From Homeless to Happiness

Susan Whiteway
Tuesday, 1st August 2000

Susan Whiteway tells the story of how her family rose like phoenix from the ashes of unemployment and homelessness and created a satisfying and self-reliant lifestyle.

So, there we were. It's the early 1990s: we have two small children, a business that has been sunk by recession and no home. Oh, and we're both in our forties. Forty it seems is the decade when employers assume that those seeking employment over that portentous age are in the early and inevitable stages of creeping senility. We therefore disposed of the sacks full of rejection letters, signed on and threw ourselves on the mercy of the local housing department. And behold, we were granted temporary accommodation – in a holiday camp that was itself on the verge of going to the wall!

Camp Homeless

Now, you do meet the nicest people when you're homeless: your fellow travellers come from every age and stage of life. It turns previously semi-detached monthly mortgage, conventional-type plumbing kind of people into unconventional pulling-together gleaners and gatherers who are having radical rethinks of what life is all about. 'Our' holiday camp contained (as well as ageing Pontins chalets): apple trees, bramble bushes, wayside herbs and 'weeds' in abundance, elderflower bushes and a cherry tree whose flowers and later fruits were all going to waste.

We intrepid folk gathered and savoured such delicacies as elderflower fritters, crab apple jam, elderberry chutney, nettle soup, sorrel sauce... We swapped recipes and began to grow herbs in pots outside our chalets and tomato plants and garlic inside, on the window sills. It turned out to be one of the pleasantest times of my life, despite the label 'homeless'. We nurtured our little patch of earth and our new friendships and learned forgotten or previously unknown things about how our forebears dined and dwelled.

Gradually we were all rehoused and went our separate ways the wiser, bearing our jars of conserves and pots of jam. Our council house was acquired by the combination of a kindly councillor and by virtue of me sitting on the council office steps very early in the morning until the staff (who'd had to walk round or over me) all arrived. A nice young man, somewhat bemused by the shameless determination of some of his clients, told me, "The houses you are enquiring about are usually used for problem families". Well, it was obvious to me that we were a family with a problem – we'd got no home! I pointed this glaringly obvious fact out to him. We got the house we wanted.

Little Gem

It was a 1920s house, not very big, but sufficient, and it had two things I yearned for: an open fireplace and... A RAYBURN. The latter had lost its handles, had no towel rail and was chipped all over – but it worked. We soon replaced the missing bits (by cannibalising thrown out Rayburns) and this little gem heated the house, cooked the meals, raised the bread, dried the herbs, warmed the fermenting demijohns filled with hopeful hedgerow hooch, dried the washing, boiled the tea-towels, produced the jams and chutneys as well as sterilising the jars to put them in. (What do some people mean: "Why do you need a Rayburn?"). It good-naturedly burns coke or wood and keeps the kettle singing on the hob. Furthermore, we have resisted every attempt of the housing department to rip it out and get rid of it.

The garden, when we moved in, was five small plots which grew nettles, nails, hosepipe entrails, tin cans, beer bottles, an exhaust pipe, a bag of old clothes and one complete rusted car engine. There was also a large swathe of bumpy tarmac which ate up one-third of the garden – but as a Mr Brown once observed, it had 'capabilities'. House and garden were surrounded by farms, smallholdings, fields, hedges and a road with a regular bus service (most important: I can't and don't intend to drive). The 'estate' had only seven houses and we were only over-looked by the odd flock of sheep or cows in the field behind the houses. I was alerted to this one morning when my husband, Nick, complained that he'd been stared at through the window when he was dressing, by a woman with a black face – her only comment on seeing his semi-naked body was 'Baaaa'. Quite.

Reconstituted Stepson

It was shortly after this brief encounter with a ewe that Nick decided on a new career move – he'd try his hand at gardening; you know, "Hedges trimmed, lawns cut, bushes pruned, borders weeded. All garden waste removed. Reasonable rates.", that sort of thing. So he hung up his suits, kept his ties for Sundays only, changed into old corduroys and boots, plus an 'Old Lob' style hat and 1830s beard. (After that, mother-in-law would never kiss him on the cheek or allow him over her threshold in his work clothes. She never could come to terms with this reconstituted stepson who'd taken a turn for the soil). He started off with an elderly car, second-hand trailer, old tools (various) and... one customer. But with word of mouth from one satisfied customer (and who needs advertising?), Nick soon had a round of 'regulars' who not only paid him for his labours, but pressed cuttings, surplus fruit and veg. and unwanted plants on him. Not to mention the compostable grass cuttings and lopped-off branches for firewood. We were ready to join the Permacult!

While Nick worked in others' gardens, I got cracking clearing ours. It took much backache and the odd broken spade, but before long the rubbish was cleared, the soil was being fed and we were building up herbs, plants, fruit bushes, flowers and vegetables in the plots. We built up four compost heaps, a wormery, a cold frame and a barbecue: all either home made or discarded by avid 'consumers'. Every window sill in the house grew something and Nick trained honeysuckle and roses around the door.

Resources Everywhere

We soon made the discovery that just about EVERYTHING was recyclable. Fridges, freezers, washing machines, TVs, radios, tape recorders, videos. With masterful tinkering, and expert sorting, of what others labelled 'scrap' and a good and electrically qualified friend, we never had a shortage of gadgets to freeze food, wash clothes or entertain us. I joined the local LETS group and with my preserves, cakes and bread to barter, I've since done what would be £3,000+ of business – but in barter currency.

Being a sewer and knitter, the acquisition of a lovely old hand sewing machine, a job lot of knitting and crochet needles and a spinning wheel (via the free ads) meant I never needed to complain of 'nothing to do'. A small-holding neighbour taught me to spin and the farmer across the road supplies any fleeces I want in spring.

We wasted nothing – old scraps of wool, cotton, cardboard, paper, food... they could all be turned into some-thing good. No useful evening class was wasted – Nick became a competent basket maker and I learned basic crochet, gained a reflexology diploma and learned about permaculture (hey, this is what we're doing already!). Oh, and I went to classes on herbal medicine and every minor ailment now has its safe home remedy. We learned how to plait garlic bulbs, use the plastic 'thingys' that grocers sell tangerines in for storing soap and using as an alternative to 'Fairly Liquid', and invented recipes for every conceivable leftover. Any food that couldn't be used fed the animals.

Oh, didn't I mention the animals? Well, they aren't the big sort. The council don't allow pigs, cows or goats... nor chickens come to that – can't think why – they'd never have rent arrears if they let their tenants rear and sell meat, milk or eggs would they? Ah well, dream on. Anyway, the animals... these too were sort of recycled. The next door neighbours' children were always getting (and forgetting) pets. Some overproduced litters escaped or 'grew too big'. So there was a succession of hamsters, a mouse, and the cat – a beautiful mixture of black, grey, ginger and white fur who we named Rainbow; she was the love child of a farmer's senior cat and an obviously noble female who had fallen on hard times. She produced a motley litter, of which Rainbow was the most beautiful and polite. We adopted her and she tolerated the arrangement with only scarcely hidden distaste of the unpleasant human antics. She's a good rodent keeper-downer but understands the strange human affinity with guinea pigs and hamsters, but her attitude to the mouse sometimes shows itself less than friendly. The mouse (Merlin) is fascinated by the large furry cat and shows a foolish lack of fear!

The animals in cages produce quite a bit of manure and old waste straw bedding: the farmer up the road has diversified into green manure/compost, so we have a working arrangement with him – he takes our garden waste and work clippings and turns them into bagged compost and mulch, and we use his compost as and when we need it. Alas, our big bunny died just recently (old age) and Nick – unable to find it in his heart to throw anything away (especially when he'd made it from a customer's thrown-away child's chalet), has removed the roof of the rabbit hutch and is growing tomatoes in it. (Er, we buried the rabbit, honest!).

Give Me Marginalisation Anytime

It didn't take us long to realise that we wanted to be seriously 'green', and consequently we were drawn to fellow greens all round the area. We bought or bartered free-range eggs, organic veg., fish from anglers and meat from smallholders. We couldn't afford the trappings of the consumer driven society – so we had no credit cards, hole-in-the-wall cards, direct debits, investments etc. etc. Alright, to be honest, we have no spare money, and according to our beloved leaders, we're a family who is 'marginalised'. What's more, they get 'great minds' to set up 'think-tanks' to find out how to unmarginalise us. They're concerned that we don't have money to help keep our industrialised lifestyles churning; that our children are underprivileged because we aren't on the Web and get their clothes from the Oxfam shop; and (cardinal sin) I am a mother who does not go out to work full-time! Well, if being marginalised means growing food and cooking decent meals so that none of us have to subsist on microwave packaged food, and can sit around the dining table in the evening sharing our time and interests together... give me marginalised anytime.

Although we aren't totally 'permaculture', we have been able to go some way to refusing our earth-plundering, third-world robbing, money driven, greedy society. We have gained good friends, unadulterated food, well paced work with a purpose, and contentment. So, we'll drink to that with a glass of home made rhubarb wine. Cheers! 

Lyn Ciampa |
Sat, 10/03/2012 - 00:16
Well done!
dhsbrenda |
Sat, 01/02/2014 - 02:14
How true! All of it, from how much nicer the people in first throes of homelessness are, to how much nicer life is when the family is growing its own food, making just the amount of money it needs, and spending time together.