ODE TO THE RED HOUSE
By Dawn M. Sanders
‘The Red House’? I thought to myself as I was being temporarily rehoused in Exeter after seeking refuge at a friend’s place in Bristol for 5 weeks upon coming south, sounds like a flaming brothel!
In fact, if one has to be formal, it’s officially, the Red House Hotel – so I was told by several taxi drivers, used to be a good carvery and pub and hotel – not anymore…
As I had finally touched down in Exeter – late September as the leaves just started to turn and the kids were back at school, my no-fixed-abode status was at least then, recognised.
The room was small, a wardrobe at the end of the bed, a bedside table, a small bathroom with shower, small kitchenette with an extended counter top for stowing my laptop and what soon became a mounting pile of letters.
It would be home until the council made its decision on whether or not ‘they thought’ I made myself homeless.
So the endless flat viewings ensued – ending in rejection by default – due to my jobless/benefit recipient status.
Shit-on-there-shoe – or at least that’s how, not only landlords, but most of the letting agents treated someone like me.
“We want um, young professionals” one snob actually finally came out and said to me – others were less condescending and explained that if a landlord had a certain type of mortgage, it wouldn’t allow housing benefit.
I thought to myself okay, so a lot of people are getting cut off and it throws everyone, the landlord and tenant into chaos, but for the most part, the Tories perpetuate the hated under-class culture of “those scroungers…”
It didn’t matter how I stressed on rental applications that, I’m a newly qualified journalist, mature and looking for journalism jobs i.e. respectable and all that, it was banging my head against a stone wall because, what used to be: right, I’ve got the money, I’ll take it… when it came to renting in the private sector, is now like applying for a job itself and if there’s an application by someone who has work, they’re automatically viewed as the glittering prize and your cast aside like unwanted junk mail.
Month after bloody month it went on and on and on and, what I had dubbed ‘the cage’ my little room at the Red House, had become my sanctuary.
3a.m, I’m sitting up in bed trawling twitter – there’s shouting out in the hall. They all mix, but not with me – forever the outsider among outsiders…
Once I stood outside the front door of the Red House – waiting for a taxi. Okay, so I was probably in an awkward spot – standing slightly in the way of cars coming into the car park, so instead of just reminding me, this lass gets up from their conversation at the picnic table, which had halted when I came outside, she was followed by a guy from the picnic table.
The girl tried to simply move me – as if I were a damn statue: What the fuck” I said, as they both closed in on me, like I was easy prey and they went to sit back down – keeping silent with stares burning into my back as I got into the taxi.
‘I haven’t got the patience for this shit’ I surmised in my mind and wasn’t bothered to mix with anyone. Any patience, resolve or efforts to form comraderies, simply didn’t exist in my frazzled state of mind and body.
A shame though, as I would think from time to time – we all had our own story, our own private hells to get through, yet coped in different ways.
My way had reached critical point: the depression, the constant demoralising manoeuvres of flat hunting, losing the best part of the court battle with Sheffield City council vultures…
And, that lovely place, that gorgeous cottage I had seen in Crediton, but finally decided not to take? I couldn’t stop crucifying myself over it, because the first landlord to be okay with housing and I go sketchy about being in a small town – out of Exeter and the things I want to get involved with.
The trips to and from Sheffield became exhausting, as of course did the flat hunting.
The decision finally came from Exeter’s housing benefit department – it was the one I already knew before it was read to me: I made myself homeless, wasn’t ‘their responsibility’ and had to be out of the Red House by the beginning of January.
So, yet another battle, yet another fight! Of course I was going to appeal or, have it reviewed as later the distinction was made clear.
In the meantime, I at least got an extension on when I had to be out.
I was getting nowhere not fast enough. The number of flat alerts in my in-box had dwindled, due to the time of year, everybody was running around in the usual xmas freak out in the run up to the one day everyone has an excuse to eat like pigs, drink like fish and have things things things they don’t need – my usual bah humbug was heightened with my own obsession with finding a home and recovering from it all.
Through it all though, the Red House was warm, safe and the support staff did what they could to make my stay, comfortable and supported.
Sweet Mary, cleaner for the Red House would knock on someone’s door: “It’s Monday, time to change your bedding.” She’d say in a good-natured, soft Devon voice.
I had, at the very least in the meantime, got myself onto the Devon home choice housing register, which meant I could start bidding on properties outside the rat race of the private sector.
The holiday period came and went with bitter sweet sadness and heavy hearted resolve: on one hand I was grateful to my trusty assistant to have invited me to spend the yule day with her and her lovely family, yet on the other hand, I missed my beautiful son.
He had just turned twenty-one and, despite my anti-xmas stance, I always spent it with him – just being a family, listening to music, a film or, just enjoying each other’s company – it was the first time we were apart for the holidays.
I think it was Boxing Day or so and I got a knock on my door. It was the owner of the Red House and her husband – they were delivering microwave Xmas meals of chicken and all the trimmings.
I was touched by the gesture, even though I had to decline – being vegetarian – it was the sort of thing that compensated for being in what seemed like, an isolated wilderness in the midst of hive minds.
The review finally came – still sticking to their original decision and, I now had to be out of the Red House by Valentine’s Day.
Jolted awake by the fire alarm being tested, hell’s bells! It’s Friday morning at the Red House and, what was I supposed to be doing?
I had started bidding, but did I really have a hope in hell? The last few Wednesdays a support worker would knock on my door or 9a.m.: “Are you ready to bid? Oh, I forgot all about it and I’m sure she was more optimistic than I was.
Far flung flats in back-of-beyond Devon locales I had never heard of – where I could never settle – What if I got a journalism job in Bristol an needed to commute from Exeter? And, small town/village life?
No thanks – not after the small town mentality and crap of living in West Wales an Derbyshire – been there and done it…
Then it finally came: a studio flat for £595 per month?
Ug – over-priced, but what the heck – I was running out of time getting desperate.
Alas, the landlord would accept housing benefits. The top-up gouging into my personal income was border line on what I couldn’t afford, but the flat was in a gorgeous semi-rural spot in the middle of Exeter, right on a bus route and its self-contained – everything I wanted except a bedroom.
So, the day came, my bags were packed and I had cleaned my little cage/sanctuary in preparation to leave.
It was all rush rush as I hurriedly shoved stuff I kept finding around the room into over-packed bin liners.
On the way out to the taxi, the owner handed me a card from all the staff.
My time at the Red House through me the lifeline I needed, just when I was sure I would sink in the quicksand of the cess pit this government has made of the socio/economic and class divide in the UK.
The security cameras, the over-powering unnatural smell of the air fresheners – the rules and restrictions at the Red House – none of it mattered, because for nearly 5 months during my darkest hours and the darkest days outside my room – I wasn’t on the streets or knocking at someone’s door in London asking to be taken in – despite my friends and their love and generosity.
I even had a few good chats in the car park with a few of the others. I went out just after midnight to get some air and somehow welcome in the new year on new year’s eve night.
A guy told me how, he had lost his home, because days after his father died – his landlord decided to rent to students where she could charge more, but he had nowhere else to go.
Yes, we all had a story to tell, a journey to trudge through and, at the Red House we could somehow connect, if only for a moment.