The landlord gave legal notification of eviction. 28 days to leave. From the night of the announcement. He was selling. A good house off the Falls; the heating never worked (the winters were brutal; £70-£80 a week on gas, like Siberia in spring, we needed our heads looked at) but spacious enough for a family with three young boys. Tenants for seven years. We were out and it was my fault. My wife knew all along: ‘What if he ever decides to sell?’ I was the cause of our children being thrown out onto the street. All the stability and family cosiness we had fostered in the frozen palace was now destroyed.
We separated our lives into boxes. KEEP, CHARITY and DUMP. The latter boxes ridiculously overfilled. Many visits to the Kennedy Way and Springfield Road dumps robbed our house of its character. While we gutted the house of all our memories, our landlord came to make repairs to all of the leaks and cracks. Seven years of leaks and cracks and not a tool had been lifted. The week of our eviction notice he re-tiled the roof.
The other rentals were the pits. The rent in Beechmount was £100 more than the frozen palace we were being turfed out of. There was a two-bedroom mid-terrace near the boys’ school and a well-fed rat welcomed us as the estate agent showed us through the door. Wires from a hastily detached electric fire ran across the tiles like varicose veins on the body of a corpse. The damp in the living room, coupled with the smell, discouraged us from venturing further. The estate agent looked at my wife and she looked at me, tears in her eyes, and we thanked him and moved on. The next place was miles away. Two buses from anywhere. The kids would have to change schools, leave the school they loved.
We went to the Housing Executive. You have to apply to become homeless. Homelessness gets you seventy points. Providing we didn’t find an alternative, these would be awarded whenever we left the house. A further twenty points would be added upon six months of us being homeless. Whispers of properties coming onto the market tiptoed across our soon-to-be former neighbours’ lips. They hoped we’d stay local. Other voices said we should get someone to send us a death threat. Intimidation gets you 200 points, the golden number; the number of Housing Executive points required in West Belfast to get offered a house. In fact, any decline in our circumstances could mean an increase in our points. We had waded into this buoyed by gross naivety. Rather than start trying to manipulate the system at this stage we chose to trust that something good would come. People thought that with three kids you’d be a cert for a house. Conditions for many of those above us on the Housing Executive waiting list were worse than ours.
We had no time for blame, no time for anguish and stress (though in our fleeting idle moments we panicked to hyperventilation) and we had no time to decide where we should continue to bring up our children, where we should try to lay foundations. So we scoured the market for rentals. We showed up to view rental properties alongside the estate agent and some twenty-plus others: families, couples and young, working people shuffling around a kitchen together. The landlord for each property decides who gets the house. We liked a place off the Whiterock Road. We signed the forms and applied for the house. We borrowed the deposit and first month’s rent (£600 + £600) and were ready to pay. The house was smaller than the one we had and there was no garden. From the twenty-plus who had viewed the house, the landlord had fifteen applications. He chose another family so we moved on.
Pride would not allow me to accept that we would become homeless and end up in a hostel. My wife assessed the rentals and concluded that at the end of a twelve-month lease in a new rental we could be back in the same situation with a landlord wishing to sell the property or move in his niece or cousin. Thus we went with the Housing Executive. They were making no promises. It could take six months to gain a place in a hostel such was the demand. We were at the foot of the waiting list for hostels and homeless shelters in West Belfast. We were advised to torture them. Go down every day, first thing in the morning, let it be known that your case is urgent and desperate and that’s the only way you’ll have a chance. We couldn’t make it every morning, but Great Victoria Street became a regular haunt. My wife wouldn’t let the kids go in; didn’t want them to see how far we’d fallen. We went to the park while she sorted our lives. When she returned to us her eyes were stained with tears of shame.
With no place to go and no place to keep them, all of our belongings were moved into storage. Settee, bunk bed, our bed, the baby’s cot, garden furniture, the kids’ swing set, TV stand, wardrobes, utensils, side tables, cabinets, chest of drawers and dining table. If we didn’t throw them out or give them away they went to storage. We’d get them back if ever we got a house.
After twenty days we had emptied the frozen palace, sleeping on bare mattresses on the wooden floors of empty rooms. We had to leave. All of those seven years were tainted by those last days. We were thankful for the life we had there. Thankful for the children we had raised there.
We ended up in my wife’s father’s house in North Belfast. An alien land barely ten minutes away. With no fixed abode, no place to call our own, the five of us had landed in a single man’s rundown house. The day we got there my wife took sick. She was exhausted and bedridden. Ten points were awarded due to the burden on our mental health. We received twenty more for overcrowding (sharing a bathroom: 10 / sharing a kitchen: 10). I tended the kids as best I could (the ducks at the Waterworks were plied with slices of pan bread) and made their Mommy as comfortable as possible. But I couldn’t pull us out of the hole that one month before was impossible.
The kids were off school for their summer holidays and they kept expecting us to go home. Their whole lives spent in a single place in the west of the city now uprooted. Now they watched movies in their Grandda’s house while I cleaned and made them chicken & chips. The first time they’d been there was the day we moved in. My wife’s sickness escalated. Since we’d moved in she’d barely descended the stairs. We would move from stopgap to temporary to transient with a seven-, four- and one-year-old.
My wife received a call from the Housing Executive. We were offered a room in a hostel on the Grosvenor Road. A mother of three young boys had hung herself and there was a vacancy. As mother to three young boys, herself vulnerable given the circumstances, my wife chose to pass on the offer. We would wait despite having nowhere to wait.
After a few weeks lost in the North we got a chance at a homeless shelter in South Belfast. In absolute defeat we rejoiced. Another family had been deported. Humility is a characteristic learned over time, ours was learned through shame, and shame was aggressively living on us now. My wife was the lead claimant for our situation so she was the person the wardens explained the rules to. At seven o’clock each night we were telephoned to ensure all five of us were in. Fire drills would run weekly and we had to vacate the building and congregate in the shared garden. Our parents would have to sign in to see us and due to child protection they could not be in the apartment alone with our kids, their grandchildren. There would be no alcohol and once a week we would have our kitchenette, two bedrooms and bathroom inspected. The contents of the rooms were counted and recorded. For the five of us there were three plastic forks, three plastic knives, three plastic spoons, one pot, one kettle, four wooden chairs, an empty TV stand and a wooden patio sofa in the living area. My sickly wife and I lay on a bed that made a chorus of elephant trumpets each time we moved. Simply to exhale was an indulgence we could little afford. The springs had long been sprung on the mattress. We lay frozen, our baby next to us awakening every time my wife or I succumbed to the temptation of movement. We knew we were fortunate to be in this place. The water was warm and we made it comfortable with a loaned mattress topper and our TV and DVDs for the kids. We tended the flat with the utmost care and made the homeless shelter our home.
At the hostel our next-door neighbour was from Sudan. Ndal had two boys and two girls. Aged five and under. She’d been donated an old television and I’d picked up an indoor aerial to tune it in. The four children, the youngest only four months old, studied the TV as I worked with the settings and adjusted the cheap aerial. The sound went up of its own accord. For a mere matter of seconds it would be at the perfect listening volume, 30-45, but then it continued to rise to the point where the two babies began to scream. The children gave me high fives and smiled at me like I had performed a great kindness yet the TV was wrecked and I was powerless to fix it. Our other neighbours were women and their children escaping aggressive partners, families fleeing extreme poverty, famine and war. Families from Serbia, Somalia, Ghana, Libya, Uganda, Namibia, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and West Belfast. All of us hoping to be housed.
In our block of flats the fire alarm was broken. Every night the alarm sounded on the hour. We lined our sleeping children up in the courtyard whilst the flats on each floor were checked for fire. The whole apartment shook with the siren. The kids learned to sleep right through. When the alarm sounded we lay face down and prayed that our lives would be sorted, prayed for a place we could call ours, but mostly we prayed that the bloody alarm would stop at least until morning.
The holidays finished and it took an hour to get the kids across the city to school. I smiled through it for them. We played and messed like we were on our holidays. Our location may have been in flux but our family had to be closer than ever. And steady, stable. Our eldest knew. He saw his father collapsing before him. So his father kept up, up, up. Never going down. It would be easier for my wife to get a house on her own for herself and the kids. It was unthinkable. Without me they would be better off. They could be housed if I wasn’t there stopping them. They might get extra points for distress. My wife stood by me. Lord knows why.
Before this had all happened my mother had bought us tickets to the theatre. Neither my wife nor I had ever been to the Lyric before. My parents watched the boys overnight while we got washed and shaved in the hostel sink. The bath plug didn’t fit the sink hole. We got dressed all nice and received permission from the warden to stay out until midnight. The tickets said £27.50 apiece. Not only would we attend but we would make it worthwhile. Before the show we spoke to folk who couldn’t believe how well the pair of us looked. I was a fraud in rich man’s dress. On the stage Joan of Arc was winning wars on the strength of her faith. By faith we had come to this point and by faith we would continue or our family would die trying.
Since we lost the house my wife and I had barely touched each other. That night, to the merciless backbeat of the perpetual alarm we rediscovered one another upon the crippling hostel divan.
We were two and a half months in the hostel. We had 150 points with the Housing Executive. Only further misfortune would gain us more. I applied for jobs that I did not get. On a Friday morning we went to see a politician in the west of the city about our housing situation. He listened and made notes and we all accepted that there were those who were in more desperate need than us. Late in the afternoon we got a call. A single-let was available. The councillor requested we didn’t advertise his role in our good fortune. We were offered a two-up two-down in Beechmount, on the same street as the kids’ school.
I explained to Ndal in the flat next door that we had got a house. She had little English and I have no Arabic. I didn’t think she understood, but her last words to me were, ‘We need a house, too.’ I had nothing to say. This single woman with four babies would remain (with that TV) while we were spirited away.
The house we moved to is a temporary accommodation, we’re still classed as homeless. The family to our left is from Syria and the family on our right is from Sudan. After six months without a home we got another twenty points, we got more points for distress, a further ten for the rising damp. After much effort we finally succeeded in reaching 200 points. All of the new builds in our area have been allocated to those with Intimidation points and those forced to leave communities due to their involvement in drug-dealing and assaults and house break-ins. Having attained 200 points, the golden number, we’re now being offered their old houses. In our single-let there are holes in the ceiling and in the walls. There’s a sewage problem which causes an intermittent odour. There’s woodworm and dry rot. But the house is cosy. And the alarm only goes off when I’m doing bacon.