Posted: 20 February 2017

Shining a light on the realities of debt

Our guest blogger, 'Sarah'*, shares her troubling experience with debt and looks at how a breathing space could have alleviated the devastating impact it had on her life.

At the start of my twenties, I had a good life.  I had a decent job, a lovely flat, a partner and a small child.

This all changed when the relationship with my child's father broke down suddenly. He moved out, and with just one salary coming in, I was unable to afford to cover the rent and bills. As a mum of a pre-school toddler, there was no way I could take on a second job. I soon found that my salary wouldn’t stretch to cover the cost of childcare, so I had no choice but to leave my job and take care of my child.

Faced with an impossible choice

 I had never claimed benefits before, and I assumed that they would cover the whole cost of the rent, but instead I was left with a £200 a month shortfall.

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Ask your MP to publicly back our plans to give families in debt a breathing space

On realising how desperate things had become, my family stepped in to help pay off my outstanding debts, but by this time, my circumstances were so bad that I was in a constant state of 'catch up'. No adult wants to  beg for handouts from their family. Despite their help I soon fell into arrears and I was faced with an impossible choice -– try and pay the rent and bills or buy food and clothes for my child.

Nowhere to turn

I notified my landlord as soon as my circumstances changed, and, as he had always seemed so reasonable, I asked him for some time in order to sort out my debts. Unfortunately, he refused before informing me that he was actually planning a rent increase for the flats in our building and that if I couldn't afford the rent, he would seek to evict us.

I contacted all the companies I owed money to and received the same responses - pay up or we will send the bailiffs round.

I did not qualify for social housing, and I didn’t know where else to turn.

My life had turned upside down

In just a matter of months, my life had turned upside down and, understandably, I became depressed.

I contacted various agencies, such as Citizens Advice, who were sympathetic, but, ultimately, there wasn’t anything they could do to prevent me from losing my home and being placed into hostel accommodation.

In desperation, I sought counselling but, on hearing my predicament, they simply stated 'what do you expect me to do, give you a house?'

This was shattering.

'what do you expect me to do, give you a house?'

My son and I were shunted around various hostels. All but one were completely unsuitable for families. Drug dealing openly occurred in the reception areas, and the walls in one room were covered in punch marks and blood from the previous inhabitants.

Another 'Bed and Breakfast' made us queue up for a couple of raw eggs and two slices of stale bread each morning. As the room had no cooking facilities, and the communal kitchen area was filthy, we often went without breakfast.

I was horrified

The shared bathroom facilities were no better - the bath was disgusting and people urinated and sometimes defecated in it. I visited a friend one day and she observed that I 'smelt' of the hostel. I was horrified.

Eventually, after much lobbying, we were placed in a family hostel.

I was extremely worried about the effect this was having on my child, and so I ended up farming him out to family. I was fortunate to have such support, and am aware so many people do not.  I cannot stress how scary and dangerous these environments were. I suspect they still are.

Need for a breathing space

As awful as the hostels were, the Housing Advice Service advised that this was the only way we would be considered for social housing. It took 18 months of unstable accommodation before we could finally move on.

Had there been a breathing space at that time - to give me time to sort out mounting debts - we would probably not have had to endure this dreadful experience. A breathing space from my outstanding bills and the constant letters and calls would have, at least, given me an emotional break from the worrying and struggling. It would have helped me to think calmly about my circumstances and plan a solution.  As it was, everything seemed to crash down at once and became untenable.

Before this happened, I was, to use a colloquial term 'sorted'. But just one life event can have a devastating impact on a family's life, and precipitate a domino effect which can lead to depression, homelessness and more.

everything seemed to crash down at once and became untenable

I applaud The Children's Society's wonderful initiative to shine a light on the realities of debt. Politicians and society as a whole must work to ensure families are supported and that the very real issue of debt, and its consequences, are alleviated.

Ask your MP to publicly support a breathing space scheme

*We have used a pseudonym for 'Sarah' to protect her identity

By Nicole Fassihi - Campaigns team
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