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Former Northolt resident ‘sleeping outside’ council offices this Christmas

It is a cold late December evening in Ealing. Cars, taxis, buses, emergency vehicles – with piercing blue lights flashing – illuminate the dark crevasses of Ealing Broadway as they rush past.

The council buildings sit stoic and quiet at blissful rest after another day of frenzied activity that constitutes the period leading up to Christmas. Apart from pedestrians huddled against the cold walking along the pavement running out the front, the building is barren, well almost.

There is a figure in the dingy street light. Coiled up in a blanket and six festive jumpers a woman is sleeping, her full form hidden under a raft of umbrellas all tried together into a makeshift tent.

Her name is Svetla Getova and she has been there for 50 days. The 53 year-old was evicted from her home on November 2 and came to the council for help, now it looks like she will spend Christmas on the streets.

Svetla, originally from Bulgaria, moved to the UK in 2004 and spent the first eight years of her stay working as a care assistant before issues with relationships and alcohol caused a downward spiral. She has spent the past couple of years in and out of supported housing and the street.

She told Local Democracy Reporting Services: “If somebody told me, 5-6 years ago I would be here, I would have told them they need to go to the mental hospital. You never know in life. I have never been homeless before. I am from a good family. I cannot even think that I can end up like that. But I have never been in such types of accommodations.”

Former Northolt resident 'sleeping outside' council offices this Christmas Harrow Online
Svetla is sleeping outside Ealing Council for Christmas. Permission for use by all LDRS partners. Credit: Rory Bennett

Svetla has a complicated relationship with the accommodation she has lived in over the years bouncing around sheltered housing which she says has never been right for her, even with her alcohol issues. “Honestly with all the issues with accommodation. I would rather sleep on the street,” she added.

Although she wouldn’t specify what had happened, there was a sense that Svetla had fallen out with staff or other residents at these locations.  “All of these things happen over and over and over again. Because this is not the first time I have been evicted,” she says, “everywhere I go there is some situation which means I have to go.”

After living in supported accommodation in Northolt, Svetla had a stint on the streets last year. She explained: “Obviously this type of accommodation is not suited to me.”

“Always in these places something happens and I start to feel anxious and then I have to leave.

“With my alcohol issues, there are services everywhere, I am very willing to go. I don’t need support workers around me all the time, they don’t do me any good.” She returned to accommodation in Ealing but was again evicted after a few months.

She said she was told by her landlord that Ealing Council would help her and that there was someone waiting for her but she says that was a “big fat lie”. She has been outside the front of the council building for almost two months, waiting for her fate to be decided by people mere metres away.

The 53-year-old says that she has spoken to people since then but has been there waiting for weeks. “They say they will find me something but I haven’t heard anything,” she said.

In that time Svetla has created herself a little home of her own. Carpets and rugs hang from handrails, battered chairs and half-dead tables sit next to suitcases and bags of clothes. In her sleeping area, there is an extension for her to charge her phone so she can listen to music and watch videos.

Svetla has a surprisingly chipper exterior for a person whose life has slowly unravelled, quick to laugh, friendly and always humming a tune. But that disguises the trauma and struggle of her situation, something that becomes more apparent as she explains her experience.

When asked if she uses umbrellas for shelter rather than a tent, she told LDRS: “I had a tent some years ago. But I have been told they are going to burn me in the tent. Very seriously, that’s why I’m not using one. They said they would put petrol on it and whoosh.”

She wouldn’t explain who, but the threat clearly made a lasting impression. She says she has been subject to other violent threats including someone walking past her on their way to the council entrance saying they were going to shoot her.

The mask of her cheery persona drops even further when the subject of Christmas is raised. Alone, cold and sleeping on the streets Svetla is all too aware of the implications her situation has for the ‘most wonderful time of the year.’

“It’s not a nice feeling. My mother is in Bulgaria, so if I celebrate Christmas, I do it on my own. It’s a bit depressing really,” she explained.

The festive period also hits home to people like Svetla, just how different people’s experiences of the time are. For her, she says, it makes her consider her difficult situation and others.

Svetla told LDRS that she isn’t even the only homeless woman sleeping outside the council this winter, gesturing to a stack of possessions piled under a tarpaulin in the other corner of the entranceway. “I just feel depressed that in our year 2023, such things can happen,” she said. “I’m not specifying only my case, it just doesn’t look right at all. There is accommodation, there are empty flats.

“Of course, I would prefer to be in a house. But there is no point putting me [in supported housing]. I sit there for a month and everything starts all over again. I want to live a normal life, in a normal room with normal people around me. I don’t support workers, I just want to live how everyone else lives.”

When she was evicted, Svetla left behind her cat Cookie who she dearly misses and implores the council to find her a room where she and her cat can live together. For now, Svetla faces a Christmas without friends, without family, without Cookie.

Without warmth or care, food or security, but perhaps not without hope. And so despite it all, her final act of the evening was to use what little charge her phone to listen to “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In” her gentle singing wafting out into the cold night.

Ealing Council says that they have made concerted attempts to reach out to Svetla and says that she had been hard to engage. In a statement, it said: “Svetla has consistently refused engagement with outreach, accommodation under SWEP, and services for drug, alcohol, and mental health issues.

“Despite multiple efforts by outreach to engage and arrange private landlord viewings on September 4, September 11 and October 12, she has declined all interventions and offers. Our local team is actively involved and offers Svetla regular support. They will continue their efforts.”

Former Northolt resident 'sleeping outside' council offices this Christmas Harrow Online
Svetla is sleeping outside Ealing Council for Christmas. Permission for use by all LDRS partners. Credit: Rory Bennett

It explained her history of homelessness. It further clarified: “Svetla first observed rough sleeping in Redbridge in 2019 and has had a recurring pattern of homelessness and sporadic engagement with outreach services. Despite initial non-engagement, she moved to Richmond, where she was offered accommodation, but she soon returned outside Richmond Station.

“She received further accommodation under the ‘Everyone In’ initiative in Richmond and was later placed in temporary housing in Northolt by the end of 2021. About a year later, Svetla was found rough sleeping in Acton and subsequently accommodated by the West London Women’s Service.

“In March 2023, she was again seen rough sleeping in Ealing. Her engagement with services remained inconsistent, and she was in Greenford Broadway. Initially believed to have no recourse to public funds, Svetla disclosed her settled status upon threat of removal, leading to a placement in a council-commissioned staging post, from which she was evicted due to antisocial behaviour.

“She then slept rough in Hammersmith and Fulham, followed by an unsuccessful placement at Meliora House, and returned to Ealing, staying outside Perceval House in October.”

 

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