Helen playing with her granddaughter

Twelve months ago, 61-year-old Helen was sleeping on a corner of a sofa in a home that wasn’t fit to live in, due to a family member’s issues with their mental health and hoarding. Now Helen has a place of her own, one where she’s not embarrassed to have family round.

Helen says: “I’d been in my last house about 20 years, with my two youngest children. About 10 years ago, I had a new kitchen fitted, but I never managed to put everything back that had come out of there. I left boxes still sitting in the living room.

“Looking back, I realise that it was probably grief that stopped me in my tracks. I’d just lost my mum and trying to get organised at home, even just the housework, felt overwhelming.

“I was fed up arguing with the kids to keep the place clean and then their bedrooms started to slip too. It got so bad I could actually go six months without opening the kids’ bedroom doors. I felt so weighed down by it all, so I just didn’t look.

“One of my sons would help me clean, the other got steadily more and more untidy. He had his own issues, and I felt helpless.

“Then a few years ago, I gave them an ultimatum. I said that they had one year in which they either had to help me get the place in order, or they could find somewhere else to live. One son left, the eldest stayed.

“His mental health issues got worse. His hoarding got worse. The bigger the problem got, the less I felt I could do.

“I felt responsible and I was too ashamed to let anyone know.

“I was sleeping on the corner of the sofa. I had no heating or hot water because I’d dodged every offer of improvement works so no-one would see the state of the house. In the end my gas got capped.

“I was working in retail at the time, and my employer kept sending me to work in other shops miles from here, so I enjoyed having hotel accommodation. The only problem with that was that I dreaded going home. I’d put off coming home as long as I possibly could.

“In 2018 I was away for 18 weeks – it was heaven.

“When the pandemic hit last year, I was away in a hotel. The hotel closed the restaurant but instead of coming home, I bought a pot noodle from a local shop so I could have something to eat and stay the last night.

“Being at home felt so dark and heavy. I would have no idea what mood my son would be in, or if he’d start a fight.

“One night, things came to a head and I had to call the police. They called Grand Union and told them my house wasn’t fit to be lived in.

“Katy from the Wellbeing Support team called me to assess the situation. I remember feeling embarrassed during that conversation.

“But I also remember thinking that I didn’t have to live like that any more. It was like a light had been switched back on. I knew there were possibilities at last.

“I’d been in a downward spiral, caught at the bottom and unable to get back up. Katy pulled me out of that spiral. I was amazed that such a weight could be lifted off my shoulders so quickly.

“It was the fact that Katy wasn’t judging me or blaming me. I knew that these things can, and do, happen and I was sure they’d seen this sort of thing before. I was made to feel like it was all going to be okay.

“It was an incredible feeling to know that someone was there, someone actually cared.”

In November 2020, Helen was moved into temporary accommodation while the police, social care and staff from various teams within Grand Union (welfare benefits, relocations, customer partners, wellbeing & support) discussed a way forward.

Helen continues: “That first night in the temporary accommodation I admit that I struggled. I was so warm! I wasn’t used to having heating on or it being quiet.

“It should have been the best night’s sleep I’d ever had, but I couldn’t believe I wasn’t at home. I thought if I fell asleep, I’d wake up and it would have all been a dream, I’d be back in the old place.

“I felt so ungrateful. I had a safe, warm and cosy place to stay but I couldn’t sleep. I felt like I should have been taking proper advantage of it – I’d wanted it for so long, somewhere just for me. I didn’t sleep like a baby, like I thought I should have done.

“It was December, so I bought a Christmas tree, my first in over 10 years! Working in retail I’d only ever had one day off at Christmas, plus the kids were old enough to be doing their own thing, and the house, well it was a mess.

“I had always said that Christmas had been cancelled because I couldn’t afford presents. Last Christmas I felt excited – I was dancing round my tree like a five-year-old!

“Then I was given my new flat. I moved in a few days before Christmas.

“I love this place; it’s everything I could possibly have wanted. I love the village too.

“My neighbours are close, if there’s an emergency. But I still have my privacy. There’s a lovely communal garden and a bench where I can sit and chat with my neighbours if I feel like it.

“Having my granddaughter here is the best thing in the world. I loved looking after her before, which was always at my daughter’s house, but the first time she came to visit me here, she stood in the middle of the room and said: ‘Grandma’s house and Harriet’s house. It’s good!’

“Life is so different now. As much as this place is clean, I’ve changed inside too and it’s all down to that moment – a week in time when everything turned around.

“I didn’t think Grand Union would help with my situation. I thought they’d tell me off. I didn’t realise they offered this kind of help and support.

“Tina in the Financial Wellbeing team has been great with helping me get my benefits sorted.

“But Katy’s the one who saved my life, who gave me hope and a way out. I can’t ever thank her enough.”

Helen is keen that no-one else goes through what she has and has advice for anyone who is in this kind of situation:

“Don’t be scared to tell someone, because the strain and pressure just builds up. This took so much longer than it needed to. If only I’d known I could have reached out and that there was someone to reach out to.

“I couldn’t see a future, apart from a downward spiral for the rest of my life. Now I can look forward to things again.

“I’m so amazed at what a change there’s been in my life and that help is there. It feels like what happened wasn’t to me, it happened to someone else.

Katy, Wellbeing & Support Officer, adds: “Helen is like a completely different person now to when I first met her, and I’m so happy to see her settled and thriving in her new home.

“Helen’s story is a great example of how all of our services come together to support our customers; I worked closely with our Customer Partner, Stephanie, to co-ordinate a plan across internal and external teams to ensure the best possible outcome for Helen.”