Revealed: How council flat helped save Hackney graduate from ‘hell of homeless hostels’
PUBLISHED: 12:32 28 March 2018 | UPDATED: 14:12 28 March 2018
A former luxury fashion worker whose life spiralled into chaos when she became homeless has spoken of the healing influence of living in a council flat.
Photography graduate Sarah-Louise Simon was at rock bottom when she was given the keys to her new home on the King’s Crescent Estate four months ago.
The 30-year-old had been living in the “craziness” of homeless hostels in Hackney, which she describes as “like surviving time on a mental health ward”.
She has bravely gone public with her story as part of the Gazette’s Hidden Homeless campaign – as she calls for councils to build more desperately needed homes.
“This is why I’m doing this today,” she said. “I had a lot of relapses and a lot of moments of despair.
“But if I knew when I was going through hell and back that something like this was being made – if other people knew that, maybe they would hang on.”
The life-long Hackney resident became homeless as she was unable to afford a rented property in the borough despite working for seven years in visual merchandising.
At the same time her mental health was deteriorating linked to anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder – diagnoses that pre-existed her housing issues.
Her problems worsened living in the chaotic hostel environment for two years.
“Every place I stayed in the square footage of the hostel room was half the size of this room,” she says, referring to her new living space.
“[It was hard] keeping myself looking, smelling and sounding focused, when you have no proper wardrobe to hang your clothes, or space to press your clothes, or anywhere to do laundry.
“My job was for a luxury retailer, and [I felt] the pressure of that and knowing you’re going into work always feeling hung-over, and feeling scatty and disorganised.”
She lived in Metropolitan Hostel in Dalston, Eric Hotel in Green Lanes, and Islington Inn B&B, as well as “houses of multiple occupation” (or HMOs).
But it was her dealings with the council’s housing department that eventually “pushed her over the edge” and led to a stay on a psychiatric ward.
Sarah-Louise received a letter from a housing officer saying intimate details of trauma she had disclosed in her housing application, while “upsetting”, served a “historical purpose only”.
“It was a trigger,” she says. “I was just sort of holding on, praying, going to church, meditating, trying my best to cling on that just maybe it might work out. I decided then no one cared.”
During an appointment soon after, her GP spotted she was in crisis.
Sarah-Louise, clearly emotional, recounts: “She could just see it, and she said: ‘What have you got planned tonight, Sarah?’ And I said: ‘I’m going to have a bath.’ She said: ‘And then?’
“And I said: ‘I’m going to go to sleep’. And then she said: ‘And do you intend to wake up after you go to sleep?’ And I said: ‘No.’”
The GP phoned for an ambulance and 10 minutes later paramedics took Sarah-Louise to hospital.
She says the GP saved her life – and has criticised the injustice of the application process for mental health applicants with the council.
“There’s a lot of work to do at the assessment and policy level with Hackney housing,” she said. “The people who want to help, and have tried, have their hands tied.”
Yet alongside feelings of anger, Sarah-Louise is also immensely grateful to the council for giving her a flat, which she has decorated with up-cycled freebies using her designer’s eye.
“I’ve spent the last year signed off work (due to her mental health disabilities) so this place, even though it’s only been four months, it’s allowed me not to decline any further, not relapse any further, and given me things to potter around and do,” she says.
“The skills I used in the workplace I can still do, some arts and crafts, decoupage, ceramics.”
Sarah-Louise is now writing a book on surviving the housing process and says the “peace and healing of the flat” is helping her to do that.
She is making friends, both with people who have lived on the estate for years and new owners who bought the private flats that financed the council’s build.
But she is one of only a tiny number offered a council property.
Hackney’s ambitious plans to build 3,000 new homes by 2024 will not meet the need of 12,600 on the housing list.
The photography grad called for the government to invest in more council house building programmes like Hackney’s.
“It’s not about subsidised rents,” she said. “It’s about the fact that no one’s going to tell me tomorrow: ‘Get out of here, you’re not important, I’m selling up to some developer.’
“That’s what it means. It’s stability.”
* If you are concerned about someone, or need help yourself, contact the Samaritans on 116 123 for confidential emotional support. The number is free to call and open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.