Sarah’s medical conditions forced her to give up work. Now she is a disability activist and a champion for people with housing needs in Greater Manchester.
Sarah grew up in South Manchester, her mother was abusive and had mental health problems. “She would batter us, beat the devil out of us. Nobody tapped me on the shoulder, and said ‘it’s not you kid, it’s her’. My dad was a battered husband for 20 years. He was hospitalised one time. Once, my mum locked him in the cellar for a week, didn’t give him food, all he had was water. Dad worked in hospitality, Mum didn’t work, so we didn’t have much money. We weren’t starving poor, but only because Dad always used to divert the delivery van on the way to the restaurant – things would go missing on the way”, Sarah laughs. “But it was the 70s. Everybody was dirt poor. So you couldn’t really tell.
“When I turned 16, and I knew I was not legally required to live there anymore and be a punchbag. I packed my bag with my O-level books, and out I went, followed by my sister. We were homeless for a few months. First we spent a few nights in a greenhouse shed, in someone’s back garden, of a house that was empty.
“Then we headed to Hulme, and told the Council, “we’ll take anything you’ve got”. Before that came through, we lived in the old Crescent squats. It was a hard, tough, awful, derelict place. And dangerous. There was a dark side to the Hulme Crescent squats because you were living outside the law, outside the rules, outside of protection. You took your chances. The squats were basically run by the gangs. They were the enforcers. There were murders. The police stopped policing it, it was a no-go zone. For squats in general, you might not pay rent, but it extracts a price. It takes something from your head. The lack of security. Being seen as beyond respectable, worthy society. The way people look at homeless people, with disdain.
“We were there for several months before we got a council flat, just up the road. It had dust falling from the ceiling, rotting walls, and holes in the windows. The heating didn’t work, and there was mould everywhere – it was just as bad as the squats. But it was a start. And we were so poor we just lived on tins of spaghetti hoops.
“It was cold, hard and hungry. I worked nights in a bakery, and then I started an early morning office cleaning job too. I was also trying to do my O levels. I didn’t know at the time that I could have claimed child benefit for my sister. Nobody told me. There’s so much I didn’t know then, I suffered for not knowing”
“After a few months, my sister got pregnant and moved to north Manchester with her boyfriend. When she had her baby, I promised him that he would not suffer like we did, and he would have a better life. But I felt trapped, and I thought, “how am I going to do this?” At the age of 20 I stood on the balcony of my flat. I thought, I could jump, or I could fill out the PCAS form for polytechnic. I filled it in and applied for a degree in London, never in a million years expecting to be offered a place. And I got a letter back offering me a place to study Media and Cultural Studies, at what later became Westminster University.
“That was my escape and I grabbed it. I couldn’t afford to enjoy London on my student loan, but anything was better than what I’d come from. I ended up in a grotty room in West Hampstead, for £35 a week. After my degree, I realised Manchester was my soul. So I came back, wanting to make things better. I loved cultural stuff, and I ended up doing ASDAMs (an award scheme a bit like Duke of Edinburgh) in Museums with young people. I loved it, realised that’s what I wanted to do.”
But then, about 8 years ago, Sarah started to become ill, bed-bound with severe pain and reduced mobility. After several years of tests Sarah was diagnosed with Hashimoto disease. “The insurance that I had through my trade union saved me from real poverty”, she says. “It paid me the equivalent of benefits while the medical tests were ongoing. After my diagnosis, and given how seriously my condition had deteriorated, I was moved onto Personal Independence Payments.
“I started to stabilise, from being very badly ill and I wanted to re-evaluate my life, and be useful. Young people and housing, especially with my background, was something I’ve always been passionate about. I realised things hadn’t improved since I had been in that position when I was young. Things had got worse. I met people from Unite the Union who were interested in campaigning. With the support of Unite and TUC, we decided we would set up an organisation to make policy changes in a devolved Greater Manchester.”
Sarah now does outreach with young people in squats across Greater Manchester, working to keep them off the streets. “Things have changed since the dangers of the old gang-filled Hulme squats, they are now better organised. They are viewed with prejudice, and ignored by most homeless organisations, but homeless squatters still deserve help.”
“I’ll fight for them like hell, because nobody came to rescue me when I was younger. I try to be the person who I wish had turned up when I was that age. To save others from the traumas I went through.”
“I am really proud of the work I do on housing with some awesome, super-committed activists. We see Section 106, the Council’s own target for affordable housing of 20% in each development, being waived repeatedly, so we look at the big picture and make policy submissions. We want root and branch change, not just getting involved in a little bit of charity and giving people some sandwiches. We’ve developed a lot of good relationships with the media. I am most proud of the fact we are credible, and taken seriously.”
Sarah asked us to keep her identity private, so this has been written under a different name.
Interview carried out by Peter Cruickshank for Greater Manchester Poverty Action’s Beyond Poverty report