Cardboard Citizens at Soho Theatre
You should be furious. But, no, you look at me, you both look at me and you think you’re better than me. But I’ll tell you this. If you lose your jobs and the benefits don’t cover your rent and then you spend your savings and your family won’t help then – You’re in arrears. And then you’re out and then you’re me.
It’s April 2015. Cathy has a nice place – it’s her home. She has to work hard to keep it, mind; cleaning in those fancy Canary Wharf offices – she’s out of the house for ten, twelve hours a day. Cathy’s father has dementia – when she’s not working, she’s either with him or her daughter Danielle. Danielle is a year away from sitting her GCSEs; she’s been predicted great grades, she’s really smart.
Cathy has always worked hard; nobody could ever accuse her of being a scrounger. The problem is that her shifts have been cut; they’ve all been put on zero hours and her earnings have taken a massive hit. She’s never been late with her payments before, but she’s sure that things will pick up.
But it doesn’t matter that she’s always been on time with her payments, and being ‘sure that things will pick up’ definitely doesn’t cut it with her landlord. He’s in her house, putting the pressure on, reminding her of the young professional couple who pay a fortune in rent on another flat on the estate. There are plenty more young professional couples, at the ready to gentrify areas like these, who would pay a fortune for Cathy’s place.
It doesn’t matter that Cathy has lived here for most of her life.
As desperately as she tries, Cathy can’t catch up on her debts; she’s been told they need to be out by October. There are no other options in their estate or close by, because the prices have rocketed. And the council will only help once they have been officially evicted – so that’s Cathy’s only option. To sit it out.
And now she’s in the social housing office and it feels like she’s been arrested. They are relentlessly questioning her, to ascertain whether or not she’s made herself intentionally homeless.
Intentionally? Why would I do this on purpose?
Cathy has done everything she’s been told to do: she “challenged Section 21”, but the bailiffs shoved into her home and took all her possessions. They piled them up on the pavement, for all her neighbours to see. And Danielle has missed a whole day of school because they had to sit in the social housing reception for nine hours, with all their things – waiting to be seen.
The council want to know if there’s anyone Cathy can turn to. But Cathy’s ex is a drunk and a gambler, he’s been out of the picture for years. Cathy has spent her life caring for and supporting their daughter on her own – she’ll be damned if she’s going to turn to him now. Cathy has no savings, no pension. She has nowhere else to go.
There aren’t enough houses the borough. Although the council are duty-bound to house Cathy because she has a dependent child – there are over two thousand people looking for homes in her area. It doesn’t matter that Cathy lives here, that her Dad’s care home is here, that Danielle has her exams. Cathy is offered emergency accommodation in a B&B.
It takes Danielle over three hours a day to commute to and from school. They are told their stay here will be for thirty-three days, until their application for temporary accommodation goes through. But all this ‘B&B’ amounts to is one filthy room – there’s no bed, and there’s definitely no breakfast. There isn’t even a kitchen, or a fridge or plates. There are cockroaches, though.
This lack of autonomy is asphyxiating and stressful. Despite Cathy’s best efforts to contain herself, to sit things through, to trust in the system – when the strain bubbles over and her emotions get the better of her, a blank face from behind a desk simply replies:
I’m going to have to ask you to calm down. Or I’ll have to call security.
Cathy’s working as a toilet attendant. But no one tips, and she hasn’t had a break in six hours. Danielle’s been jumped by a gang of girls, because they know she lives in that shitty B&B in Luton: the place where “pikeys” and “immigrants”, and all the other people who are “stealing their houses and taking their jobs” live. This B&B was supposed to be an emergency option – they’ve been here for months now…
Sorry I’m grinning. I must look stupid smiling like a Cheshire cat.
Finally, Cathy has been called in to discuss temporary housing. Finally, the waiting has paid off – finally, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s a really nice place: a two bed maisonette, with carpet, fitted kitchen, double glazing…Cathy doesn’t recognise the postcode though…Where’s Gateshead? Kent, maybe? She doesn’t know Northumberland – they are going to have to tell her the nearest town so she can picture where it is…Newcastle?!
Cathy never said she wanted to move to Newcastle. They won’t give her time to go away and consider, there’s no option to view the property. Her only option is to take it now. If she does, they’ll live there until she places a successful bid on a permanent property. Cathy asks how long that will take…
It won’t be immediate. You can expect to make about three to four hundred bids. So you’re looking at waiting six or seven years.
If Cathy doesn’t take the flat, right here, right now – then they’ll make the call to social services. Cathy and Danielle will be officially homeless, and they can’t let a fifteen year old sleep rough. When Cathy asks for another alternative, they accuse her of rejecting their offer. But this is hardly an offer.
And, on top of all this, the social housing people keep telling Cathy to do the right thing for her daughter. But they don’t understand that Cathy is all about doing the right thing for her daughter. Why don’t they understand that it’s more complicated than simply moving to Liverpool? What about Cathy’s Dad? And don’t they understand what it’s like for a teenager?
For them to leave their home and their friends, their friends who are like everything to them […] who tell them who they are and make them feel special and popular and clever because they love each other to death.
Cathy just wants to go home, to take her daughter home, to be close to her Dad. It’s such a critical time for Danielle. And when Cathy swears because of the anxiety, frustration and anger at the circumstances, they tell her to calm down: they won’t be spoken to like this, they’ll have to call their supervisor.
But how can she not be emotional? How is it ok that, when she is hemmed in like this, when she is stripped of all her power to drive her own decisions about her own life, that these people think it’s also ok to preach at her on how to be a good mother. She might be losing the battle but
You don’t tell me how to be a mother.
YOU DO NOT EVER TELL ME ABOUT HOW TO BE A MOTHER
ABOUT CARDBOARD CITIZENS:
Cathy is written by Ali Taylor, for Cardboard Citizens, as a piece of Forum Theatre, which is a style of theatre that empowers the audience to change the outcome and have their say on one of society’s most topical subjects today. This means that every performance will be a completely unique experience. At the end of the show, the audience is encouraged to suggest different actions and outcomes for the narrative, helping to actively engage with the issues that the plays presents and change the course of the character’s lives. Audiences members can be as involved as they decide, whether choosing to get up on stage and act themselves or just sit back and watch as the story is rewritten in front of their eyes. Cathy is on at Soho Theatre in London until 14th April, but it’s touring round the UK so check out dates and venues here.
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Cardboard Citizens began life in 1991, in the Cardboard City which had sprung up in what was then called the Bullring in Waterloo (now the site of the Imax cinema), and its longevity in the field has earned it the trust and respect of homeless people and funders alike. The first members of the company included a number of those shanty-town rough sleepers, along with hostel-dwellers, transvestites, rent-boys and street drinkers.
From these rough and authentic beginnings, Cardboard Citizens has pioneered the use of participatory arts and theatre in particular with homeless people. In those days, the occasional unused pottery wheel in the corner of a day centre was the only form of arts activity provided for homeless people. Nobody thought that participation in the arts could make a real difference in people’s lives, leading to tangible, measurable outcomes in everything from wellbeing to employment, and ultimately providing a real social return on the investment made. Now the picture is very different – Cardboard Citizens has proven that theatre can be a uniquely powerful tool for engaging homeless people in a process of change, and for engaging general audiences to focus on the plight of those at the margins of our society.
Whether these stories are presented in a homeless hostel or on the stage of a London theatre or the living room of a private house – the telling of these stories starts a conversation about change. And how that change could be brought about, translating ideas shared on stage into the real world. At street level, engaging homeless people with interactive Forum theatre and workshops, supporting them
afterwards with advice and guidance, Cardboard Citizens empowers the dispossessed to move forward in their lives. At a national level, in partnership with leading homelessness agencies and the top theatre companies in the land, Cardboard Citizens shows hidden Britain to all who care to look.
Sign up to CitizensDo – which is Cardboard Citizens’ movement to make a difference to the lives of people affected by homelessness, and they will take you on an eight week journey of actions to help those affected by homelessness. Week One is this week and (like it is for us here at PWDT) the focus is on donating to foodbanks. Check out our pinboard for our two food sharing charities of the week, or find a food bank close to you via The Trussell Trust.
If you need information on how to deal with a section 21 eviction notice – you can find information here: AdviceNow