When Dorota Skrzek became homeless because of an abusive partner, she and her two-year-old son had to leave everything behind to move into a women’s refuge, in a town they didn’t know. “We had only our clothes. It was a very difficult time,” she says.
At the refuge, Skrzek had the chance to move to a small terraced house. It was just the right size for her and her toddler and the rent was low.
But there was a catch. The house had been unoccupied for some time and was in a state of complete disrepair, with a boarded-up front door and windows, crumbling plaster and peeling paint and wallpaper. To qualify as a tenant Skrzek had to commit to taking a hands-on role in making the property liveable.
The project was part of a scheme by Leeds-based charity Canopy Housing, which offers self-help homes, a type of community-led housing where homeless people do up dilapidated properties. Empty homes get used, and vulnerable people learn new skills and get a home.
Despite having no experience in even basic DIY, Skrzek was up for the challenge. “It was hard. But I was given training from one of Canopy’s volunteer instructors, which gave me the confidence I needed,” she says. “I did lots of painting, which I enjoyed, and fixed up the kitchen.”
Along with other volunteers, Skrzek worked for about three months, from 9 to 4, two days a week, renovating not just her own, but other dilapidated houses. Unlike most private rented and council tenants, she could choose the finish she wanted for her new home. “I chose green for the living room, and my bedroom is blue. I was allowed to do it exactly as I wanted.”
Her son, now six, has a green bedroom and space for his toys. “It was a bit hard on him while I worked on the house, but when he got his new bedroom he was in heaven,” she says. “He says he wants to stay forever. To me, it is my castle, my own refuge.”
Four years on from the refurb, Skrzek is still feeling the benefits. “I got more confident. Now, if something breaks I will try to fix it myself,” she says. “It has been good for my mental health, too. I used to be scared of people and struggled with depression, but this has made me a stronger person and I am part of a community of volunteers and residents. I really wish everyone who has experienced domestic violence could have this opportunity.”