How to stay safe in emergency housing: an essential guide

Emergency housing is accommodation provided to people who are homeless and seen as in being priority need (in the UK). The idea is to house you for a temporary period whilst you wait for more permanent housing to become available.

You can read more about how emergency housing is allocated here.

I spent nearly two years in emergency housing.

The first couple of months was in what was called a bed and breakfast (B’n’B), though it was really a bedsit in a converted, disused pub (definitely no breakfast!). The rest of the time, I was in a studio flat in a large, old, damp Victorian house converted into flats. Both were in different towns at least 40 minutes drive from anywhere I was familiar with, and I didn’t know anyone at all in those towns.

If you are being housed in emergency accommodation, you are probably vulnerable, even if you do not think of yourself that way. You can easily become the target of coercion, abuse, or even violence.

You are meant to be safe from harm in this type of accommodation, but this is unfortunately not always the reality, due to a number of unstable and/or distressed people being housed in one place.

I am writing this in the hope it might help someone falling into some of the many traps that can present themselves.

I don’t want to make anyone feel overly afraid or paranoid: I simply want to encourage healthy vigilance and awareness so you can stay as safe as possible while you wait for more permanent housing.

Other Residents

– Be careful about who you make friends with

Everyone has their own reasons for being housed in emergency accommodation.

There were a mix of people in my building: single mothers with young children, people with mental health difficulties, and people with drug and alcohol issues, and often a combination of these.

Most people seen as being in priority need are vulnerable and that can create a hotbed of issues and emotions in one building, particularly when drugs and/or alcohol are also a factor.

I found the best way to act around my fellow residents was to be friendly when I bumped into them in the hallway or in the town, but to not stop and chat. I was never rude: I was always pleasant, but I made it obvious I wanted to keep myself to myself. If you’re polite when you do see people, they do tend to accept that’s just how you are.

After some time, I got to learn who it was okay to stop and talk to a little more. Eventually I made friends with one of the single mums, and we would go for walks into town together.

You may feel you want to get friendly with the other people who live there, particularly if you don’t know anyone else in the area. I would recommend that you get to know people what the people are like slowly over a period of months before you do this, and sometimes it might be best avoided altogether.

You don’t want to end up in a situation where you feel coerced to do things for people, where you are harassed and not left alone, where you feel unsafe, or where you will come to the negative attention of the housing association. If you get into a sticky situation with people where you live, you can’t get away from them without forfeiting your right to accommodation, so this is really important.

Being discerning can be tough when you are vulnerable, but it is important to safeguard yourself from getting drawn into other people’s issues or into volatile situations, particularly around drugs or alcohol.

– Be selective about what you tell others

It is best to avoid giving out any personal information, or details about your personal circumstances. Definitely do not give away any information about possessions you have that might be valuable, or anything to do with money, which benefits you get, how much you have, when you are going to get some etc. If people ask, just play dumb and say you can’t remember.

You may also want to be careful about sharing where you live with people who don’t live there either. Your address may be known in the area as somewhere vulnerable people live.

– Keep your door locked

Even if you are just going out to the bin and will be minutes: lock it behind you. Don’t leave anything you care about in the communal areas.

– Don’t lend or give out possessions

If you lend things, there is a chance they may not be returned. Also be wary of giving out things like cigarettes, unless you are sure you can trust the person not to hound you for more from then on! A neighbour of mine would drunkenly bang on certain people’s doors in the middle of the night demanding tobacco.

Don’t allow yourself to be indebted to anyone.

– Don’t invite other residents into your flat

There are some people who will be very interested to see what you have in there. Keep valuables away from windows, and keep the curtains drawn in rooms where you can easily see in.

– Always lock your door at night

I used to keep my door locked even during the day when I was in there. Always make sure your keys are nearby though of course, in case of a fire or emergency.

Residents’ Visitors

– Avoid answering the main door unless you are expecting someone

Our front doorbell would ring all the time, and because I was in the front ground floor flat, I ended up opening it all the time.

I opened the door on two separate occasions to some men wanting to find people who lived here due to drug debts or thefts in the town. I just played dumb and said I didn’t know these people because I didn’t want to be involved. I was lucky that no one forced their way past me, as they easily could have if they wanted to.

If you’re not expecting someone, you don’t have to answer the door.

– Don’t leave your own door propped open when you are inside your flat

Try not to let visitors see inside your flat, even just a quick glance. Visitors are complete unknowns because the housing association will not even know who they are, and they may see you as an easy target.

– If there is an incident, keep your involvement to the minimum (where you can)

Incidents can happen a lot in this kind of accommodation: drunken fights, anti-social behaviour, criminal damage, domestic abuse, thefts, overdoses etc.

You may have to make judgement calls about whether to intervene if an incident occurs in the communal areas. I’d say that most of the time it is best not to get involved in anything and to stay in your room with the door locked. You may decide to call the police, and by all means do. It might be best to do this discretely, if possible.

One evening, a female neighbour was being attacked in the hallway by one of her male visitors. She was banging on my door screaming to be let into my room so she could escape him. It was a really scary situation.

I had already called the police, but then had to decide whether to let her into my flat to safety and risk him coming into my room too, or to keep my door locked and let him keep attacking her. I eventually let her in. Luckily, he didn’t follow her in, and I locked the door behind her. The police arrived minutes later and arrested him. It is the only time I let someone into my room.

I can’t tell you what to do if something like this happens, as every situation is different, and it is up to you to make judgements in the moment. I exposed myself to violence when I opened the door for her, and although I feel now that I made the right decision in that particular moment, it could easily have played out very differently and I could have been hurt too.

Remember, if you are ever seriously afraid for your safety because of someone’s aggressive behaviour, you can call 999.

‘Official’ Visitors

Be aware of people who come into your flat to perform maintenance or work duties, even if they are from an official company or service. Most will be friendly and professional and there will be no issue, but they will know that you are vulnerable because of where you live.

If any maintenance person uses your contact details to send you private messages, they have crossed a line, and you should report them to the company they work for, if you feel safe enough to do that. At the very least, they are breaking data confidentiality if they are using your name or number to add you on Facebook/Snapchat/any other social media, or to text or call you.

Block them. Don’t let them flatter you into engaging with them. Anyone who solicits you, knowing that you are living somewhere for vulnerable people, is not the sort of person you want to respond to or meet up with.

This includes the police. I am sad to have to say this, but my friend in the accommodation was contacted by a police officer who made a series of advances towards her, after he had attended an incident there. She complained and it was taken to a tribunal, which she found a very distressing experience.

That this happens at all is so wrong and incredibly inappropriate, but it can happen. Please be aware of everyone who is in your space, no matter who they are.

Keep any texts or messages and make written notes of anything not stored or recorded by your phone, whether you are planning to complain or not – you may change your mind down the line and decide you want to. If you have a support worker or professional who works with you, it may be a good idea to mention to them anything untoward that happens, if you feel able to trust them.

Housing Services

Sadly, I was bullied by individual members of housing services staff in both of the homelessness accommodations I lived at. When I stood up for myself, they used their position of power over me by threatening me with the loss of my accommodation.

Threats to have you ‘thrown out’ if you do not comply are NOT ACCEPTABLE. I’m not talking about official warnings from the housing organisation if you are breaking rules. I’m talking about individual staff members making off the record threats in order to wield their own personal power over you when you try to stand up for yourself.

This is abuse and it sadly happens more than you think.

I have been spoken to very badly over the phone by housing officers, too, as was my one friend in there. The general impression was that they automatically saw everyone who lived in this type of housing as potential troublemakers and low-lifes who should be treated accordingly.

This is not acceptable!

Please do not think that because you are in emergency housing that you do not deserve to be treated with humanity and dignity.

You are not a second-class citizen. You have the same rights to fair treatment as everybody else.

Of course there are helpful and compassionate staff as well – hopefully you will be luckier than me!

– Keep notes

You can do this on paper or in a notepad app on your phone. Keep records of any interactions where you are not treated unfairly or badly. Include dates, times, and details of what was said both by you and them. If it keeps happening, having a timeline and ongoing record of the incidences will really help if you decide to report it.

I understand if you don’t want to report anything while you live there, but if you collect notes, you can complain about them once you leave. Even if it is too late by then for the complaint to benefit you, if every person these people bullied made an official complaint about them, a pattern would emerge that their organisation/the council wouldn’t be able to ignore.

If you have a social worker, care co-ordinator, community nurse, or any other supportive person who works with you who is not part of the council or housing association, it can be a good idea to share with them about any bullying or abuse that is happening, particularly if you trust them.

– Try to stay as calm and assertive as you can

Try not to get abusive back, no matter how upset or angry you are. Your true power isn’t in answering back in the moment, but in making a record of how you are being treated, and then getting support to challenge them on their behaviour later.

Don’t stoop to their level – you are better than that, and you are more likely to get somewhere by taking the higher ground, getting support, and going through official channels.

I have included contact details of some really helpful charities at the bottom of this article.

The services that run the emergency housing, such as the council and the housing association, have a lot of power over you, and they are not always fair. This relative position of powerlessness that you are in is another way that you are vulnerable.

There are a couple of really important tips I want to share to help you retain your power as much as possible.

– Make a photographic record immediately after getting the keys

Despite me leaving the flat cleaner than when I went in, and the woman I handed the key back to saying verbally that it was all fine, I was sent an invoice a year down the line saying I had not cleaned properly and demanding hundreds of pounds in compensation.

Luckily, I had proof, and they had no choice but to waive the invoice in the end. I still have no idea why this happened suddenly a year after I had left – no explanation was ever given to me by them, despite me requesting one.

When you move into your room or flat, the first thing you should do is take photos or video of the whole place – floors, ceilings, walls, all appliances, all the bathroom and kitchen amenities like the toilet, bath, sinks, cupboards. The more you photograph the better. Make sure you include any already-damaged areas or items (a common one is kick/punch holes in internal doors).

You want there to be a record of how the flat looked when you moved in, so they cannot charge you later for damage that was there before you arrived.

Save these photos/video – your phone should automatically record the date of your moving-in day on them. Do it as soon as you get the keys and ideally before you’ve moved any of your things in.

Do exactly the same when you move out, on the actual day you move out, after you have cleaned and emptied the place of your stuff, and ideally just before you hand the keys back. Your phone should record your moving-out date on the photos.

When you move out, the important thing is to show how clean you have left it. Clean it well, and then get close up evidence of how clean it is!

Keep all of these photos and videos for up to a couple of years after you move out. As I say above, I was challenged on how I left things a YEAR after I had moved out, so it is best to hold onto those pictures as long as you can. If you need them off your phone, email them to yourself, or download them onto a memory stick or a laptop etc, if you have access to one, or perhaps to a friend’s one.

You might even ask the person who is collecting the keys from you to put in writing that the flat was fine when you left it, rather than just giving a verbal okay. They might refuse if it isn’t their policy, but it could be worth asking.

– Stick to the rules!

Avoid bringing drama or issues to the accommodation, because those in charge of it have a lot of power over you and can make your life very difficult. They can keep you there longer by temporarily removing your option to move into more permanent housing, and they can evict you. If you are evicted, it can make it harder for you to be housed again in future and you could end up on the streets.

You definitely don’t need any extra stress to worry about! Protect yourself from this by playing by the rules of the accommodation as much as possible.

Remember, your situation is temporary (even if it feels like forever) and eventually you will be housed in a place of your own, where you will feel much safer and more stable, and you won’t need to follow as many rules.

Where to go for help and support

If you need help with any of what I have discussed here, I recommend you:

  • Speak to your support worker, social worker, or any impartial professional who knows you and who you feel you can trust.
  • Speak to the housing association or the council, depending on what the situation is. Be careful as they may close ranks – it might be best to get the support of one of the below organisations first.

Here are some very good, impartial organisations you can go to for advice and support:

You used to be able to walk into a branch near you, but due to current coronavirus restrictions, this has been moved to telephone support.

Their website has lots of information to read, plus numbers to call and details of web chat etc.

Their contact information page is here.

They have a free national helpline you can call to speak to an adviser, or you can find information on their website that may be of help.

Both are a good place to start and they will be able to signpost you onwards if you need more specific support. They will have the most up-to-date information available.

And finally…

Of course, different people will have different experiences in emergency accommodation, and I do hope yours is better than mine. I think it is important to be aware of possible issues that can arise, just in case.

Stay aware, maintain boundaries, and keep yourself to yourself as much as you can: those are probably the best bits of advice I can give.

Record everything and keep those records for a couple of years.

Get help from people or organisations that are impartial and that can support you. You don’t have to go through anything alone.

You will get through this and it doesn’t last forever, even if it feels like it at the time.


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