It was two years ago next week that I was called urgently to a meeting by Hillingdon, where they informed me that they were stopping my housing benefit. Despite paying the benefit for three years previously, they admitted they had decided to reinterpret the regulations and although there had been no change in my circumstances, they were withdrawing the HB with immediate effect. They acknowledged that their decision left me and Steven in a hideous position. Their review came three weeks after the High Court ordered Hillingdon to pay Steven damages for his illegal detainment in 2010. I don’t believe the timing was a coincidence. The option they wanted me to take was to transfer the tenancy into Steven’s name, making him liable for the rent. But as he now had the damages, he also wouldnt be entitled to housing benefit, so would have used up all the compensation Hillingdon were forced to pay him and pay it back to Hillingdon by way of rent. Their plan seemed designed to cause as much stress and distress as possible.
And it worked. We had a whole year from September 2012 to October 2013 with the threat of homelessness hanging over us. I found the uncertainty unbearable. Steven, who cannot cope with uncertainty at the best of times, was a wreck – having many restless nights as he cried himself to sleep. He would tear at his clothes until they were unwearable. And he was constantly packing his important possessions into boxes and taking them back out again. He was understandably distressed that I couldn’t offer him any certain response to his queries about where he was going to live. This, of course, reactivated all his old anxiety about being taken back to the Unit where he was held in 2010. There was also the humiliation of the appeal tribunal. I turned up unrepresented as I didn’t qualify for legal aid to find Hillingdon had hired a top notch barrister. A barrister for a housing benefit appeal tribunal! That is unheard of. I lost the appeal (the further appeal to the Upper Tier tribunal is still pending over one year on).
The press and media picked up on the story and suddenly I found myself back on the Victoria Derbyshire show. describing our plight. Then out of the blue, two weeks before we were due to be evicted, the housing manager phoned me to say that they were prepared to accept a homeless application from Steven and whilst we waited for a property to become available, he did a dodgy deal with our landlady to enable us to stay on there. A small relief but the flat had become a hellhole. The landlady had long since switched off so nothing got repaired for months. There were no promises, so I fully expected to be there until the end of 2013.
In mid October the same manager contacted me. They had found a two bedroom house in Cowley and they wanted me to view it that day. Cowley! Steven’s favourite person, Uncle Wayne, lives just down the road so I knew that would score several points for Steven. So on 1st November 2013 we moved in. It is very much Steven’s house. If you walked into the living room, you wouldnt guess that I lived there too. I designed the room specifically for Steven, so all his important belongings are close to hand in that room – his DVDs and videos, his CDs, his books, his model figures, his photo albums (my books and dvds are in a cupboard in my bedroom). And the walls are Steven’s – his Mr Bean poster, his Abba calender, his print of Whistlers Mother, the painting that his friend from Southlands, Raj painted for him. Steven loves his home. I have never known him more settled than at any time in his life. But it’s not my home. In keeping with the attitude of social care, I am not recognised at all. On the housing application, the tenancy agreement, the care plan, there is no mention of me as “father” living there – I am in the forms as “live in carer”. If a stranger looked at those forms, they would assume I was just a member of Steven’s care team like all the other support workers. Nevertheless, I like the house too and had settled myself to the idea that we would be there for the long term future.
And then in May my wife died. And the house that was our old family home and that Hillingdon had used as their weapon to get their revenge, suddenly became solely mine. I knew instantly that I didn’t want to move us back there. Steven doesn’t really cope well with “going back”. I remember his terrible upset when we took him back to see his foster family many years ago. When Steven closes a book, it is slammed shut. So, the sensible thing to do seemed to be to sell the house and buy a new house for me and Steven. But as the days passed, that didn’t feel right either. Even if I found somewhere close to where we currently live, I would be still be taking him out of the housing loop that it had taken so long to get him into. As Steven’s court appointed deputy, I had logged a best interests statement with the Office of the Public Guardian, basically saying that in the event of my death, I believe it is in Steven’s best interests to remain in his own home with live-in support. I know that when I’m dead, Hillingdon can change that any time they like but it feels safer for Steven to be established in his own home, rather than living with me, in my home.
The day after Julie’s funeral I awoke with a crazy idea. I’d sell the house and buy somewhere for me. Obviously I wouldnt be living there full time as I am still Steven’s “live in carer” but I could use it for a couple of respite nights each week. And I could use it for my consulting room for my counselling work, saving a fortune on the rent I pay each month. The more people I told, the more it seemed like a good idea.
The old house sold remarkably quickly. The estate agent took the photos on a Thursday, held an open day on the Saturday and phoned me on the Monday with a list of offers. The contracts should be signed by the end of next week. I havent hurried looking for somewhere for me because I wanted it to be just right. On Wednesday afternoon, I saw a new property on Zoopla, about five minutes from where we live. I arranged a viewing for the next day. It was fabulous – newly decorated, new carpets throughout and a new kitchen with all the major white goods. But for me, the major attraction was the view out of both the living room and the two bedrooms – the river. With barges. And ducks. And swans. And people fishing. What a great view for a counselling session. Or when I’m sitting at my desk writing this blog. I made an offer there and then and today I was told that the offer has been accepted. Once all the legal stuff has been done and I’ve got the place furnished, I’ll probably be ready to move in a year to the day that we moved to Cowley and became Cowley men.
As I said, I feel that Hillingdon wanted to cause as much upset as they possibly could two years ago. They’d had that damming High Court judgement, slated in the press and then had to cough up damages. We couldn’t be allowed to get away with that. But unfactored into the plan was Steven falling in love with his new home and being calmer than ever. And they couldn’t forsee the terrible death of Julie and how that would leave me with some choices and the wherewithall to realise those choices.
I could almost thank them. And then I remember a meeting to discuss “Steven’s situation” with housing, housing benefit and social care. At one point, I sat with my head in my hands, sobbing with the fear of being homeless. And then I looked up and the social worker’s manager was smiling.