By Jamima Westermann & Ella Catherall
Local charity DASH, Durham action on Single Housing, is trying to combat one of the largest injustices facing our society: homelessness.
Their mission statement, to help “everyone, regardless of circumstances” to have the “fundamental right to a place of shelter, and help to rebuild their life” is certainly ambitious, but as the stories of the women we spoke to suggest, it is certainly not impossible.
Debbie is one of the ten women currently housed and helped by the Vulnerable Women’s Project, and who testifies for the incredible work that DASH do in enabling her to see a way out of the “horrific experience” and “frankly” she says, the “big fat mess” that, through no fault of her own, she became embroiled in.
Councils “made up lies and got me evicted for no reason”
“It started maybe six or seven years ago when family members started playing me and my parents off against each other and it caused massive friction, it was horrific,” Debbie begins.
This was, however, only the start, as Debbie found herself being made redundant from her job at Connexions after it “folded up” and “20% of the scoring matrix” about pay and position was based on university education, something Debbie didn’t have, and so she knew she was “always going to be made redundant.”
This culmination of events meant that Debbie found herself needing to reach out, which she admits “mortified” her: “it hurt me more because I worked with local authorities” she admits, but it was the treatment Debbie faced while seeking stability that proves just how harsh the realities of being “up against it” are, and how vital the work of charities such as DASH is.
Debbie describes the battle she faced with numerous councils who “made up lies and got me evicted for no reason.”
Debbie’s referrals and health records too were all wrong, something she realised when her date of birth was incorrect on her records: “he looked at the manager and went “see, I told you, you’ve got her date of birth wrong, that record’s wrong. They’d set up a different record for me to cover up everything.”
“It spoilt me,” Debbie says, but nonetheless, she sees herself as one of the lucky ones to have found DASH, who has become an exception to the norm that she began to know.
“What this organisation has done is seen what’s in black and white and not taken it at face value”
“What this organisation has done is seen what’s in black and white and not taken it at face value”: after being “judged by job centres and the supported accommodation officers” time and time again, Debbie admits she found it hard to care anymore, and used to “turn up at thejobcentree scruffy on purpose because they treated me like shit.”
DASH , however, was different, and Vickie, the Complex Needs Worker at DASH, explained that Debbie’s referral had told them that “we should be careful” as Debbie had “made complaints about every organisation” but she admits they “don’t tend to listen.”
“I mean, I read through them” she begins, “but I don’t judge people on referrals, I’d rather sit down with somebody and that’s the way we do it.”
It seems that DASH’s approach, to help whoever they can, regardless of circumstances, is really paying off.
Debbie believes DASH gave her “the best Christmas present I could have wished for” enabling her to get closure to be able to move on. “I never thought I’d be able to start 2019 with the closure I have now and that’s the truth.”
Talking to Charlotte, many of the same themes, anxieties and experiences come through. A lack of trust, both of individuals and society as a whole, appears to be the greatest obstacle, and one that Charlotte admits will be a very tough fix: “I don’t trust anyone, I don’t trust this organisation and I don’t trust anyone in here.”
Charlotte’s story started much earlier. Being placed in care from the age of six, and growing up there where she “had nothing, no support, nothing”, left her with an inability to trust, and a belief that she would never find stability.
“I was in London, then got moved to Wales, then to North Yorkshire, then back down to London” she begins, explaining the permanent effect of this unstable start, “so all my life I’ve just expected I’ll get passed along, and it has happened… I just wait for the next ‘oh that’s it, you’re going’ and that’s what I expect.”
“Do one thing for me”, Debbie interjected, “believe me, trust them Charlotte. Trust this organisation and you’ll get there.”
Charlotte’s circumstances make the work DASH do particularly important, and it becomes abundantly clear what a lifeline it is.
“I just wait for the next ‘oh that’s it, you’re going’ and that’s what I expect”
In 2011, Charlotte set fire to her block of flats in an attempted suicide, resulting in a two-year prison sentence. Despite that, and the long-term implication of being continually rejected by private landlords, due to difficulties with insurance, and the council who refuse to house her because of the arson, Charlotte is “determined to prove them wrong” and DASH is her chance at doing so.
“Part of what we do here,” Vicki says, “is about giving people a chance” and that for women who have experienced “chaotic lives prior, no rent, homelessness, anti-social behaviour, drugs, alcohol, weren’t being accepted for their own tenancies, even after times of stability, they weren’t being given the chance.”
One crucial way in which DASH makes a difference, therefore, is through the ‘move-in’ flats, accommodation located just across the street from the main accommodation, which enables women to live independent lives while still getting support from the charity.
“You can talk about everything and nothing here”
For women who have had convictions of manslaughter, arson, and similar crimes that have prevented them from being able to move on, this creates the opportunity to live independently. The charity is then able to “challenge and appeal” the council, and give these individuals the accommodation and chance that they need and deserve.
Day-to-day too, it’s clear that it’s also the little things that have some of the greatest impacts.
DASH is clearly so much more than helping women with the logistics and bureaucracy of moving on and moving out after living chaotic lives. “You can talk about everything and nothing here” Vicki adds, and it was clear to see that this is one of the biggest changes that DASH could make in these women’s lives. Jenny, another worker on the vulnerable women’s project, spoke about the small changes DASH is able to make, and the all-encompassing nature of the charity’s impact on the lives of the women they support becomes clear.
After the loss of a close friend to cervical cancer, Vicki encourages the women to attend cervical screenings, or at the very least opens a dialogue that many of the women have been unable to have before.
“A big thing for what a lot of the lasses have been through here, trust is a big issue”
”Until I moved here,” says Charlotte, “I had no one to talk to about anything like that” and the difference that this has made becomes clear when Jenny shares the story of a resident who “asked me to go with her” which she saw as an “honour… that she trusted me to go with her.”
For these women in particular, many of whom have suffered domestic and sexual abuse, “it’s like an invasion.”
“A big thing for what a lot of the lasses have been through here, trust is a big issue” Jenny continues, “so when they can relate to you, and say ‘will you come and help us, you feel privileged, you’re in their life.”
“I never thought I’d be able to start 2019 with the closure I have now, and that’s the truth”
Photograph: Andreea Popa on Unsplash