BEHIND CLOSED DOORS- Mental Health, Homelessness & Young People On The Edge
1.What inspired you to write a book about young people facing the possibility/reality of homelessness?
In 1966 as a teenager I saw the film, Cathy Come Home, by Ken Loach on British TV. It depicted the slide into homelessness by a young couple and the loss of their children into Care. The film shocked the nation and the charity, Shelter, was set up the following year to help the homeless.
This film triggered a lifelong concern in me for homeless people. I initiated fund raising events for Shelter as a young person. As a teacher I had some students housed in horrible B&B accommodation for homeless families. Mothers would tell me how they were often placed on a different floor to their teenage children.
I have also run writing workshops for homeless people and listened to their stories. In recent years there have been more and more articles and documentaries about the rising number of teens who end up sleeping rough. I decided that I would write a novel which would show some of the reasons why teenagers end up on the streets.
2. In this book, you also cover a broad spectrum of issues effecting young people today; ones that can easily lead down the path to homelessness. The number of them touched on was astounding! (Well done! It is a real eye opener.) How did you go about choosing
which issues would most affect Josie and Tasha?
I decided that the book would be in the voices of two teenage girls; quite a challenge – but I like a challenge! This allowed me to tell two very different stories. I decided on Tasha’s story first because my research showed that many teenage girls leave home because mother brings in a new boyfriend who takes an unhealthy interest in the girl.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Association, around 75,000 young people contact homeless services each year. Many young people ‘sofa surf’– sleep on a friend’s couch. My character, Tasha, is terrified of sleeping rough, so she is sofa surfing and already homeless.
|photo by Paula Salischiker|
During my gestation for this book there were documentaries on TV about hoarders which I knew very little about. I had thought that hoarders were mainly older, single people. I was therefore surprised to see an episode with a young teen living in these conditions.
I started to research children of hoarders and one of the themes that emerged was the fact that some teens, as young as fourteen, simply can’t stand living in a hoard any longer and leave, becoming homeless.
Here are some of their comments :-
|photo by Paula Salischiker|
“I think being homeless would be a better option that living in my mother’s house.”
“I spent my teens house-hopping to get away from my mother’s hoard. I felt homeless.” “Mum likes her stuff more than me.”
I therefore decided to make this Josie’s story as I felt it was a little-known issue.
3. In Josies’ story, I was most interested in her mothers’ mental illness. And the real danger of becoming a victim to criminal activity as a result of her mothers’ being in prison created a tension and concern that was shocking. Could you say something about this?
My novel was published in 2018, the year that the World Health Organisation recognised hoarding as a distinct mental health issue. This is a very important development and has been welcomed by the various charities which support hoarders and recognise their mental health issues.
|photo by Paula Salischiker|
There has been very little research so far into hoarding. It has only been conducted in America since the 1990s and in the UK since the 2000s. There are few available statistics. However, according to Paul Noblet, Head of Public Affairs at Centrepoint, over 55% of homeless young people supported by Centrepoint in 2018, “left home because of a family relationship breakdown. While the reasons vary, a factor can be mental health issues within the family, such as hoarding.”
Certainly, within my own social circles, I know of two people who left home before they were sixteen because of hoarding.
In my novel I wanted to create a situation whereby other people entered the hoarder house and helped Josie to realise that her mother wasn’t simply saving the planet. To do this I had to remove Mum from the scene. From this point onwards, Josie is both at serious risk and also about to come to the notice of Social Services. I always enjoy raising the tension in my novels, creating impossible problems for my characters to resolve and making things much worse before any possibility of a resolution. But Josie is not alone. She develops her unlikely friendship with Tasha and together they set out to resolve their situations.
4. Grooming and sexual abuse are issues that, shockingly, far too many children are dealing with today. And I have to say, Tasha’s mother and her attitude towards Tasha in this regard was most disconcerting. Could you tell me something about that?
Yes, I quite agree and I deliberately put this story line in. Unfortunately, there are too many cases where children are at risk at home and do not have the protection of their parents or carers. This is not of course all children in homes where new partners come to live. But one could argue that this should never happen. Tasha is under the threat of sexual abuse from Mum’s new boyfriend who is 35. But even when she appeals to her mother, Tasha is ignored because Mum puts her relationship before the needs of her own daughter. This must be such a terrifying and depressing situation for any child or teenager to experience. It is not a spoiler to say that this is not resolved by the end of the book and Tasha’s mother will never recognise that she has neglected her daughter.
5. The two central characters, Josie and Tasha have very different lifestyles. And quite different personalities. For example, Tasha seems to be more capable of imposing herself on Josie when she needs shelter; is more forthright with her opinions. Josie is more secretive; tries to hide things until she can work it out alone. How did you envision them being able to develop an actual friendship (rather than a camaraderie based on necessity)?
I felt that Josie and Tasha were such a great match! There are so many reasons why these two might never be friends. I am very interested in how friendships are triggered and as a teacher I had the opportunity to see some very unlikely friendships develop. Tasha and Josie start poles apart and even when Josie reluctantly lets Tasha into the house, Tasha behaves in her usual self-centred, critical manner, even though she is desperate. Josie continues to plug her Mum’s views that they are saving the planet and refuses to acknowledge her mum is a hoarder.
Both girls are protecting themselves from the shameful areas of their lives which they are hiding from. They refuse to admit how bad things are to themselves, let alone each other. But the turning point comes when they are invaded by two criminals, who settle down in the house.
"We stare at each other and in that moment everything between us changes. Tasha with the mum who doesn't protect her and me with the mum in prison, neither of us with a proper home."
This is the beginning of trust between them, the bedrock of friendship. They are in the same boat, both equally at risk and they come to rely on each other to overcome the odds. Eventually they are even able to mock each other gently. Josie calls Tasha a ‘drama queen’ and Tasha jokes about Josie’s boyfriend. But it is their acceptance of each other’s terrible situations, created by the failure of their families to provide a safe home, which binds them together.
As one young reviewer commented, “This book has completely changed my way of grasping the word 'home'...you will realise what 'home' is and where your real 'home' is by the end.” An Nabeshima, 17 yrs,
6. While the book does deal with some pretty hard-hitting issues, yet it is never grim and manages to inject some lightness, humour and hope throughout without making light of any of it. How (and why) did you manage to accomplish this?
Humour in my gritty novels is one of my trademarks. I feel that it is so important when dealing with tough issues for readers of any age. Humour doesn’t have to be side-splitting but it is needed to lift the mood. Otherwise the novel rolls out relentlessly from one awful scenario to the next and that can switch the reader off.
In this book Tasha can be quite amusing, with her ironic world view. Her ‘sweet little friend’ Dom tries to sound cool and ends up sounding nerdy. And there are some lighter moments with Josie and her new boyfriend, Jordan.
Such as when they go on their first date.
Jordan says, “Shall I order wine?”
My eyes open wide with amazement and we stare at each other and then I can’t help it. This enormous giggle bursts up through me and we both start laughing…
“What?” he says.
“It’s a burger place, not the Hilton.”
“But that’s what my dad always says to Mom when he takes us out for dinner.”
When I talk about my books in school, young people comment on the humour (and laugh in the right places!) But they tell me that they really like the fact that my books are about ‘real’ people and ‘real’ situations. I write contemporary and historical realistic fiction on challenging issues, with strong characters and a liberal dose of humour. This is what I like to read and this is what I enjoy writing.
Thank you so much, Miriam, for taking the time to answer these questions.
To find out more about Miriam Halamhy, follow the link below:
'Hoarding' photographs by Paula Salischiker