The precipice: the impact of eviction on debt, self-esteem, and mental health

By Ana-Maria Cirstea and Dora-Olivia Vicol - 13 July 2020

Nicu is a young Romanian man who prides himself upon his faith. Over the past 10 years in the UK, he has been volunteering for a Christian Aid charity where he distributes food parcels to local families in need. He once even planned to expand these efforts to families back in Romania. Those days of planning could not have seemed further at the time we spoke.

When Nicu answered our call he was walking home through a heavy July rain. He had visited a friend, hoping to loan some money for food. ‘I don’t even have a slice of bread in my house’ he explained. Holding back tears, he recounted that he had fallen behind with more than half of his rent payments, and risked eviction the following day. The past fortnight has been increasingly taxing on his mental and physical health. He struggled to sleep, and had lost his appetite. He found it challenging to focus even on the smallest  tasks. ‘How did I end up like this, to be treated like a dog?’. 

Nicu’s question reflects the reality of countless people who have found themselves at risk of homelessness since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Lockdown came with a wave of sudden redundancies and dwindling job offers. Despite working long hours, six days a week, many of our beneficiaries had little or no savings to withstand London rent costs. In this case study, we focus on Nicu’s struggle to avoid homelessness. His case shows the intersections of informal living arrangements, poverty, and mental health. What it also shows is the strength of community organisations working together, at a time when social security is eroded. 

A network of community referrals 

In mid-May 2020, our team received a client referral from a food bank in North London. The organisation was concerned about a young Romanian man who had been getting food supplies for over four weeks and was at risk of homelessness. He lived in an overcrowded flat with 12 other people and shared his room with another Romanian man. His landlord often entered his room without notice, withheld heating and hot water, and used threatening language to intimidate tenants. During lockdown, Nicu fell behind on his weekly rent payments. He feared that he would one day return home to find his belongings strewn in the street. Without a written tenancy agreement, he was at the mercy of an abusive landlord.  

With the threat of eviction looming over his head, Nicu asked for money left and right. The thought of securing £570 worth of three-weeks’ rent left him in cold sweats. He had applied for Universal Credit over two months ago but was still awaiting a decision. This is when we first got in touch.

First steps

Our first step was to help Nicu chase up his Universal Credit application. We offered him information about shelter and free mental health support. To help with living costs, and give him an alternative from loaning money off friends, we referred him to a Romanian community organisation running a local food bank. 

Besides finding money for his back-rent payments, Nicu also knew he had to find a new place to live. Within a matter of days, he found a new shared room for him and his friend. He signed a contract and moved in, but unless he paid a deposit he risked being evicted again. 

Nicu was over the moon after receiving his first Universal Credit payment a few days later. It covered the deposit and secured his new home, away from the abuse and intimidation of his previous landlord. Yet, like other applicants who had been penalised by the informality of their housing arrangements, the benefits Nicu received barely covered rent, and left Nicu reliant on local food banks. Despite ongoing financial hardship, Nicu was in much better spirits. He spoke highly of the Romanian community organisation supporting him and praised the volunteers who helped him get back on his feet. At the end of May, Nicu seemed excited to get back into volunteering again. 

Another round of evictions

But just over a month later, Nicu’s situation turned sour once again. At the beginning of July, our team discovered that he was at risk of eviction once again. The room where he had found turned from a safe haven to an overpriced, unsafe space. Nicu slept on a bug-ridden mattress used by an unknown  number of lodgers before. The old amenities broke often in the small, crammed house he was sharing with 7 other people. The kitchen was infested with mice, while piling rubbish bags stood outside his window, rotting away in the heatwave sun. With all this, the rent cost him £720, payable in two installments  a month. 

Nicu fell behind on rent once again. His initial 1-month contract expired and the letting agency threatened eviction and legal action, now that the government’s 3 month ban on evictions, which had been imposed in March 2020, had expired. Once again, Nicu was facing the threat of losing his house. He was desperate to buy some time until his Universal Credit payment was due, even though this too was barely enough. Once he covered his back-rent payments, Nicu would be in debt once again, relying on food banks, with no spare money for other expenses. He negotiated a delayed rent payment for July and took out yet another loan from a friend for the back-rent payments not covered by his Universal Credit. 

Tough choices

As the spring months turned to summer, Nicu came close to the edge of the precipice. At this point, our team advised Nicu against following this unsustainable cycle of eviction, loans, and debt. We compiled a list of hostels in case of eviction and advised him to look for less costly rent in a safer house. To cover living expenses, we suggested that he take up some paid work alongside his volunteering. Nicu explained that he is awaiting a response on a job offer from an acquaintance, but seemed reluctant to look for work himself. We offered to update his CV and sign him up for recruitment platforms. He agreed, reluctantly, but we have yet to hear from him, and are struggling to reach him to work on his CV. 

This was very different from our team’s first interaction with Nicu. Back then, he planned to secure a stable job, perhaps in the NHS, since he is passionate about the medical field. He came across as an ambitious young man prepared to go through lengthy recruitment processes to find a job that would reward him morally. Two months later, he seems defeated. His mental health was declining, and every conversation found him more agitated and anxious. He is stuck in a vicious cycle of evictions, late payments, and loans. He knows that his shared room is unsafe and overpriced, but he so far appears reluctant to move elsewhere. 

When battling a mental illness, any sort of stability can offer a source of much needed comfort in the short term. The uncertainties of starting something new and uprooting oneself can feel intimidating, despite potential future benefits. Finding a job after a decade of volunteering also comes with the challenges of an unchartered territory. For Nicu, volunteering offered a boost of self-esteem through helping others. Plunging into a low-paid job without a social purpose chipped away at the identity and sense of agency Nicu had built around his voluntary work.  

The value of community support

Nicu’s case comes with a bittersweet forewarning. Our team periodically checks on him and offers help to find a better tenancy and source work, even if part-time. Yet, we can feel Nicu’s case slowly slipping through our fingers after many missed calls and failed attempts to reach him.  

The uncertainty that comes with uprooting one’s life after repeated threats of eviction can be incapacitating. Community support offered a ray of hope. At every point in Nicu’s case, positive change came from community networks – from his initial referral to our team of advisers, to the subsequent referral we made to a Romanian food bank, where volunteers helped him get back up on his feet. 

These community organisations routinely fill the gaps in the safety net meant to protect workers from poverty and homelessness. A robust referral system can embolden people like him to escape the vicious cycles of hardship and homelessness. 

And yet, these services are dangerously stretched. They shoulder a system where Universal Credit applications penalise the most vulnerable applicants, who are unable to demonstrate the totality of their living costs. They offer a service of essential care, while relying on short-term grants and a great deal of pro bono effort from staff and volunteers, without whom these networks of support would crumble. 

We can do better

Imagine a world where volunteering in the service of the most vulnerable, as Nicu has been doing for years, wasn’t an anomaly. Imagine a system that rewarded the work we each do for its social value, and the good it does to communities. Imagine, if you can, a social contract where applications for financial assistance are based on trust and the inherent worth of every human life; where applicants are not pressured into demonstrating their own precarity, with layers of bureaucracy that penalise the most vulnerable.

Stories like Nicu’s make it evident that we can, and we must, do better.

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