Channel 4’s ‘Dispatches’ uncovers the hidden reality of the working homeless

Datshiane Navanayagam was homeless as a child. After going to university and getting a job, she thought it couldn't happen again. But it did, and now she's made a film looking at the increasing number of working homeless

I was homeless growing up. My dad was disabled, lost his business and we ended up losing our home. I was 11 years old.

We were passed from pillar to post by local authorities before being put into emergency accommodation at a B&B with four of us in a single room. I had just started secondary school and my sister was coming to the end of primary school. It was very chaotic, I remember trying to do my homework on the bed because there wasn’t space for a table.

We moved in to temporary accommodation for a couple of years before being placed in a housing association flat. Because my dad was disabled, we were given a ground floor flat but it used to flood with raw sewage a few times a year and we had damp and mould.

55% of homeless families trapped in temporary accommodation are working, according to new research released by Shelter’s social housing commission

After we were flooded four times in five weeks, Westminster environmental health found three inches of standing water under the floor, which was why we had the chronic damp. The housing association didn’t fix it. Instead, we were evicted.

Becoming homeless again was something I had been so fearful about. But I’d assumed if I worked hard, went to university and got a job it would not happen to me again. But it did. By then, I was working and my sister had graduated and got a job. Yet we were homeless in 2013 for 18 months, placed in a series of B&Bs and hotels (often with no laundry, no wifi, no fridge) for a couple of weeks at a time before being moved on. It is exhausting and expensive not having a permanent space, and so hard to focus on your job.

I set out to investigate the phenomenon of working people who are homeless because working is sold as the route out of homelessness. It should be a guarantee that you are not at risk of becoming homeless.

Yet when we spent a few months filming at Shelter From The Storm, a volunteer­-run night shelter in London, we heard that more and more of the people staying, around 30-40 per cent, are in work. We heard about the impact of sharing a dormitory so you can’t get proper rest, and how people go through stages of depression.

We had known working people were forced to stay in night shelters. We didn’t know we would find people sleeping on the streets who were also working. We did nightly trawls of London to speak to people who are rough sleeping and found people who have jobs.

One of them spoke to us for the film. He was working in a zero-hours contract job, was behind on his rent because of the insecurity of the hours, and ended up on the street. Then he got a job at Pizza Express but was still sleeping rough because saving for a deposit is so hard. He is now at the night shelter. No one at his workplace is aware of his living conditions. A lot of people hide it out of fear or shame.

One person we met said rough sleeping was “a means to an end”, something he has to do every few months to save the money to get back into a shared flat. I’d never heard sleeping on the streets described as a means to an end before.

We met another woman who works in teaching and sleeps in another night shelter in South London. She lost her home after her marriage ended and her only possession is her car. She would spend the night on a town hall floor, get up, get dressed in her car, and put her make up on to make it look like she’d had a lovely night’s sleep. But the mental toll of keeping up that pretence is huge.

Lots of people are very vulnerable. If you don’t have strong networks or family connections, it can happen terrifyingly easily. So many of the people we spoke to were affected by the welfare cuts. There is no real welfare safety net for many people. But if you don’t have shelter as your bottom line, how is anything else, including work, supposed to function?

Based on Freedom of Information Requests, the exclusive analysis shows that more than 33,000 families are holding down a job despite having nowhere stable to live, this has increased by 73 per cent since 2013 when it was 19,000 families

What is so frustrating is that this doesn’t feel like an issue that should be hard to tackle. Providing safe, decent, affordable accommodation should not be something a country as wealthy as ours should struggle with.

So there is clearly a lack of will to deal with it. You would think the Department for Housing and Homelessness would want to talk to us – even just to reassure people that they are trying to deal with it. Their response was so poor. They really needs to watch our film.

Dispatches: Homeless and Working is on Channel 4 on Monday July 23. Catch up on All 4. Datshiane Navanayagam was speaking to Adrian Lobb


In response, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government said:

“Everyone deserves a safe and decent place to live and we are providing more than £1.2bn so all those left homeless get the support they need.

“Councils have a duty to provide suitable temporary accommodation to those who need it, and families with children get priority.

“So families can get a permanent home, we are investing £9bn in affordable properties.”