The anxiety and emotion that pours into the headsets of crisis advice workers in this crowded fifth-floor Sheffield call centre offers a snapshot of the UK’s worsening homelessness crisis. Advisers at Shelter’s helpline are processing more calls than ever. Last year there was a 15% increase in the volume of calls – a reflection, staff think, of the degree to which people are struggling with rising house prices, soaring rents, cuts to housing benefit and the long shadow of the recession. A day spent at the centre provides a clear picture of the kinds of housing problems people face, as pressure on council house stock intensifies and radical changes to benefit entitlements are introduced.
An employment adviser calls on behalf of a 23-year-old client whom he is trying to help find work – a process that is complicated by the fact that the man, and his young girlfriend, have nowhere to live and are sleeping on the streets. The girlfriend is 18 weeks pregnant and, for reasons that are unclear, her father has thrown her out. Sharon Reeves, one of the helpline advisers, calmly explains the best course of action. “If she is pregnant, they would be in priority need. It sounds like the council has just fobbed them off. They should have provided them with a bed and breakfast to stay in. They should really go back to the council and challenge it,” she tells the man.
"He’s been three times already. I told him not to leave this time until he gets a B&B or a hostel. Anything is better than being on the streets," the employment adviser replies, audibly distressed by the situation faced by the couple. Reeves is touched that the employment adviser has been dismayed enough by his client’s situation to want to try to help. "Some people are still shocked, but it doesn’t surprise me – I hear it a lot," she says. She has been working in the call centre for five months and is already familiar with similar situations. "All the calls are awful when you first start. Now it already feels commonplace."
She appreciates that council staff in housing departments are under increased pressure. “It’s not easy for the council; they haven’t got any housing stock, but they just need to find them a B&B for the meantime,” she says. She moves quickly to her next call, which comes from a man who has recently come out of prison and is alternating between sleeping on the floor of his sister’s home and sleeping on the streets.
Another adviser takes a call from a young woman from London explaining that she has been forced to flee her home because of domestic violence, that she moved temporarily to a women’s refuge, which didn’t work out. She subsequently moved with her nine-year-old daughter to sleeping on the sofa of her mum’s house, but has been kicked out. When she visited the council, the housing officer suggested that she return to her marital home as some time had elapsed (five months) since her husband was violent towards her. “The woman was really horrible to me. She looked at me like dirt,” she says.
"She shouldn’t have said that. It’s unlawful," the Shelter adviser explains. "If you have been the victim of domestic violence, you shouldn’t be asked to go back there."
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