No place to call home

This is Shelter Awareness Week. Mary Braid went to Skegness to spend a day with a family at the bottom of the housing pile

The Sorrento Guest House, Skegness, is no more than a quarter of a mile from the pleasure beach. In this terraced house, in a street crammed with B&Bs, blond-haired Stephen, 18 months, sleeps on a small mattress at the foot of his parents' bed; his baby brother, Jon, three months, in a cot just a foot away. Two adults and two children in a room less than 12ft by 9ft.

In an even smaller single room next door Terri, 4, and Kelly and Selina, both 5, sleep in two bunk beds. Terri and Kelly are crammed into the bottom bed while Selina, the tallest, gets the top one to herself. With no space for wardrobes, the girls are hemmed in by piles of drying and folded clothes.

In the only other room - just as tiny, and packed with toys, TV and a stained two-seater sofa that until recently was their bed - Marie Feeney, 25, and her partner, Stephen Smith, 41, from Sheffield talk about the day they packed their few belongings, gathered their combined offspring - then just the girls - and headed east to the coast in a desperate search for a fresh start and something better for their kids. "We really thought we would get somewhere permanent to live quite soon," said Marie.

That was two years ago. Since then they have spent more than 700 days and nights in a succession of Skegness B&Bs - long abandoned by British holidaymakers - that now depend on the Department of Social Security for their bread and butter. Marie and Stephen are likely to be there for many more years; they must wait another year before they can join the council list and, according to Annie Proctor, their Shelter caseworker, up to eight years before they receive council accommodation. The family spend their days aimlessly, the children growing up with nowhere that is really home .

At the Sorrento there is hardly room for five children to sit, never mind play, and the family shares a kitchen and bathroom with another family of four, three teenagers and a single man. Miraculously, the place is tidy and Stephen and Marie are endowed with large amounts of patience. They need it with such a young family in such difficult conditions.

As they try to keep their three youngest amused with crayons and paper, loud music blares from upstairs (apparently a whisper compared to the noise at 1am) and there is the regular thump of heavy footsteps. But Marie and Stephen prefer not to comment on the mix of tenants. "We keep ourselves to ourselves," says Stephen.

You have to listen hard to piece together their story. Like many others who find themselves at the bottom of the social pile neither Stephen or Marie are accomplished speakers and, while wide open to prejudice about their circumstances, not the greatest presenters of their case.

Their family is in fact a healthy amalgam of two damaged parts. Stephen, who has been unable to work since he damaged his spine in an accident 12 years ago, won custody of Terri and Kelly after his relationship with their mentally ill mother finally broke down. The family difficulties left him and his children emotionally scarred. Marie won custody of Selina after she left a violent partner. When they got together they decided to leave Sheffield to seek a better life.

Skegness, the working-class, candy-floss-and-bingo resort, has been the butt of a hundred snooty jokes. But to Marie and Stephen and thousands like them from from south Yorkshire and Leicester, the town is a veritable paradise which, since childhood, has represented escape from urban grime and hard reality. That Stephen and Marie wanted this for their children is not that different from the army of middle-class parents who have sold up and headed for Provence in search of the simple life. That is well understood by those who advertise in newspapers for people on benefit to come on down and be unemployed by the sea.

"We came here in a caravan on our first holiday as a family and the kids loved it," says Stephen. "And we really had to get away from Sheffield. Marie was being hassled by her former partner and so was I."

So they washed up homeless one day in Skegness. If the name Sorrento seems to mock, the Dorchester, their first B&B, a barn of a building on Skegness's garish front, screams with laughter. The couple spotted an advert in its window aimed at desperate people just like them. Marie remembers having to be down at 8am sharp each morning to queue for the milk and cereal the landlord had a duty to provide. A minute late and your kids did not get breakfast.

Gradually, the awful reality of their situation dawned. They discovered that the local East Lindsey District Council would not put them on the council house waiting list until they had been resident for three years. So they joined the local housing association list, delighted to learn their circumstances - by then Stephen had been born - made them a priority case.

Then came the bombshell. Marie became pregnant with Jon. The couple had not planned to have any more children. They had managed against the odds and in awful living conditions to fuse two families. In three years Marie had gone from mother of one to mother of four. A couple of months previously her doctor had fitted an implant contraceptive, as she had difficulty with the pill. "At the time they did a pregnancy test and it was negative but I must have been pregnant when it was fitted," she says

Jon's arrival wiped the family from the housing association list. "They kicked us off when we told them about Jon," said Marie. "They said they did not have houses big enough."

Severe post-natal depression followed the birth. Marie says :"When the baby came I just sat around and cried. The doctors said the conditions we were living in did not help. I had got rid of all the baby things we had because we were not having any more children." Marie was sterilised last week.

What the couple cannot understand is the economic or social sense of the miserable position they and hundreds of other families find themselves in. Current housing policy bewilders them."The landlady gets pounds 140 a week for us to be here and we have to top it up with pounds 30 from our pounds 177 benefits," says Stephen. "They could build a house and pay a mortgage for that. Politicians should try living like this."

The local council's three-year residency rule reflects its difficulty in coping with homeless families migrating to the coast. "If you go up to the housing department, you get the feeling quite strongly that Skegness is just for local people," says Marie. "They told us that if we could find a private rented house they would put up the deposit. We've looked everywhere but no one wants children."

Despite the misery of their situation , the couple continue to get up each day and get on with the business of caring for their children. "You have to keep strong for the kids," says Marie.

"We pull together and we have good kids," says Stephen. "Kelly was really withdrawn when we came here," he adds as Terri rubs her half- brother Stephen's head to get him to sleep. "She had been through such a lot. But her new teachers have really brought her out of herself."

They put on a brave face for the kids but the strains are there. Stephen never goes out and has no mates. "It's difficult to describe but our whole lives feel so temporary," he says. "We don't really know anyone here. It does get you down and I can't be bothered to go out."

Marie plays bingo. "I never played before but now it's anything to get out for an hour to myself." Stephen babysits.

The couple have lost their faith in authorities. They hold on to the dream of a three-bedroomed council house and play the lottery each week because that is as constructive as a visit to the housing office.

"The hard fact is there are actually worse cases than this in Skegness," says Annie Proctor. Queues stretch down the road at her twice- weekly Skegness surgeries. "I don't think the reality of these people's circumstances is appreciated. Many of the properties here are in disrepair and families are living in one room."

Relations can be tense between outsiders and local people waiting for accommodation. "People blame each other," she says. "But this is a bricks and mortar problem. "There just isn't enough affordable housing," she says. "The best of the council homes have gone in right-to-buy. And B&B is so bad for children. Studies show their health suffers within three months. They do not have simple socialisation skills and get very isolated." Other B&B residents do not always make the safest playmates.

Meanwhile Marie and Stephen's desperation is palpable. When Marie picks Selina up from school, the little girl wants her best friend to come home to play. Marie handles it sensitively - not today, perhaps another time. But she frowns with anguish. "That's what you dread," she says. "But I don't want their friends seeing the way we live."

Stephen and Marie are remarkable and patient parents. Their confined quarters are clean and tidy and no amount of squabbling or playing up among the children seems to ruffle them. It is a measure of how little they left behind that they believe their children are better off at the Sorrento.

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