In a recent article on FastCo Create, Andrew Jarecki, who won a Emmy for documentary series The Jinx, presented his new journal app KnowMe. In the interview he argues that people have “a basic human need to tell their story.” He goes on stress that this is particularly true of everyday folk and not just writers or filmmakers. I’ve often said that real life is the most compelling drama and the runaway success of series such as Serial, a podcast no less, confirms that. Now imagine if that story is a deeply personal one that puts a human face on a very controversial, topical issue. That’s exactly what Daisy-May Hudson did when she picked up a camera and started to film her younger sister and mother after hearing that they would have to leave their rented home.
In Daisy’s words, the act of documenting became her coping mechanism. A means of wrestling back control in a frustrating and often hopeless situation. She was in the whirl of her final year studying drama and english at Manchester University when she heard the news and rushed back to be with her family. Their home for 13 years was suddenly put up for sale by owners Tesco and the family were forced to declare themselves homeless because they couldn't afford alternative local accommodation. So began a lengthy period of correspondence with the council in Epping while they moved the Hudsons from hostel to halfway house, often with questionable consideration of suitability in terms of location and condition.
Daisy filmed more than 250 hours of footage, barely featuring herself and instead choosing to focus on her lead characters – one devoted yet ashamed, the other confused and fragile. Daisy’s sister Bronte actually chose to hide the truth from her friends at school; she is an emotional yo-yo on screen, as you would expect being a teenager. But her mischievous and girly moments – from beaming at the thought of a 99% cocoa chocolate bar to singing Beyonce (badly) in the bath – do provide much needed levity.
The resulting documentary, Half Way, which I saw the other night, does a fantastic job of exploring the taboo nature of homelessness and confronting our attitudes to this problem. Credit must go to the editor Vera Simmonds for her judicious cuts and deft pacing while James Smith’s music heightens the mood when needed, without descending into melodrama. At times, it’s an uncomfortable watch. For instance, not much happens … and that’s the problem. The family are stuck in limbo, admittedly not on the streets but undeniably constrained, sharing a kitchen and bathroom with strangers for a year, living out of boxes. We see them struggling to put on a brave face, trying to go easy on one another. You feel the moments of despair with the family, not least when their legitimate objections are misconstrued as the family making themselves “intentionally homeless”. And they aren’t the only ones who stand accused.
For the Hudsons, the experience has certainly left its mark, as Daisy explained to Huck magazine: “I only cried once in the whole year we were in the hostel. I felt like if I showed I was upset, my mum would break. In some ways, our ending was a happy one. When we finally got our home, my mum had to go through a process of de-institutionalisation, re-learning how to make somewhere feel like a home, and not to leave little piles of things in boxes everywhere. Like my mum says, ‘We’re still getting through it.”’
The housing crisis is never far from the front pages or the evening news but the problem is more nuanced than many of us appreciate. That scruffy man on the street begging for a few pennies is only one manifestation. Gentrification, often signified by the arrival of that plush new café in a traditionally working class area, is too easy a target for pointing fingers.
In the Q & A after the screening at 71a London, Daisy, who has become a de facto spokesperson for ‘hidden homelessness’, suggested a raft of solutions – from rent caps to a ban on right to buy and foreign buyers gobbling up properties and leaving them vacant. This is fast becoming the defining issue of modern times in Britain: the right to a safe, clean home and how to facilitate peaceful co-existence in cities amid an impending class war.
Last year Shelter reported that around 100,000 children were going to be homeless at Christmas. More than 1.8 million households are waiting for social housing in England, an increase of 81% since 1997. UK house prices are rising three times faster than average wages according to the Office of National Statistics. If the Government could determine what is affordable based on a family’s income rather than the market rate, and commit units to the rental sector, perhaps we might see some progress. As it is, they are building less than half the number of homes they should be. Planning permission is not the issue.
The Housing Bill, if passed, will make matters even worse, arguably heralding the end of council housing (a “historic moment” but not in the sense that MP Brandon Lewis intended). The Government proposes to replace the stability and sense of community offered by permanent council tenancies with temporary arrangements, reviewed every three to five years. Secondly, households earning more than £30,000 each year (£40,000 in London) will be hit with a pay to stay tax on the difference between their social rent and the market rate. That’s ample encouragement to work less.
There's more. Councils will be forced to sell their “high value” homes as soon as they become vacant but, as Shelter’s John Bibby notes, there is no guarantee in the bill that replacement units will be built. As for starter homes, which Living Wage earner in Generation Buy will be able to afford a £450,000 home (£250,000 outside London) even with a first-time buyer discount of 20%? If you oppose the bill, there is a march taking place on Saturday 30 January from midday at the Imperial War Museum.
Daisy, who now works as a filmmaker producer at Vice and was recently named a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit, hopes to show the documentary to as many people as possible, especially politicians in the House of Commons. She can't understand why people aren’t up in arms about this issue – defeatism perhaps – and urges everyone to hound their local MP and take to the streets. Did I mention that there is a march happening?
Half Way is her first feature-length documentary and it’s a great achievement for someone so young. There is a spirit of defiance and solidarity running through every frame. It’s an honest reflection of the times we live in and could kickstart a revolution if Daisy has anything to do with it.