mind.  Liz Clare, a colleague at Shelter’s Helpline for nine years says that Christmas is the most difficult time for our advisers:  ‘The threat of homelessness is difficult at any time of year, but it seems to get worse around Christmas as the strains of the holidays close in and the weather gets cold’.

The toxic cocktail of rising rents, house prices and bills, while pay stagnates and job security is weak, all underpinned by a chronic shortage of  decent affordable homes,  is having its inevitable effect.  When families are already struggling to make ends meet, it can take only one further blow (such as a redundancy notice, an illness, a marriage break down) to hasten the downward spiral to homelessness.

If the worst happens, anyone can find themselves needing timely legal advice to prevent an eviction or ensure statutory support, housing benefit to tide them over, or decent temporary accommodation to allow the family to keep functioning after a disaster. But more and more families are now finding that the safety net they hoped would be there to support them is unavailable or inadequate.

Earlier this month, Shelter launched an emergency appeal for the 80,000 children in Britain who will wake up homeless this Christmas.  Many of these children will spend Christmas Day in the cramped B&B room they share with their families, eating a Christmas dinner on their beds that was cooked, against all the odds, in a kitchen shared with six other households. It’s a long way from the home comforts we look forward to over the Christmas season.

Children like four year old Emma and her mother Alex, who I had the pleasure of meeting a couple of weeks ago.  Alex told us: ‘You can’t understand if you’ve never been in a B&B what it’s like.  Organising Christmas and to make her feel safe was an enormous stress.  Sometimes when you’re crying and she asks “What’s wrong mummy?” you say, “It’s just a bit of dust in my eye”.

For homeless children, the abiding memory of Christmas 2013 will be one of bewilderment, uncertainty and worry.

Shelter’s helpline is open 365 days a year: my colleagues will be there on Christmas Day to answer the questions of people struggling with housing problems. But what we really want is an adequate safety net to catch homeless families before they fall.  And many more affordable, secure and decent family homes where future Christmas memories can be made.