Was Banksy making a statement about homelessness with his water tank elephant? Or just cracking a joke? Regardless of his intention, the message the world seems to be receiving is that homelessness is an elephant in the world’s front room. (Link to article follows at end of this post.)
My personal experience in the last few years has had me asking: What exactly is homelessness? I grew up moving from place to place, went to 17 schools in 12 years. Instability was part of my upbringing. I don’t think my father ever thought of our transience as homelessness, as we always had a house to live in – well almost – except for the year we lived in England when I was six.
Dad had resigned from his job as minister of the United Church in Williamstown, Ontario and we had returned to England. He gave up being a vicar for one year and took a job as a school teacher at St. Michael’s private school. Before he got that job we stayed with relatives, and for a time lived in a caravan until it got too cold, then we moved to a cottage on the beach. When he got the teaching post, Mother took a job as matron of the girls’ boarding house and we moved in there.
After a year of teaching, Dad returned to preaching, and we went back to Canada. Nova Scotia for two years, New Brunswick for seven, back to N.S. for one, back to N.B. for one, then I left home and carried on moving.
It wasn’t something I wanted to do, it’s just what happened.
As an adult, I settled in Ottawa, Canada for 12 years and eventually pulled up stakes in the late 80’s and went to Montreal, then out to British Columbia where I settled for 7 years, then the States for 18 months, back to Montreal for 7 years then in 2002, Europe.
When I was living in Montreal I was friendly with a woman who invited me to her 40th birthday party, where I met friends she had had since she was five. I was amazed that someone could have a 40th birthday party and have a friend that they had known for so many years in attendance. But I still didn’t perceive myself as homeless. I always had a roof over my head. I was never sleeping rough – and that’s what I identified as homeless. Though I had a yearning in my heart for a physical space that was home. A place I owned, a place where I could leave all my things and go off travelling and return to, and there I would find all the mementos of my life, neatly ordered just as I had left them.
Realising that wasn’t going to happen any time soon, I embarked on an adventure that took me to Hungary where I lived for four years. There I met many people who had known each other since they were children, and it was perhaps there that I really started to wonder where home for me really was. People would ask: “Where are you from?” “Canada.” ” Where in Canada?” I never knew what to say. “All over,’ became the short answer. It was easier than telling people I had no hometown.
In Spain, where I lived for three years, it became a serious and sensitive issue. I couldn’t seem to settle in any one flat. I was flat sharing, and I was always the last one in and the first one out. It was tedious, tiresome, exhausting and eventually, frightening.
It was after moving into a flat by myself, settling in and starting to feel like I finally had a stable base, then being told the flat was being sold and I had to leave, that I really started to understand how people became homeless.
I had always thought it was because they were irresponsible and couldn’t pay, but I always paid, yet still I was being asked to leave; and I realised I had no security and I could very easily land on the street – through no fault of my own – sleeping in the rough, and then I really would be homeless.
Seeking more stability, I left Spain and came to England where I quickly discovered more of the same disregard for renters. It’s as if we are non-citizens; it’s as if our lives and what we can contribute to society – beyond money – are of no significance; it’s as if we are living cash machines – insert the key to a dwelling and extract cash until we as cash dispensers no longer suit the owners. We are then asked to leave. It doesn’t matter how good a tenant you are, if the owner wants you out – for whatever reason – you are out. Which is basically what has happened with the place I’m currently living in.
The writing was on the wall when I experienced the illegal entry of the letting agent during the first month of my tenancy. When that happened, I knew very clearly that they didn’t perceive this dwelling as my home, a place of sanctuary from the world, a place where I nurture and love myself so that I can contribute to society in a positive way. No, this place I was making my home was merely another cash dispenser, for the letting agent and the landlord, and I was merely the machine that spat out the cash on a monthly basis. And the law does nothing to protect me. N-O-T-H-I-N-G.
It’s no coincidence that Banksy is British. What is most shocking is that this country which runs rampant all over the world, in the name of democracy and human rights, would have such a blatant disregard for renters in the private sector. The message I’m receiving is either own a home or get a council flat.
Yet under Thatcher’s government, the social housing was sold – purportedly to enable all those people to become homeowners. Buy-to-let property became the rage, letting agents stepped in to ‘manage’ the properties, their fees to the landlords being added to the rents charged, and the renters paying a fee to rent the properties. But still, renters have no security, in fact perhaps they have less, as the letting agents have to keep the cash flowing, and the way to do that is to rent the properties under their management, which means keep those tenants moving. The result? Cash-strapped, emotionally stressed renters, which ends up as a drain on the NHS, but it seems, according to the law, the rights of those property owners must be preserved at whatever cost!
We get a six-months short hold tenancy agreement during and after which we can be asked to leave with two months notice, the earliest leaving date being the last day of the six months.
Six months. That’s barely long enough to settle in. Yet that’s what the law gives us. I know lots of renters who are constantly being asked to move, and just as many who seem to get into a place and stay there for years – yet – I know one single parent who has moved six times in her five-year- old’s life. What is that doing to the child?
I recently met a young woman from Czech Republic. She lives in Brighton and owns a flat and a house in her home country. She lets out the flat and uses the income from that to maintain the house. I asked her why she keeps the house. “Because that’s where I lived as a child. That’s where I grew up. It’s my home.”
So is that home? And if you don’t have that, are you homeless?
People need stability to thrive. They need a home. And a home is more than a dwelling. It’s a place filled with childhood memories, and a community filled with childhood friends. It’s a geographic location you can return to and remember what shaped you. Failing that, a stable dwelling offers a person a tremendous amount of potential-developing security. You put things places, maybe you don’t use that thing for a year, then one day you need it and there it is, exactly where you left it.
In the transient world we are living in, it seems home has become a privilege. But home is a human necessity. Or do I place more importance on it because I didn’t have a childhood home?
Homelessness is an elephant in the front room on this planet. But how many property owners, especially those of the buy-to-let variety, are prepared to give up a higher rent, or profit from the sale of a property, to preserve it as the home of the person living there and paying the mortgage?
I think I should write a book called Home, and write it as a manifestation of the home I have always yearned for and in that way create a home for myself. If only I could get a place to live where I could stay long enough to get the first draft done, and sent to a publisher, and receive a reply before my address changes! Maybe I can just write it as a blog, then all I need is a laptop and internet connection.
Perhaps in Canada, or Germany – where renters who pay their rent and bills can stay put. But in the U.K.? It will take a miracle: a kind landlord, with a social conscience, who recognises a tenant who pays, and who makes a home in their rented property, as a valuable asset. Either that, or a generous angel. I’m ready for either. Heck, I’d be happy just move into a flat that I rented directly from the owner rather than a profiteering company.
Do I have to leave England – the country of my birth and ancestry – to get that? The place where I’m connecting with like-minded souls, the likes of which I wanted in Canada and never found? But is that as much about my evolution as a person and my connection with true self, as it is about the geographic location? I don’t think so, as one group I’m active with here has a member who travels from Bristol to participate. Mind you, that same group has a founding member who lives six months of the year on the west coast of Canada!
I think it’s worth mentioning that my British ancestry has been traced to 1200 AD. My grandparents were homeowners and theirs before them, and all my British relatives – with the exception of my cousins’ children – own their homes. I guess my situation is the elephant in the room! Some of my relatives think I should go back to Canada, but I’m British by birth and ancestry and have no home in Canada. So where would I go? Though I do miss the forests, and years ago I wrote a poem about the forests being home.