For many, Christmas means hanging stockings above a roaring fire, decorating a twinkling tree and filling the fridge with a feast.
I’m spending my third Christmas on the council’s waiting list for a permanent residence.
I haven’t put decorations up as the tiny, dank two-bedroom flat I’m in doesn’t feel like ‘home’.
My two sons, Ishmael, 15, and CJ-Isaiah, six months, have no choice but to cope and I feel guilty every day.
My baby’s first Christmas shouldn’t be spent sleeping beside his mother in bed because there’s no space in the bedroom for a cot.
My teenager Ishmael’s embarrassed to invite friends over as he’s squeezed into a small box room and there’s only a tiny living room. The bathroom’s had water leaking – literally gushing sometimes – from the flat above since we were placed here in September 2019.
‘Temporary accommodation’ shouldn’t mean three years and yet here I am, a single mother, trying to raise my family in a cramped, clammy flat.
The carpet’s soaked from the damp, causing a constant musty smell, and the bathroom ceiling’s dangerously water damaged.
I worry it will cave in but the landlord says we can’t live here while work’s carried out so we’re stuck in limbo waiting for a suitable property to move to.
But despite its flaws this flat is luxury compared to the hostel room we were first placed in.
That was crawling with cockroaches, communal bins overflowing with filth, and we had to share a kitchen and bathroom with drunks, drug-users and ex-prisoners.
We endured 14 months in that hellhole and, for all the problems with our current flat, I’m grateful for small mercies; we have a roof, however leaky, over our heads.
I often wonder how on earth we ended up here but the truth is that my situation could happen to anyone.
Ten years ago I was privately renting a two-bedroom flat – perfect for Ishamel, then five, and I – when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
It was a shock as, aside from some headaches I’d felt fine, but within six months of my diagnosis, as I walked to pick up Ishmael from school, my legs went to jelly and buckled beneath me.
The doctor had explained that MS would affect my nerves and that my quality of life will eventually deteriorate. While MS doesn’t kill directly, it’s often the case that those with the condition die from complications such as pneumonia.
But I count myself lucky because the progress of the condition has been slow, so far.
Refusing to let MS define me, I soldiered on until one afternoon in September 2012, I felt really sick. After vomiting, I headed to the GP because my speech became slurred.
It turned out I was having a mini-stroke that affected the left side of my body; it still goes numb on and off, but I recovered well.
At the time my mum, Myra, could help out while I struggled to care for myself and Ishmael as well as juggling my full time job as a finance officer.
Within months, we both moved in with her. An incredible woman, Mum had the strength I needed. Until, in February 2014, she grew seriously unwell.
At 73, she’d been putting off going to the doctors but tests confirmed she had lung cancer. She died just two weeks later, leaving us devastated.
Mum was the glue that held our family together and we took comfort in reminiscing about how she’d hosted the best Christmases. She’d insist on having a real tree and on the day itself she’d prepare a traditional West Indian breakfast followed by a full roast with all the trimmings.
Nothing had ever been too much for her with me and my six siblings to care for and suddenly she was gone.
Then, just three weeks after her funeral, an eviction notice landed on our doorstep.
One of my sisters was re-housed – moved to a single bed flat where there was no room for me – but because Ishmael and I hadn’t officially been registered as residents we’d no rights.
In June 2018, we were evicted and Ishmael and I were placed in temporary accommodation in the hellish hostel.
That Christmas, mourning all I’d lost, and with my MS flaring up, I simply couldn’t get out of bed.
Unable to put on a smile, I sent Ishmael to my brother Rodney’s house as planned to have the happy Christmas he deserved.
Meanwhile, for my Christmas lunch, alone, I ate a single slice of toast. I’d reached my lowest ebb.
Still, I recognise that it was not the worst situation in the world. I’ve kept my job, my kids are clothed and fed, but I’ve still got debts and I feel stuck.
We aren’t on the streets like many people imagine ‘homelessness’ to mean but it is miserable being so powerless.
Despite my illness and two sons, I’m not classed as an emergency case, and there are hundreds more in desperate need.
I’m hopeful that next year we will find a place to call home but the housing crisis is getting worse due to Covid-19.
A recent report by Shelter revealed over a quarter of a million (253,000) people in England are homeless and living in temporary accommodation through the pandemic – the highest figure for 14 years – and half of these are children. This figure has risen by 83% over the last 10 years – equivalent to 115,000 more people.
These people are feeling isolated, often struggling to eat or wash and, remembering my awful Christmas in 2018, I know all too keenly the impact it has on your mental health.
Yet again, this Christmas I’m in no position to host so a close friend, who is in my support bubble, is taking us in and I am beyond thankful.
It will be quiet, nothing like how my mum used to have us all shrieking with laughter.
I long for the day I can create memories like those for Ishmael and little CJ-Isaiah and return the favour to my brother, and my dear friend.
As a mum you want to give your kids everything but Ishmael understands the situation – a sensitive child – all he ever wants is a tracksuit or trainers and he always urges me to wait until the January sales.
I’ve a couple of toys for the baby – a cuddly baby shark – and that’s it. People are what make Christmas, not gifts, and I’m counting my blessings.
My boys are healthy, and, for now, my MS symptoms are being kept at bay although I have relapses without warning.
Do not feel pity for me – I simply urge you to cherish your family and the place you call home this Christmas.
To donate to Shelter’s urgent winter appeal and give hope to families facing homelessness, please visit www.shelter.org.uk/donate.
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