A community worker who recalled the “extreme distress” of spending part of her childhood in temporary accommodation has described England’s recent record high homelessness figures as “heartbreaking”.
Toni-Ann Gurdon said being evicted with her mother aged 11 and spending weeks in a hotel before moving to a shared house for six months had been “a marker” in her life.
The 27-year-old, from south London, said that more than a decade on she was still working through the impacts of that situation, and voiced her concerns for the current generation of children facing homelessness.
Youth homelessness charity Centrepoint said many people across the country were experiencing “hidden homelessness – whether that’s living in temporary accommodation, sleeping on a friend’s sofa or staying awake on night buses”, describing it as a “common misconception that if you’re homeless, you’re rough sleeping on the street”.
Ms Gurdon told the PA news agency: “I worry about their physical health, I worry about their mental health, I worry about their nutrition.
“At 27, I am still working on things and building up my own confidence which is very much linked to what I went through as a child. I worry about who they will be and if they will become who they want to be.”
There were 131,370 children living in temporary accommodation as of the end of March this year – the highest level since records for that measure began in 2004.
Ms Gurdon said: “It makes me feel sad and I’m absolutely shocked. What I’m talking about, I was 11-years-old when I was going through that, that was 16 years ago.
“So to know that it’s still happening to people, but also at a record level is absolutely heartbreaking. It shouldn’t be happening.”
She recalled the “dingy, dark” basement room she had to share with her mother for months in a house which had around six other people living there.
Seeing her mother’s distress about the situation they had ended up in due to ill health and job loss affected her as a child, she added.
She said: “Sometimes (as a child) you will ask your mum ‘what are we having for dinner?’ or ‘what are we doing here?’ but in those moments I knew not to ask that. I could see she didn’t know,” Ms Gurdon said.
Recalling having to leave where they lived as a child and present to the local council as homeless before moving to a hotel and then the shared house, she said there was “extreme distress” in that moment.
She said: “I felt distressed because I realised ‘there is something wrong here, I am not going to be sleeping here tonight, I am not going to be in the room I thought I was going to be in. I actually don’t know where we’re going to be’,” she said.
Now working in various roles including as a youth ambassador for Connected Futures and a producer for Lewisham Music, she said she wanted to use what she had been through in life to help others.
She said: “I believe in weaponising your lived experiences, you must, I believe it’s your duty.”
She added that she wanted to “remove the stigma” associated with people who had been through such challenges as children, saying: “People look at me often and when I tell them some of these things, they’ll be like ‘I’d never guess’.”
Ms Gurdon received employment support from Centrepoint, as well as advice on housing.
For the current generation, she said she had hope despite the challenges they faced.
She said: “I have hope for them because I know they’re resilient. I know there are people out there – strangers that I bumped into, people who have given me help, organisations that I’ve gone to – I know they still exist, I know they’re there (to help others). So that gives me hope.”
Tom Kerridge, Centrepoint’s policy and research manager, said: “At Centrepoint, we’re seeing first-hand the lasting impact living in temporary accommodation can have on a child’s mental health.
“Losing your home is a trauma in itself, but then to be placed in inappropriate or even dangerous accommodation can seriously harm a child’s mental health and how they view their home when living independently. Many young people carry feelings of instability around for a really long time.
“We know that many people across the country are experiencing hidden homelessness – whether that’s living in temporary accommodation, sleeping on a friend’s sofa or staying awake on night buses. It’s a common misconception that if you’re homeless you’re rough sleeping on the street, but in reality so many more people are homeless and hidden from sight.
“What we need to see is the Government providing more social homes or finding innovative housing solutions that tackle the crisis we are currently facing. It is only then that we will be able to reduce the increasing number of children in temporary accommodation.”
The Government has previously outlined the funding provided to help local authorities tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, and said it was improving the availability of social housing, committing to delivering 300,000 new homes per year and investing £11.5 billion “to build the affordable, quality homes this country needs”.