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Grand Designs’ Naomi Cleaver: ‘I know what it’s like to have no home’

Interior designer and presenter of Grand Designs: Trade Secrets Naomi Cleaver has opened up about her experience of homelessness to make people think about women without a home.

Teenage years can be a flashpoint for homelessness. As children become adults, it can put a strain on family relationships.

For Naomi Cleaver, the successful interior designer and presenter of a range of home design TV shows, this issue is particularly personal.

“It’s not uncommon for adolescents and the families of adolescents, to find that time very, very difficult,” she says. “Family breakdown is a major cause of homelessness.”

Cleaver was 17 when she became homeless due to her own complex family situation.

It’s an experience she doesn’t like to think about too much. “That’s probably part of my so-called survival mechanism,” she explains.

“I do know that as a 17-year-old kid with nowhere to live and nothing, you are incredibly vulnerable. And at the time, you probably don’t even know how vulnerable you are.”

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Now 53, Cleaver heads up her own design firm, and is known for her appearances on Channel 4’s Other People’s Houses and Britain’s Best Home, as well as Grand Designs: Trade Secrets on More 4.

“I feel so fortunate to have had the career I’ve had. I’ve had a really good life, you know, and I’m at a certain age now where I’d really like to take the opportunity to use my energies in really positive ways,” she says.

“I do know what it’s like to have no home and nowhere to go and no money and no one who cares. I hope I can bring my insights into that experience to make some change. Homelessness has been with us for so long now. I just want to do what I can, in my tiny weeny way, to break the cycle.”

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Cleaver has recently become a ‘Founding Sister’ of Behind the Door, a new campaign aiming to change the lives of the many women and families facing homelessness. It’s a collaborative effort between the Museum of the Home in Shoreditch (formerly known as the Geffrye Museum) and the London Homeless Collective, a group of more than 25 charities including Shelter, The Big Issue Foundation and Homeless Link.

For Cleaver, the connection between thinking about ‘home’ and ‘homelessness’ makes perfect sense. “If you’re involved in designing homes and creating homes for people, you can’t help but be concerned about people who don’t have homes,” she says.

Rick Henderson, chief executive  of charity Homeless Link, says the campaign is important to open people’s eyes to how many women and young people are facing homelessness.

“When the general public thinks about homelessness, the image that comes to mind is often that of an older man who sleeps rough, but the issue is a lot more than that,” he says.

“With the Museum of the Home, we will be able to explore the homelessness that is happening every day in London, often behind closed doors, and often with women and families. It’s a challenging thought, but one that we are looking forward to exploring artistically and intelligently.”

Research by Homeless Link shows that 28 per cent of people accessing hostels and homelessness accommodation in England in 2018/19 were women but only 10 per cent of projects were women-only.

Those figures for women accessing homelessness services are likely masking a much bigger problem, however. Homeless Link’s report says that women and young people are more likely to be among the ‘hidden homeless’, for example sofa surfing in friends’ houses.

Whether visible or not, the dangers remain very real for women without somewhere safe to stay. Around one-fifth of young women have been sexually abused or exploited while out of stable accommodation, according to a 2018 study by Depaul.

As well as highlighting the specific risks women confront, Cleaver is also keen to make people think harder about the causes of homelessness.

“It’s a common preconception that people who are homeless have alcohol problems, drug problems, they’ve lost their job,” she says. And while those things can be both a cause or symptom of homelessness,  “there are many, many other problems that are behind homelessness,” she adds.

“Domestic violence creates homelessness. Family breakdown is a major cause of homelessness. Relationship failure is a major cause of homelessness. And so, we need to start finding really effective solutions to support people to have functioning relationships and functioning families.”

After all, Cleaver says, we can’t make change – and prevent more 17-year-old girls from experiencing homelessness – if we don’t understand the reasons why it happens.

On Friday 19 March, the Museum of the Home is launching an online auction to raise money for the Behind the Door campaign. Go tomuseumofthehome.org.uk for more information.

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