I often think of the 1960s housing estate that I grew up on in Brighton; the swing park where I scored my first goal in a kickabout, Dwelly’s the sweet shop where me and Simon Denyer deliberated over our penny chew selections, the lino-floored public library that helped fuel my love of reading. It was the first place in which I experienced that wonderfully reassuring sensation of belonging.
At its heart was the two-bedroomed semi I shared with Mum, Dad and my sister, Cheska. Even now, I find it comforting to take a virtual tour around the old house in my imagination; to lounge in front of the gas fire in the ‘Big Room’, check-out the kitchen to find out what’s for tea, see pictures in the artex patterns on my bedroom ceiling (a roller-skating bear with long ears) and almost certainly seek out our beloved cat, Zippy and tickle him under the chin. 25 Bramble Rise was my ‘safe space’. Unlike school, it was the one place where I could always be me.
The main character in my new middle-grade novel, Has Anyone Seen Archie Ebbs? feels exactly the same about 22 Station Road. Like mine, Archie’s Mum is a nurse. And Archie loves the house she’s been renting since he was a toddler. Everywhere he looks are the memories that have helped shape him: the hamsters’ graveyard in the garden, the diet coke stain on his bedroom carpet, the gallery of his paintings on the fridge door. There’s ‘the best cat in the world’ too; a ginger tom by the name of Dinger. As Archie says, when we first meet him: ‘my life is so totally brilliant I want to chop it up and use it as a pizza topping.’
But everything changes when Archie’s mum gets a Section 8 eviction notice from the landlord and after a fruitless search for an affordable alternative, they end up in Manton House, a ‘temporary’ bed and breakfast hostel for the statutorily homeless.
With an hour’s bus journey to school, a single room with only a microwave for a kitchen, no WIFI and a strict ban on all pets, Archie is devastated. Permanently exhausted, he can’t concentrate at school. And anxious to keep his new circumstances a secret, he starts distancing himself from his friends. Without a place to call home, the old Archie is slowly fading away. Until one day, in the middle of a lesson, he suddenly realises that he’s become completely invisible.
It’s estimated that every ninety minutes, twenty-five families in the UK will become homeless. Hidden homelessness – people living in squats, sofa surfing or in temporary Bed & Breakfast hostels – is a growing, yet often overlooked problem that can have a devastating effect on children. And it could happen to anyone. It’s often said that most of us are only two-and-half pay cheques away from homelessness.
The right to a safe and secure shelter is laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If children like Archie are to find that place where they truly belong, it’s vital that they don’t become invisible. Which is why I wanted to write about him. And why characters like Archie Ebbs should always belong in books.
Has Anyone Seen Archie Ebbs by Simon Packham is published by Firefly Press.