Advisers at Shelter’s national helpline are doing everything they can to make the call center office feel like a cheerful environment. Tinsel with Christmas baubles has been hung from the ceiling, tiny silver Christmas trees and felt reindeer have been stuck on the tops of computer screens, cotton-wool icicles are hanging from the windows and colleagues have brought in mince pies and chocolates to share.
It is understandable why maintaining a good mood in the office is important, as calls coming in at a rate of about 500 a day are from people facing imminent homelessness or already sleeping rough and seeking advice about how to find somewhere new to live.
The anxiety and emotion that pours into the headsets of crisis advice workers in this crowded fifth-floor Sheffield, England, call center offers a snapshot of Britain’s worsening homelessness crisis. Advisers at Shelter’s helpline are processing more calls than ever. Last year there was a 15 percent 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 benefits and the long shadow of the recession. A day spent at the center provides a clear picture of the kinds of housing problems people face, as pressure on public housing space 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 [public housing] 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 bed-and-breakfast 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 appreciates that public housing staff 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 bed-and-breakfast for the meantime,” she says.
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 did not work out. She subsequently moved with her nine-year-old daughter to sleep on the sofa of her mother’s house, but has been kicked out. When she visited the public housing office, the housing officer suggested that she return to her marital home as some time had elapsed (five months) since her husband was violent toward 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.”