Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Now is a period of housing uncertainty, jumping between safe havens, spending six weeks here and three weeks there. This is not the first time for me; in five years in London I had many moments when I didn't know where my home will be in two weeks. The price of instability is often confusion and despair. During these periods I remember cycling through the streets and looking at people's houses, through the windows of the warmly-lit living rooms, where people seemed safe and happy. I kept asking myself: Why do I not have a home like this? How is it that some people manage to find a place to live?

My answer would usually be that I chose to abandon the "normal" way and live in squats, abandoned and often derelict houses where I had no legal right to stay, and therefore had subjected myself to constant dislocation. But I always knew that this was an illusion. Housing is this city's biggest problem, and precarious accommodation affects far more people than squatters. One doesn't need the official numbers of 70,000 'officially homeless households' in London: almost everyone I know spent weeks or months sleeping on friends' floor or on the living room sofa.

Renting promises an allure of stability, but the truth can be very different. I know enough nightmare stories: J paid a first month rent and deposit to crooks, only to find that the flat was not theirs; M was forced out of his tiny room in a luxury Hampstead flat by the collapse of the ceiling; S fled her noisy landlord who would embark on DIY projects in the middle of the night; P chose to leave when her housemate started sending her emails of spite and hatred. These stories may well be the exception, but they prove that paying extortionate sums of money to landlords doesn't necessarily give you a stable roof above your head, or a safe place to come to at the end of the day. Living in this eight-million-ant colony makes one vulnerable to random, unstable, and precarious circumstances. This cannot be avoided.

We always underestimate the power of our environment to determine our lives: London has taught me this lesson so many times. The advertising billboards tell you you can be anything you want, as long as you buy what they sell. They want you to believe that you control your future: it's all about your decisions, your choices. But again and again you find your life dictated by events and powers over which you have no control, and often little knowledge. Fighting this makes no sense: but dealing with these unchosen circumstances still leaves much room to find in myself calm, strength and hope.

No comments: