By Sian Bayley, local democracy reporter
“You don’t feel the cold until about two o’clock in the morning, that’s when it’ll be icy cold,” says Ifama Mawusi Abimbola, who was forced to sleep outside on the streets of South London on two occasions during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ifama isn’t her real name, but a name she has chosen for herself so she can speak to us more openly about her experience of sleeping rough.
Ifama has always done admin and reception work for the NHS and other health organisations.
She’s not someone you would expect to become homeless.
When her contract came to an end in February last year, she decided to take a much-needed break because agency work doesn’t usually allow her to take much time off.
Unfortunately, when she tried applying for jobs again in early March the coronavirus pandemic was becoming more serious, and the country had been plunged into its first national lockdown.
It was impossible to find work.
“It just happened all at once,” she said.
“I was living in a private property and obviously, I couldn’t pay my rent anymore. I was still hoping, in my head I was so sure that I was gonna get back into work.
“So I didn’t really start doing the benefit thing or anything. I was just like, ‘oh, I’m gonna get into work’.
“But then I realised it was April.”
Ifama was evicted and spent three nights sleeping outside in Brixton before she was put up in a night shelter.
It gave her somewhere to stay, but it wasn’t ideal.
She had to arrive by 8pm at night to secure herself a bed, and had to be up again by 7am the next morning.
During the day she “had to be creative”.
“There’s nothing really I can do. I can’t really go to work. I did try to look for work, you know, I did get an interview, but then they advised me, you need to find accommodation first, even like a room.”
In the shelter, conditions were basic.
“If you need to shower there’s like two showers for male and female. But sometimes the showers don’t work.
“But when you’re in that situation, I mean, I think food is the main thing and being warm. Shower is not really, you know, that much of a big deal. But then, you know, as a woman, you do want to take a shower.
“Sometimes I didn’t want to go there. I arrived late, I wanted to go there just to sleep,” she said.
By May she was back on the streets again.
“It was getting a bit warmer, so it was a bit easier because you don’t feel the cold until about 2am in the morning, that’s when it’ll be icy cold,” she said.
“I don’t know how I managed to go through [the winter], you know, like, it’s only afterwards when you look back.”
She was now staying around the Oval area, which she said was much safer than Brixton.
“That was rough,” she said. You don’t really sleep anyway especially in wintertime.
“It’s just screaming and it’s so active until the morning.
“Oval is calm. There were times when I’d jump into the park and just stay there until they closed the park.”
“So that was really, really safe for me, you know, like, I would actually sleep.”
Before too long, Lambeth Council became involved and helped to find Ifama a place in temporary accommodation at the Dudley Hotel in Clapham.
But Ifama found it difficult to get a more permanent place, because viewings were so competitive.
“It’s hard to find a property because private landlords want money. And the landlords that take people on DSS are very, very limited.”
People on DSS include people receiving Universal Credit or housing benefits.
“When you go there to have a viewing there will be like 30 people. It’s a race. The landlord has to interview us, and then they have to make a decision who they want to be in their property,” she said.
She eventually found a place in Wandsworth, but that didn’t end her worries.
“That was another hiccup, because when I made the application, I thought that everything was alright, like the benefit covered everything.
“I was kind of surprised when they came up with a decision to say that they were not able to pay my full rent.
“I was shocked. I was on a high and then literally, I just went right down.”
Ifama didn’t know what to do.
Her Universal Credit did not cover her housing costs because she was the subject of the benefit cap which meant that her rent was more than she received to cover her housing costs.
She feared she was going to end up on the streets again.
“For the first month, I was so scared. I was thinking I have to give everything to my landlord. So I only kept a little bit. They paid I think £1,100 and I literally kept £50 for the whole month and I just gave it to her,” said Ifama.
That was until someone advised her to speak to her local Citizens Advice Bureau, where she was connected to her adviser, Jo Anderson.
Jo helped her to apply for a discretionary housing payment from Wandsworth Council to cover the difference that the benefit cap took away from her Universal Credit payment for housing costs.
She also arranged a couple of foodbank deliveries and discretionary social fund payments from the council to get Ifama back on her feet.
“It was nice to be able to have a nice meal, to get fresh stuff and cook and everything,” said Ifama.
Jo says Wandsworth Council has “really increased their provision” in light of the pandemic.
This means it is easier to apply for the discretionary social funds, and you can apply more often.
Other help such as supermarket and fuel vouchers for people with prepaid meters is also available.
But she says the system is “really difficult to navigate” especially if you’re on the streets, or you’ve just come off the streets and you don’t have access to the internet or to technology.
“Applying for all this stuff, most of it has to be done online, it’s just really, really difficult to navigate starting from scratch.
“Our advice would be to seek advice, speak to Citizens Advice, or to other local organisations like Ace of Clubs. There’s lots of people, lots of organisations like that, that provide really good advice and will help to navigate that system, because it can be very tricky,” said Jo.
Now Ifama is applying for jobs and has registered with Wandsworth Careers Services.
She’s also hoping to start studying again, possibly in English Literature and drama.
“I am grateful, because all of them teach or help me one way or the other.
“To Jo – What can I say, you know, thank you. If she wasn’t able to help me. I don’t know where my life would have been right now.
“I wouldn’t be happy. I wouldn’t have my head down like this. I don’t know what would have happened.”
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