Homeless women (3): People think good girls don't find themselves on the street

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Alex, a bright, well-spoken 23-year-old came to Brighton hoping to find somewhere to live. She knew which agencies to turn to for help, but has ended up squatting as an alternative to unscrupulous landlords and the isolation of bedsit-land.

I'VE BEEN in two rented places in Brighton and I was out of them quicker than when I was squatting. Both times the landlord defaulted on the mortgage. The second time he told me he was going to decorate my room - I moved out all my stuff. He changed the locks and sold off the house. It makes you afraid to trust a landlord again.

When I first came to Brighton, I went to the council and to the housing advice place, and was basically told, if you're not pregnant we can't help you. Brighton Housing Trust contacted a landlord for me and I went to look at a room. It was appalling - pounds 60 per week and no heating. If you don't have the deposit what do you do? I went to social security, they offered a loan for the rent, but because of that, they said I wouldn't be eligible for housing benefit in that time. I met a woman and her boyfriend outside the dole office who told me they knew people who were squatting and that's how I started.

I spent a few nights sleeping rough. But that's a last resort. People always associate living out on the street with mental illness: they think you're a bit potty. You get abuse if you're a woman: it's not something you're supposed to do. Good girls don't find themselves on the street. Or you must have a drugs problem.

The idea of going to a hostel is horrible. I would have felt I'd failed completely; you want to do things yourself, it's a pride thing. Also you don't want to admit things are that bad.

I got a job in a hotel, which was just luck really because I didn't have an address. I remember bring really conscious of not having had a bath. It was humiliating. When you can't even clean yourself, it feels pointless going to the launderette. I started going to the swimming pool just to shower.

People are very judgemental and you feel a sense of failure if you haven't got a home. Doctors don't want to treat you: a woman in our house had a bad attack of candida but the doctor just fobbed her off and told her to get somewhere decent to live. Until you get your housing sorted out, you can't get your health sorted out. I lived in places with asbestos, damp and draughts. People don't realise how awful squats are. I spent a winter without any heating and had to cook on an open fire. I was quite run down. We couldn't wash cutlery properly. I started picking up loads of little things. Nits, head lice - everything gets passed around.

I didn't want people to know how I was living. When they did find out, people turned round to me and asked me why I was doing it. You get a lot of hostility from people - they think you're living off them. Squatters have got a reputation for going round wrecking houses - we're not all like that. It's either squatting or going to sleep on the beach. Some people prefer to squat rather than go to a bed and breakfast or a bedsit. They can be full of really weird people. At least with squatting there is a strong community and it's very supportive. It gives you some sense of control over your housing.

But I'm sick of all this squatting business. People think you're trying to be a rebel to prove a point but I would love to have a nice warm place and get my life together.

You end up having to move about every six weeks. When you have to move again, it's a really low period. After a while you just lose track of your possessions - everything in your world is in bits. It's like your identity is shattered. You just want to put on a particular shirt and then remember it's stashed away somewhere else. I was at college for some of the time and didn't tell them I was squatting. I got so worried trying to keep hold of my books and notes - everything else could go but not my college work.

People think a man sleeping outside is just sleeping rough, but if you're a woman, people blame you and think you're game for anything. I would do anything to avoid being on my own at night. Once I stayed with a man I didn't know. I wish I hadn't . . .

We started off having some women-only squats, but the men take over. Sometimes you want men around to provide safety. You never know who's going to move in - you can't always choose who you live with. You have to be really assertive, but if you're too assertive men say you're getting het up, too emotional. You feel like they want to take control, not only to crack the place but to take the credit too. If you're homeless it's a male-dominated environment.

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