Hidden Talent: Behind Closed Doors

Zoe Rooney
35
Single mum 2 kids, one who has special needs. Live in Yeovil Somerset. Have mental health issues.

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When we are little we all dream of owning a big house, married to the perfect man, with beautiful kids and perhaps a dog. The hard truth of life is that this is unlikely to happen. I would never have thought that I would one day be on benefits as a single mum in a housing association house. Suddenly I am faced with the ‘council house’ label. On every form, we tick the ‘council box’ like it is some measure of who we are and what we are all about.

While many do conform to the stereotypical image of a council house tenant, the majority do not. I am typical of the stereo type. Two kids, single, benefits… but does anyone really look past that and see the person behind the label? I had the perfect life. I had everything. I looked down on others as if I was superior to them because I had the 2.4 family. Then one day my world came crashing down and life as I knew it would never be the same.

Luckily we do live in a country where there is a safety net, although this is far too often abused. Like a performing dolphin, I jumped through the hoops, endless form filling and many temporary accommodations and finally got my Holy Grail… my own little 2 bed for my children and me. Life was hard and I settled into an existence of housework and coffee mornings. As my children grew, I realised that I was existing and not living. Many people fall into this trap. Looking around at the people I mixed with, it shocked me to discover that I had now become a stereotype. The bi-weekly Costa mornings, being the highlight of my week. But at 30 with two pre-teens, could I change my life? Could I teach my children that anything was possible if you tried hard enough? The biggest challenge is having the confidence to start your journey.

Today, most housing associations are not just landlords. They have many departments to aid with training, employment and even starting your own business. I have only ever been with Yarlington Housing Group and until 2 years ago had never interacted with them. If I saw my housing officer coming, I would take a superman dive into the nearest bush just to avoid them. I had no interest in engaging with them… I mean why would I? My rent was being paid, the house was in a good state, so like the weird uncle at Christmas, you put up with them but avoid at all costs.

Yarlington look past the label and actually want to help the residents, which I found to be an alien concept. From benefit advice to a well-being officer, they seemed to have it all covered. Perhaps the label assigned to housing association residents is soon to be a thing of the past. But does social standing and employment responsibility lie with housing associations? With so many government cuts and hope at an all time low, maybe the social landlords could challenge the future for those who are resigned to council homes. Could improving the options for today’s generation significantly change those of the future? All the research shows that children with at least one working parent, vastly improves their chances of succeeding life. I cannot work. I have significant mental health issues that restrict employment. For years I accepted that the future was sitting down with a cuppa, watching Jeremy Kyle and letting the money enter my bank account with no effort from me. What was this teaching my children? With employment being seemingly impossible, my options were limited. Then came the light bulb moment. I was getting a ‘wage’ but I was doing nothing to earn it. The community around me was paying me to do nothing. I decided that it was payback time. I had skills. If no one would employ me then I would ‘earn’ the benefits I was receiving in any way that I could.

I joined forces with my landlord, Yarlington, and threw myself into improving my community and helping other residents. Two years on, I am now heavily involved with a large cross section of not only residents but all in my home town. I am still not employed but I work harder than ever. Everyone needs a helping hand out of the rut they are in. Showing someone the way forward and holding their hand to do so, can give them the confidence to achieve beyond their dreams. Mental health may still carry a stigma and limit life options but it is not the barrier it once was. For those who look down on council house residents, I feel pity. Everyone has a skill and some of the poorest people on earth are the most caring and give more back then they can ever expect to receive for themselves. The old saying ‘You never know what goes on behind closed doors’ is never more true than now. A wealth of talent and skills are lying dormant behind council house doors and is just waiting to be tapped… and perhaps our social housing landlords are the key to doing this?

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More than Bricks and Mortar: A lived experience of a Liverpool Council Estate

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Jon Daley

Neighbourhood Officer for Regenda Group, working hard to cut stigma in social housing and making the a North West a better place to live.

As an academically minded neighbourhood officer, it is easy to get lost in ‘patch trends’ and national statistics in search to better understand the housing sector. However, I can’t be grateful enough for social housing for more than just giving me my dream job.

I grew up in an area called Dovecot, in Liverpool. An area although associated with a high crime rate within a largely deprived geographical ward…I fondly remember. I spent the first 12 years of my life in a Local Authority owned home with my Mum, Dad and Brother. Although statistically there was ‘nothing down for me’, I feel that social housing gave me a way against the grain of the stigma that it is associated with.

Community

I couldn’t have asked for a better youth than what I experienced. All of my school friends lived within a quarter mile radius (thank you state schools), our neighbours would help us more than just a Ned Flanders-esque borrowing of power tools and of course my parents would never let me want despite hard times financially (it was the 90s). What this experience taught me was a strong sense of community, despite the negative press. Sure there was antisocial behaviour and it wasn’t a Makkah of living standards, however It taught me that people would be cooperative beyond measure when affluence didn’t stand in the way of others.

Investment

It was at this time that I developed a near innate urge to invest in community. One of my earliest memories was telling my Mum walking to school that despite living in a run down area, if there was any way to make my area a better place to live in which not just my Mum but others told me “the sky is the limit if you put your mind to it”. With this, I noticed that the stigma lied in bricks and mortar and nothing else, that social housing is judged by its cover rather than its content. I felt that the area needed to be as beautiful on the outside as much as the inside. It was at this time that I gained an interest in housing, community and urban regeneration, I just didn’t know the practice of it due to both my young age as well as a limit of academic education with in my community. However it wasn’t just the physical area that was my dominant interest, it was the people I cared for and still do today, years after living in social housing,

Progression

This sense of community provided for by Social Housing helped me with a lot of things over the years. I never forget the opportunities it gave me including the confidence in joining a local football team, starting my martial arts journey and the strange sense of communal accomplishment when someone done well. My own experience came when I obtained a school place at the prestigious Bluecoat School. I don’t know if it was because I was the first to achieve the feat or if others were happy to see one of their own progress, I knew it was the time to make it a mission to stand up for social housing no matter what. Despite seeing first hand that social housing contained tenants who were benefit reliant or in low paid jobs, it provided a platform for people to focus on what really matters. My own experience led me to feel that the removal of financial complexities brought out the best in people and to be proud of their community.

You can take the man out of community…

Even now, away from the community I grew up in, the community stills lives inside of me. As I never saw the stigma of social housing due to being raised in it, I seen an equality that is sadly declining due to ideals of ownership. Even when moving to a privately owned home at age 12, those values never left. I spent each waking moment committed to gaining skills that one day make a difference in the community. Whether it was organizing a play out day with my friends, helping my brother with his homework (he helps me now!) or supporting people through difficult times, social housing provided an experience that I wouldn’t have gained if my family was wealthy from a young age. 20 years after having that first conversation with my Mum around urban regeneration, I still have that fire burning inside of me. As a neighbourhood officer, I aim to use my skills to ensure the same loss of stigma in other communities to provide a similar experience for others even if that means doing this by changing one opinion at a time.

Everything is coming up Roses…

Everything is Coming up Roses.

Guest Blog: Dave Bainbridge.
Group Manager – Enabling Customers Wigan and Leigh Housing

The power and benefits that come from volunteering and helping others can not be underestimated. Its value to the giver, receiver and community is priceless.

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The public perception of social housing and council tenants as portrayed in the media is often negative and does not reflect the often vibrant communities and significant contribution made to those local communities by residents . Thanks can be given to the repeat sensationalisation of bad news stories by Television and Papers.

The positive contribution most tenants and residents give far out weigh the negative minority that can disrupt estates

We have many examples of the great things going on in our communities but I would like to talk about just one brilliant example of this. As I write this BLOG @DIYSOS are busy improving a property in the Hindley area of Wigan, This isn’t a Council or Housing Association property its not a private rented or RTB it’s a privately owned property not even on one of our estates.

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So you may well rightly ask what is this to do with @CouncilHomesChat …..

Well some of our tenants heard that @DIYSOS where in town and THEY OFFERED THEIR HELP.

They arranged for plants to be donated free from a local Nursery (Mossbank) and are now busy helping the crew to plant them.

Look out for the programme which will be broadcast later in the year

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Rural Housing – “the cheapest home available in the village nearest to the farm is £450k”..

Mared Elenid Williams was born and brought up in a village near Aberystwyth. She moved to Cardiff to complete an MSc in Strategic Marketing in 2006 and following a few years of working in the charity sector began working as  Marketing Coordinator for Newydd Housing Association in 2010, a position she thoroughly enjoys. Mared currently lives in Llantwit Major with her partner who is a farmer.

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At the moment my life revolves around Zoopla and Rightmove. Then back to Zoopla again. I change the price bracket, hoping that something may just pop up that needs a bit of work….we could negotiate the price down? Negative. Each morning I reach for my phone, click open the app, adjust the price bracket and….yes it’s become an obsession!

Back in February this obsession had not begun, instead my day consisted of filling in reams of paperwork, calculating our monthly spend, printing evidence of our savings accounts and most importantly proving our links to the local area. I was getting excited, we were applying for a low cost home ownership property in Cowbridge. However I soon found out that managing expectation was key, I knew many many people would be applying for this single property. So 6 weeks later we found out…negative.

My boyfriend works on the family farm but earns very little. On the other hand I earn a decent wage but despite working for a housing association; promoting affordable homes in the Vale of Glamorgan, we just can’t seem to purchase an affordable home ourselves anywhere near the farm.

We have been together for 2 years and privately rent a home…but its 5 miles away from the farm. Depending on the time of year, my boyfriend moves in with his parents during lambing, harvest or when the horses are foaling. Not a prospect that fills me with excitement. I would like to add that we also have a decent deposit, but we still can’t find an affordable home within 5 miles of the farm. The cheapest home available in the nearest village is £450,000. Totally out of our reach. This makes our house search the most frustrating activity of the day.

So what is the solution? There isn’t one at the moment….a farm can’t be moved.  I continue to hope that low cost affordable homes will be built near the farm. Likelihood? Negative. There was recent talk of a new housing development in the neighbouring village, but looks like these will be executive homes. The frustration continues.

 

We all have our stories to tell…

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Kelsey has been Communications and Tenant Engagement Officer for Caerphilly County Borough Council’s housing division since August 2013. Prior to this she spent three years as Community Investment and Involvement Officer at Tai Calon. Kelsey was also heavily involved in the transfer of housing stock from Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council to Tai Calon; as Communications Officer during the pre and post ballot processes. Her housing career began after graduating from university in 2003, when she became repairs clear in a busy local authority area housing office. Kelsey is passionate about addressing the stigma of social housing, tenant engagement and regeneration.

 

This is a photo of me at Christmas when I was 6 years old. Not long after this photo was taken my family became homeless….

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After my parents’ divorce and the sale of our house, my mother, brother and I lived in a house in the private rented sector. My mother was in full time employment, earning a reasonable wage and always paid the rent on time. But one day our landlord knocked on the door to tell us his daughter had decided she wanted to live in the house, so our notice was served.

As a household with just one income and limited time to find another home, we had very few options available to us. Unable to find another home in time we were forced to put our furniture into storage and declare ourselves homeless.

This isn’t a sob story about how awful it was being homeless though, as for the 6 year old me living in a hostel with around 7 other families was a great adventure! I was never short of friends to play with and school night sleepovers were always allowed, as it usually meant just staying in the room next door!

Of course there are some memories that aren’t quite as pleasant. My brother, who was a teenager at the time, was so concerned about what his friends would think about us being homeless that he refused to move into the hostel with us. He went to live with a relative and, as a result, our family was separated.

After a short time in the hostel we were moved on to temporary accommodation, before finally being allocated a council house.
I spent the rest of my childhood and teenage years growing up in that council house. My fondest memories are of my time spent living there and the friends I had on that estate: birthday parties in our house where 30 of my ‘closest friends’ would squeeze into our 3 bed semi; long summer nights playing games in our street; ‘snow days’ when school closed and we would all hurtle down the hill on makeshift sleds; my mother making toast on our coal fire when we’d had a power cut.

My memories of happy times like these are endless and I can honestly say that the concept of us as ‘council tenants’ never entered my head. I know my story isn’t unique and I suppose that’s the point I’m trying to make. Homelessness can happen to anyone and at any time; when it does, social housing provides a much needed safety net for those in need.

I get angry by the continual demonisation of social tenants, perpetuated by media portrayals and stereotypes. Social housing tenants are people, just like you and me. In the 10 years I’ve been working in social housing I’ve met some amazing tenants who are doing truly brilliant things in local communities. I’ve also met lots of tenants who’ve been dealt a bad hand in life and need some support to help them get back onto the right track. We all have our stories to tell and until we have walked in another’s shoes who are we to judge?

 

I admit it, I’ve never been a social tenant..

Catrin Lewis is a Tenant & Resident Involvement Support Officer; aspiring journalist & CIH Rising Stars Cymru finalist 2014

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When I first learned of the Council Homes Chat campaign, I knew that it was something I wanted to get on board with. When I gave my first presentation at CIH Cymru’s conference this year, I spoke of wanting to help change the image of social housing, its tenants, and the successes that we are all a part of. I told all those delegates about how I wanted to alter perspectives and show the country what we are all made of, and who we are.

However, when it came to writing this blog, it turned out that it was incredibly difficult to put into words how I feel. I admit, I have never been a social tenant, and probably never will be. Yet I feel incredibly strongly about the benefits it brings tenants, communities and the country as a whole. Despite three years studying it and a lifetime of a Neighbourhood Officer mother talking to me about the Right to Buy, I still have never understood why government deemed it an excellent idea to sell off one of Britain’s greatest assets. I despair at the prospect of having to choose between living with my mum for what feels like the rest of my life, or being at the mercy of a private landlord who won’t see me as a person, but as a series of numbers and figures that will be filling their bank balance each month. Mostly, I’m disappointed that I will probably never be a part of the communities that the South Wales valleys used to be filled with. Strong, vibrant communities which cared for each other, came together in time of hardship, and worked to make their neighbourhoods better places to be. These are now fractured, limping along, a shadow of their former selves.

Even when I applied and gained my job at a Housing Association, I think even my perception of council tenants was a little skewed by whatever popular scrounger story was in the newspaper. Quickly, I met tenants who worked hard to support their homes and household, wanted to make a difference in their community and most importantly, were sick of being told that they were akin to the scum of the earth because of their tenure. These tenants were from all walks of life, held different jobs, held different values. They were, I realised, wanting to smack myself in the face for being so daft, just like everyone else in the world.

As I’ve come to meet more of those involved with social housing in one way or another in the last year, I’ve realised one major problem. People see housing as a necessity and everyone would agree that each person deserves somewhere to call home. Yet, unlike roads, hospitals, and schools, previous political figures and those in authority have done a fantastic job in trying to downplay the amount of responsibility the government should have towards it. Everyone knows that a decent home with a secure tenancy provides the basis for improved educational attainment, employment opportunities and health, yet we are essentially told that we do not deserve homes unless we are at the very bottom of the rung. We have been told this until it has become a part of the British psyche, that social housing is for the scrounger, the teenage mother, the person with disabilities, the elderly.

So what does social housing mean to me? It’s security. It’s safety. It’s something that we’re in danger of losing; renamed and rebranded on the sly until it no longer means what it meant to. I may never live in a council house, but I will defend the right to it, and the reputation of those who live within it. I will fight for more to be built, helping to create jobs, restore communities, and solve this housing crisis that we are all a victim of.

 

These three walls..

Rob is a social housing tenant, former IT professional, full time carer for his wife and inspiring blogger

  ROB

The fairly recent rescue of my wife and I by social housing in 2007 isn’t the first time I’ve been caught by the ‘safety net’ that council housing represents. I think it can be difficult to understand the value of a home. It’s something we all take for granted, and I’ve been struck by how the call by CouncilHomesChat for people to tell their positive stories has brought forward such touching and personal tales – as if one of the four walls of the contributors’ homes have been peeled away, so we can see what having a home really means.

This is part of my story about the first time my family needed a safe, decent home and couldn’t afford one. It starts when I was 14 and living with my parents and my brother. It touches on a time when things were difficult for us, and I imagine that as homes are currently becoming unattainable for many, this is an increasingly common theme for people who find themselves subject to the ever-changing eligibility criteria for social housing waiting lists. That’s before we get to the added stigma of being assumed to be some sort of disruptive influence.

The picture Paul Diggory posted of his ID card reminded me of one of my Dad’s first ID badges. For my Dad, it was a badge which said “Draughtsman” on it, and although I can’t remember who his employer was, it was the job that set him on the road to his own business, running both the office and working on the tools as a partitions and ceilings outfit, employing people who became fixtures in my childhood. Much of the time I spent growing up with my Dad was spent in, on or around building sites. I think it was a time before Health and Safety had properly taken hold.

draughtsman set

It was Dad’s success at his business that funded my Grammar School education – Like Paul I have a clear memory of the day I’d passed my entrance exams – probably the most animated I remember my Dad, who was a quiet, thoughtful man. I remember him bursting into my bedroom, envelope in hand, so excited about what he knew, that he struggled to slow down enough to explain what it was he was holding. I don’t know where my picture of me wearing my cap and grammar school uniform is now, but it was another interesting parallel to Paul’s story.

Both these things – my Dad’s business, and my attendance at Grammar School, came to a halt when the building industry buckled in places during the recession of the 1980s. Having sworn he’d never do a job he couldn’t afford to cover, or work for main contractors he didn’t really trust, he ended up doing both. When the bottom fell out of the development he was subcontracted to and he didn’t get paid, his company folded and with it, the foundations of my parents marriage, which had already been under a lot of strain.

BUILDING INDUSTRY

After those foundations gave way, he moved out, leaving Mum, my brother and I in the family home my parents owned. The school fees didn’t get paid and I was hastily found a place at a local comprehensive school. As I struggled to adjust to these changes, suddenly in the uncomfortable position of being the oldest male in the house, the house was repossessed when the mortgage wasn’t paid. I found my Dad’s first ID badge in the loft, as we were filling boxes to clear it out. I was 14 years old and putting a brave face on everything. I don’t remember the order everything happened in, and I was probably close to 15 by the time we moved into our first council house, a top-floor Maisonette, considerably smaller, colder and emptier than the home we left.

I have a lot of stories about that home. I built my first ever set of flat-pack kitchen units there. I think I did a pretty good job for a 15 year old. I came to understand that community isn’t about the people in the adjoining and nearby gardens of a comfortable middle-class life. I adjusted badly to having to find new friends and study for GCSEs. I was an angry young male. Crucially though, I had somewhere to live. It wasn’t idyllic. Some of our neighbours were probably not strictly declaring all their incomes. A lot of the food we ate was fresh but bought cheaply from a charismatic guy in a beaten up transit van, who also did a good line in knock-off VHS tapes and an ever-changing inventory of tat. Then there was the washing powder he sold – big boxes of the stuff (presumably damaged in the fall from a lorry) a recollection that had drifted deep into my memories until I saw ‘Benefits Street’.

We were safe there. It was a mix of people of different ages and outlooks and aspirations, and we survived. I had somewhere to eventually settle into school work, though I think my brother struggled more with this. We stayed in the maisonette long enough for me to pass my GCSEs and get my first part-time job in a supermarket, which was handy for helping to pay the rent and bills, and long enough for me to start A-Levels and take my first driving lessons, and long enough to pass my driving test.

We simply couldn’t afford to live anywhere else.

Perhaps towards the end of the 1980s, after early flushes of the ‘right to buy’, the provision of social housing was already beginning to be about rescuing people, and not about communities and homes. We knew our neighbours, and they knew us. The people who lived around us, then as now, didn’t fit the negative stereotypes we’re bombarded with now.

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There are principles that underpin social housing. As well as being a safety net for people in need, it’s a decent, essential model for building homes for people that can’t otherwise afford them. The public debate about housing and benefits increasingly turns this kind of tenancy into a discussion about units. Units of housing, and the numbers of people who require them. These descriptions work against the original principles of providing safe, decent homes for families.
There must be some florid comparison I could make about being given the safety and security to stop, breathe, and have a chance to change the direction I was going in from an angry, self-destructive one to something a bit more positive. There were still a lot of imperfect things about living in our first council ‘house’, but it became a home of sorts.

Perhaps I’ll get a chance to tell other parts of these stories – about babysitting for the other people who lived there, perhaps in my naiveté not realising where my neighbours went at night. About having a parking space for my first car, bought for £20 from one of the history teachers at my school. Maybe stories about having somewhere sheltered to live, even when it became apparent that on top of my Dad leaving, my Mum had decided not to live with us either. There’s probably a story or two to be told about moving from that first maisonette to a street of brand new council homes, though today that seems more like the kind of thing that happens in fairy tales.

Without the safety net of social housing, we wouldn’t have had the support we got, even if sometimes it felt like a threadbare weave that held us up. I’m sure I’d never have had the breathing space I needed to get to University and have a chance to choose bits of my own destiny. While politicians and public debate confuse aspiration with the desire to own a house, I wonder if there’s enough space to address the more fundamental need to give people a home – whatever their economic circumstances.

SAFETY NET

In quieter moments I sometimes draw comparisons between my first council house and our current one. It seems like a different world in many respects. One of the things that underscores both tenancies is the sense that, as social housing tenants we’re just like everyone else. We probably rely more on the social fabric than people who have more generous financial means, but we’re striving for the same things – a sense of self, a sense of worth and a way to be part of a settled society. That television is continuously painting us as some sort of other, as it revels in the selective details of the lives of a minority of people is a real problem. That this media is aided and abetted by a political narrative of blame and envy is even more of a problem.

I’m not ashamed of the communities I’ve lived in, and I wonder what it is that drives politicians and television production companies to try and pour shame upon us. As I try and fathom out why the positive force of social housing has become embroiled in a debate that has lost sight of the value of homes, I can only hope that a glimpse inside these three walls will help people see that homes are important for everybody, especially families who need a little extra support, like mine did.