A coronavirus tweet from Downing Street, last month, reminded us that ‘It's called a living room for a reason'. Stay home, save lives being the message, of course.
It infuriated me, because it completely missed the reality of lockdown for many. The more comfortable your home, the higher up the career ladder, the bigger your garden, the easier lockdown is. But what if you and your children have to lockdown in just one sub-standard room?
There are more than 135,000 children living in temporary accommodation in the UK. I photographed and interviewed four women for my latest project, ‘One Room Lockdown’. These are women who live with their children in temporary accommodation in London, and I was shocked and saddened by their situation. The rooms were small, which made photographing them at the Government mandated distance of two metres away barely possible. Three of the rooms had mould and damp on the walls. This is an environmental health breach and dangerous at the best of times. But this isn’t the best of times - these women and children are stuck indoors, without sunshine and fresh air, breathing in mould spores.
You also can’t self-isolate if you share a kitchen and bathroom with other tenants. Public Health England has delivered advice that is impossible to follow for some of the poorest and most disadvantaged families in the UK.
The four women in ‘One Room Lockdown’ have fled difficult circumstances to come to the UK, and are grateful for the fresh start. But the lockdown has magnified the problems they live with. A small room feels even smaller when you are on top of each other every day. Food prices have risen. Looking after their mental health and the wellbeing of their children is acutely difficult. Many don’t have family and friends in the UK, but normally rely on playgroups, nurseries and places of worship for social interaction. Those have now gone.
The first 1,000 days of a child’s life lay the crucial foundations for their physical and psychological health. It’s not just a question of avoiding trauma and danger and getting the right nutrition, but also promoting socialisation and active play. When I met them, these children had been locked indoors with no outdoor play and no sight of another human being for 30 days, and another 30 days have passed since then.
These women and children need lockdown to end. But after this they also need healthy, happy homes. Their stories are below, with personal details removed as some remain in danger.
"I am grateful and happy to be in this country. I came from difficult circumstances. My life has been saved, my child’s life has been saved.
My husband and I married here in the UK, when I was studying. We went home but we were not accepted because we had married without our families’ permission. My son and I were threatened with honour killing, there was violence. I had to escape. I feel like my son’s childhood is being wasted with bad memories.
This four wall boundary is all we have. This is our bedroom, our sitting room, our kitchen, our everything. It’s like a cell at the moment because we can’t go out. No school, no nursery. I’m a single parent and I can’t take him to the shops with me, so I don’t even go to the shops. It feels like life has frozen.
We have one bed to share. We sleep in it, we eat on it, and my son does his school work on it. It’s awkward to do every single thing on your bed. I don’t need or expect anything fancy, but I wish we had a small table so that we can cherish it when we eat a meal, and he has somewhere to do his homework. Also, he is nine and the opposite gender to me and he is growing, so separate beds would be better.
My son misses school and his friends. I reassure him every day that this will not last forever. He could go to school as a ‘vulnerable’ child because we are in temporary accommodation, but he won’t go, because he is too scared of the virus.
He tried killing himself. When I came back from the loo one day, the moment I stepped in I saw him with my medication in his hand. He said he was getting them ready for me, but he is not allowed to touch them. I was worried he had taken some so I called an ambulance. He told the paramedic that he wants to sleep forever and not wake up, because he doesn’t like what is going on.
He scared of sitting on the floor, because the house had rats in it before. I put a towel under our door, so nothing can come in and I put a sheet on the floor so it is clean for him. But he is too young to accept this reality and adjust to it.
I have a degree in business and a masters in finance. I would like to be able to work if I am given leave to remain. I am looking forward to the future when my son is back at school and I am allowed to work one day. I don’t want to be a burden to anyone."
"We can’t do what we normally do. I’m too afraid to even go to the park, so I keep my son indoors all the time. We do the Joe Wicks exercise every day and read. That’s how we're manageing the lockdown.
It’s better to stay indoors than go outside and catch the virus, but I don’t know how long this can go on. I pray for it to be over soon.
We have lived here for a year. We have one room, we sleep together in the same single bed, there is a cooking area and a fridge. There is no window and no ventilation. There is a cooker hood but it doesn’t suck up the smoke and steam. We have our own bathroom, at least. I do my best to make my home nice, but it’s not easy. There is damp and some things are broken. The landlady says she can’t fix anything, as it will cost too much money.
There is no space for my son - who is only three - to play. If I cook, he is under my feet, I tread on his toys. We have to squeeze around each other. It’s not easy. Sometimes I step on his feet and he starts crying, and I say, ‘Mummy is so sorry, so sorry, I didn’t mean it.’ Normally he goes to nursery. He misses his friends. He cries a lot at the moment.
I don’t know how online shopping works, but I know a supermarket deliveryman from church and I tell him what I need and he buys it for me, delivers it, and I pay him.
I pray that we will be released quickly from lockdown. Summer is coming and this room gets very hot."
"My three children and I live in this room. We share this house with four other women and their children, and we all share the kitchen and bathroom, so I can’t self-isolate properly.
I go to college, I can read English and I have access to the internet, so I know how many people die every day. I am very worried about the virus. The other women in this house do not speak English, so they don’t understand they should take social distancing seriously.
I can’t take my children to the kitchen with me, so I have to leave them alone in this room. That is not safe, and they cry, but what else can I do? They would bump into the other women and their children. I clean the bathroom each time my children use the loo, so they won’t catch anything.
My daughter had a cough so I decided to self isolate three weeks ago. To prepare, I went to the shops to buy some food, but I found that some items were double the usual price. I was so worried.
The school sent us sandwiches every day in term time. And the Magpie Project charity have been sending me food parcels and also some cooked food. I am very happy in this area because they are wonderful and the school are very supportive.
I had to flee my country because my parents and husband disagreed with the government and are in prison. I came here to be safe, not to be like a prisoner in one room with children. I don’t feel that the local authority care about my health, or my children’s health.
I am stressed all the time. I try to keep my children quiet, but we all disturb each other in this house. The neighbours keep me awake, my baby is teething, and I get very little sleep. I worry about getting the virus. If I get sick, who is going to look after my kids? I have no relatives or friends in this country. No one can take this responsibility for me. I have to stay well and fight for my children."
"I moved to this country a year ago because I got married in secret without my family’s permission. My father was very angry. They would call it an [attempted] honour killing. I am here for the safety of my daughter and I. There was an incident with my sister - my father drove her into the desert, tied her up to a pole and caned her when he heard a rumour that she had been flirting.
It’s hard to be here alone and with no friends or family. I am housed by immigration. I live in a house with other people and we share the kitchen and bathroom. One person here always leaves the bathroom dirty and I have to clean it a lot.
Most of the time I live life in this room anyway, so lockdown isn’t too different. I go out to the shops, and to playgroup, and occasionally to the park. So, life is quite similar right now, except I miss my trips out. It is too much being in one room together for so long.
There is a crazy lady who lives in the room next door to me. She has lots of men over to visit her. One time there were four men and it sounded like wild animals were in there. This is not great with children in the house, but it is also not safe while we are supposed to be social distancing.
I wasn’t too worried about the virus at first, but with so many people coming into the house it’s scary. Six men have visited this week. They use the loo, of course. If I pass them, or the people who live in the house, we are very close to each other, we cannot be two metres apart."