Sylvia Plath's 'Tulips' feels particularly fitting for Charley BarnardGraphics by Charley Barnard

When I left the relative stability of my home for University in October 2017, I had no idea it would be the last time. Just two months after my arrival in Cambridge, my mother and I became homeless. We lost not just a house, most of our belongings and a cat that saw me through the worst spells of my mental health, but we also lost stability.

In my periods of homesickness, I imagine the house in which I used to live as warmth, a loving family and moments of dappled, golden-hour sunlight on my bedroom walls. In reality, it rarely resembled the nostalgic version I crave when I feel most displaced. As a child, I frequently dreamed of running away from the place where I was at my most unhappy, but now that returning is no longer a option, my vision of home is somewhat idealised: I yearn for something that never really existed.

“The toll that being homeless takes on my mental health is something I rarely speak about, instead preferring to focus on the practicalities”

Of course, receiving a full maintenance loan and Cambridge bursary, I am well aware that my version of homelessness is a very privileged one, and the privilege of being a white, able-bodied and well-educated woman means it’s likely to be temporary. However, as it stands, all that lies between me and an indefinite period of couch-surfing is the generosity of Newnham College and a government loan that has an unavoidable cut-off point. My mother is still homeless, living between friends, family and her car. She likes to give the impression of an optimist, telling me she has grown used to it, but I struggle to believe she doesn’t feel as lost as I do.

The toll that being homeless takes on my mental health is something I rarely speak about, instead preferring to focus on the practicalities, the everyday stresses of not knowing where I will spend the next long summer, a fear that comes even more into focus when I think about the upcoming 15 months of instability that will constitute my year abroad.

The summer between first and second year was spent au-pairing, something I’d never had the guts to try, despite wanting to, but that my home situation pushed me towards. I went into that summer trying to see the positives of homelessness, recognising that it forced me out of my comfort zone. I came back to Cambridge this year needing therapy. I know many people find a second family au-pairing, but for me, I was isolated, mistreated and trapped. Where most other people would have left, I didn’t have that choice.

The future holds uncertainty. I read an article last week from the perspective of a recent graduate. He told students not to worry if we don’t have a plan, the people who have plans “might have gone to a school which prepared [them] for spring weeks, internships and cushy grad jobs in the City.” Instead we should try to focus on having time to “relax, plan and think”. These situations couldn’t be more different from my unique reality. I am forced into having plans often months (if not years) in advance, not because I come from any kind of position of class privilege, but rather because there simply is no other option. When I graduate, my student funding will stop, my room license will end, and I will have several bags-for-life filled with everything I own.

I find stability in small moments. When I stop for a breath of fresh air, my back against a sun-soaked tree on Coe Fen. When the local tortoiseshell cat jumps up on my lap for a cuddle, purring as she leans her weight on my chest. Cooking comfort foods with the people I love most. But all these are temporary and barely begin to mend the loss that runs to my core.


Mountain View

“Take me home, Mill Road”

When asked what my ideal future looks like, I describe an apartment with large windows, plants, and an outside space where I can put a hammock. I have no desire for a fancy career, a family of my own or a capitalistic version of “success”. The furthest my aspirations have got to seems the simplest one: I want a home, I want stability, I want to stop fearing that any day now the rug could be pulled out from under my feet and I will have nowhere to land.

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