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How being homeless changed a UEL student's life forever

Docklands

Theresa Yemisi Williams wants to use her UEL education to help homeless people

A University of East London (UEL) student who experienced homelessness and was forced to sleep in her car has organised an east London conference on 'Housing First' - a support model that helps homeless people stay off on the streets.

Theresa Yemisi Williams, who is in the third year of a degree in Events Management, has personal experience of homelessness after returning home from her job as a care worker five years ago to discover she had been evicted.

“I returned home at midnight after a long shift,” she said. “It was dark, but as I approached my home, I could see a strip across the door saying ‘Do not enter’.

“There was a small card in the window telling me to call a number to sort things out. It was late, too late to call around friends or family, and I had no money, so I just got in the car and drove it to a nearby park and slept in it that night.”

Ironically, Theresa had spent her career helping homeless and other vulnerable people since moving from Nigeria to London in 1996 and working for a number of housing trusts and charities.

“I had a good job,” she said. “I had a nice three-bedroom house in Tilbury and my three children had just started university. 

“But I wanted to develop my skills, so I decided to go part-time to start a degree in nursing, it seemed liked the obvious next step.” 

However, Theresa started struggling to keep up her mortgage payments.

“Things became too much," she said. "I just couldn’t cope. The letters from the bank kept coming, and I got to a point of not even opening them. They just piled up, and I just kept burying my head in the sand.”

The effect of the eviction on her children proved devastating. 

“They were embarrassed and crying when I told them the house had been taken away and their mum locked out. One of my children had a mental breakdown because of what happened, and started seriously self-harming. It was such a hard time for us all. 

“No one at work knew. I kept it quiet because I was ashamed, and I didn’t tell my friends.”
 
Because she was supporting people in sheltered housing, she was able to make use of the shower and bathroom and have somewhere to eat breakfast. 

“I was as dependent on the sheltered housing as the people I was there to support,” she said. 

“I did try to get help. I called the council and they said, ‘Are you a vulnerable person, or have young children with you, or are you pregnant?’ I said no. They asked if I was working, which I was. They said, ‘sorry we can’t help you'.” 

A much-needed pay cheque eventually gave her just enough to find a cheap flat share,

She had to discontinue her nursing degree but was able to go back to work full-time. But now she is back in education at UEL - and loving every minute of it.

“I’ve been given a second chance at education, doing something I love, and I want to do a master's degree too so I can better help those affected by homelessness.”

Theresa now rents a house in Basildon, Essex, with her three children. 

“We share the rent and bills, and we get to live together as a family," she said. "It’s nice as we’ve been through some tough times together.”

The ‘Housing First’ model is about providing the support a person needs once they move into accommodation. Drug, alcohol, mental health, and financial management services form part of a package to prevent people ending up back on the streets. It has proved to be highly successful in the USA, Australia, and Finland.. 

Theresa said, “I wanted the conference to bring some hope, and a solution. Homelessness can happen to anyone, and it’s easy to be sceptical and blame the person, or wonder why they don’t just get their family to help. I know, I’ve been there. It’ll stay with me forever.”