I’m a London girl.
I was born on one of London’s many historic council estates now being redeveloped as swanky flats for city types.
It wasn’t all glass and coffee shops when I was growing up.
We had no electric, just a little gas cooker on legs and gas lights.
Mum, dad and 5 children in 2 bedrooms.
We moved out of there to a 3-bed maisonette, which we thought was very posh – height of luxury. It had electricity! We didn’t realise mum had to put money in the meter and we’d run around playing with the lights.
The neighbours were a bit snooty about mum working and leaving her children, but mum believed she was giving us a better standard of living – and she was.
We were never hungry or cold or without shoes or winter coats.
We all had bronchial problems and the Metropolitan Hospital advised us to move out of London. We did a Council House exchange and moved to Haverhill in Suffolk. I missed London so much – I’m a London girl!
I left school at 15 and got a job at a local electronics company. After seven years in Suffolk we came back to live in North London where I worked in a shoe store.
We sold old stock High Street brands. My job on a Monday morning was to clean off the brand names with methylated spirits. I earned £11 for a 6-day week.
I got married at 17, my family were dead against it but gave in eventually. He had a motor bike, long hair and a leather jacket – bit of a ‘Greaser’ I suppose.
He was a huge man, very violent – physically, verbally and emotionally. I ended up in hospital three times with broken ribs, black eyes and broken nose.
The rest of the time I just put up with it – put on a brave face – put up and shut up.
After he’d been violent, he always said he loved me and promised he’d never do it again.
I was 21 and we were all going to a party. He was going to be late, so I went on without him. When he finally arrived, I opened the door to him – the next thing I knew, I was coming round in Chase Farm Hospital.
He’d knocked me out and I was in hospital for three days.
I went home to mum and dad, it was 1978, I was 21 and I didn’t have another relationship till 1990 when I was 33.
I lived with my next partner for the next 28 years.
We were very happy, we didn’t drink or smoke but we enjoyed going to the pub for the darts club – bit boring I suppose, but we liked it. With hindsight, I suppose I was a bit of a dogsbody for him and his family, but I didn’t mind.
Things took a turn when his mum fell ill. Me and his mum got on really well, I was her main carer and saved her life a couple of times.
My partner became very anxious and difficult around his mum’s ill health and it put a huge strain on our relationship. I suggested we try to talk about it.
He refused to discuss anything and said “If you don’t like it, you can **** off – it’s not your ****ing house.”
I popped out to get his mum’s medicine and pension and when I returned, he’d locked me out.
The family tried to mediate, but he just wouldn’t budge. After 28 years, he just wiped me from his life.
When my niece finally made contact so I could collect my ID and belongings, his sister said “We don’t want anything to do with her – she’s out of our family, she’s out of our lives.”
I was in total shock, we’d had a really good strong relationship until his mum’s illness. His whole personality seemed to change . I was absolutely devastated – I was heart broken.
I sofa surfed with friends and family for 17 months. One day I’d just had enough of imposing on everyone and I left to live on the streets.
I stayed in libraries all day, I’d shower at my sister’s and friends would give me food. I stayed awake at bus stops all night.
One day I was at the bus stop outside the library and a woman from the flats opposite came over with tea and toast and said, “Excuse me, but are you homeless?”
I asked why and she said “Don’t be embarrassed, I’ve been there myself.”
She told me to go to the Manna homeless drop in centre in Canonbury.
I’d been on the streets for five weeks.
I wasn’t frightened, I’d just come to the end – I didn’t ever think of killing myself, I just didn’t care what happened to me anymore.
No one realises how mentally and physically exhausting it is on the streets.
Will I be safe? Will someone attack me? When will I eat? Will I fall ill?
– you’re constantly on alert.
This was all during The Beast from the East at the start of this year – temperatures had plummeted all over the country in some of the worst winter conditions the British Isles had experienced in along time.
I pitched up at the Manna drop in centre for the homeless on the Tuesday and by Friday, I’d got a bed at Shelter From The Storm.
I was in pretty poor shape, I’d lost loads of weight. My first few days were very emotional.
I hadn’t slept in a bed for 5 weeks.
People were so kind and caring – didn’t judge me. I had a shower and got my clothes washed, had a lovely proper cooked hot dinner – there was company, people who cared.
I could finally relax and feel human again. The counsellor at the shelter really helped me get some perspective on the things I’ve experienced.
We’ve finally sorted out my paperwork – it was a real shock to have to prove my existence for the last 28 years.I’m waiting for an assessment for supported housing – my own proper little home for life – maybe a little bit of a garden?I’d love a garden, I’m good with a garden. It will be the first time in my life I have ever lived on my own.
After 61 years, I can’t wait.
For Barbara it was important, as winter approaches, to tell her story so people understand how quickly anybody can end up sleeping rough, like she was. And how there is help at hand to get back on your feet. Barbara is one of the many people with many different stories who have been referred to Shelter from the Storm.
Shelter from The Storm was founded in Islington, North London, in 2007 by Sheila Scott and Louie Salvoni to provide shelter and support for the homeless and dispossessed arriving in London from anywhere.
According to Sheila: “we’d both raised and educated our families in Islington but were shocked that in this seemingly prosperous borough we were virtually walking over rough sleepers to get to the supermarket. They were sleeping in doorways and the beautiful Georgian Squares. Shelter from the Storm is our response to some of the most marginalised people in our society who are living literally on our doorstep. We started with one night in a church hall, now our shelter operates every night of the year, completely free to guests.”
Without a penny from the government, Shelter from the Storm provides around 15,000 beds a year, helps guests into permanent accommodation, employment, provides counselling, legal advice and support, English tuition, not to mention serves up over 18,000 dinners per year.
To find out more and help Shelter from the Storm shelter more guests like Alan, visit SFTS.org.uk
*Barbara’s name has been changed to protect her and others.