Jess Phillips MP talks to Rosalind Sack about feeling safe behind your front door, the importance of community and what home represents to the most vulnerable in society
The thing that most of us take for granted about our homes is that they are a place where we feel safe. Here we can lock our front doors, shut out the world and feel protected. For Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, that feeling of safety certainly isn’t a given; both from her own experiences and those of the many vulnerable people she has worked with.
Over the course of her four-year career in Westminster to date, Jess has been the target of a barrage of violent threats and abuse, mainly on social media. The reason? For quite simply doing her job. And being outspoken. And being a woman. So when she, her husband Tom and their two sons moved to a new house in Birmingham – a five-bedroom, double fronted Victorian ‘forever home’ on a quiet residential street not far from where they grew up – the parliamentary authorities insisted on installing security measures.
“It doesn’t change my life, but it’s not to be undermined what it’s like to feel unsafe in your own home. And that is such a violation. It’s like the feeling that most people get when you think there’s somebody downstairs, but on speed. Because the thing that’s telling you people are going to attack you is on your phone, in your house, actually in your hand,” says Jess, who moved to her current home in 2017 – the year after the murder of her friend and colleague Jo Cox MP.
It’s not to be underestimated what it’s like to feel unsafe in your own home. And that is such a violation.
“We have big bay windows at the front of the house where I tend to sit and – partly it’s irrational because I don’t necessarily feel it when the curtains are shut – sometimes I feel like someone could shoot me through the windows. Although the windows have protection on them I believe.
“When they first installed the security, I was like, this is a bit much. But I’m really not aware of it so much now, apart from it makes the doors a bit stiff.”
Aside from the security, much of the work that Jess and Tom have done to the house has been lovingly carried out themselves. Tom, an electrical engineer by trade, made the wooden kitchen table and the TV stand, built the shed and has fixed and re-wired several lamps. While the interiors are largely Jess’ domain; every room given a stamp of personality by Jess’ knack of salvaging unusual vintage accessories… including the aforementioned broken lamps.
JESS’ PERSONALITY-PACKED FAMILY HOME IN BIRMINGHAM IS PEPPERED WITH VINTAGE FINDS
“I don’t have some outlandishly individualistic taste, but I do like it if I’ve done it. My absolute favourite pastime in the whole world and pretty the only thing I still do, because I have no time, is to buy things from junk shops and go to flea markets. Me and my mother-in-law go to the Malvern Flea every time it’s on, but we won’t spend more than £15 on any single item – that’s the rule.” Lamps and vintage plant stands are Jess’ current obsession.
As well as her family home near her Birmingham constituency, Jess also has a London flat where she stays for several nights during the week when she is needed at Westminster. She chose to live in Brixton in South London, because the people there reminded her of Birmingham, and her two-bedroom flat is in a new build apartment block “in a sort of heritage bit,” she explains.
For many MPs, their London flat is purely functional – a room to crash in after a late night toiling in Westminster. And while Jess insists that Birmingham will always be ‘home’, her London flat still has a similar eclectic and homely feel to her family home. “My husband has an insistence that I like to buy loads of tat, so the flat basically has all the stuff in it that Tom has rejected from our actual home! So there’s a picture in my bathroom that I found in a skip with a broken frame. It’s a total mish mash of bizarre things.”
While Jess takes time in and enjoyment from furnishing her houses, what truly makes a house a home for her is far from plain old simple good looks. “It’s almost exclusively about people, and not just my immediate people,” she says.
“I have three older brothers and, when I was little, their partners would often come and live with us, and we also had lodgers and friends of my brothers who maybe found that their parents couldn’t handle them. There was always a space for people and they would always be welcome, which is probably why I don’t like the feeling of an empty house at all. I suppose that’s also why it’s so important for me to live in a community and for my home to be lovely and a place that people want to come.
“Now, almost all (bar one or two) of my best friends live within 10 minutes’ walk from our house in Birmingham, and that is totally by design,” she explains.
I know that my neighbours and my community seek to protect me.
“Fundamentally, most of the time I feel completely safe and, actually, coming from a community where you know most of the people around you, that is a massive protective characteristic… I know that my neighbours and my community seek to protect me.”
Jess spent five years working for Women’s Aid in the Midlands, supporting female victims of domestic abuse and, since being elected an MP, she has won praise for her continued dedication to making their voices heard. The escalating problem of homelessness in its many forms and the privilege of having somewhere safe to call home is an issue of which she is keenly aware.
“Home literally means security to most people. I deal with homeless people every single day and not just roofless homeless people, people living in hostels, or sofa surfing. It’s really common and it’s getting much worse,” she says.
Indeed, official figures estimate that there were 4,677 people sleeping rough in England in Autumn 2018. And that is just a tiny snapshot of the full extent of the problem. According to the most up-to-date figures from the National Crime Agency, more than 5,000 potential victims of modern slavery and trafficking were referred to UK authorities in 2017 – people, who simply have nowhere to call home.
IMAGE: ANDREEA POPA, UNSPLASH
“I remember one particularly amazing woman who was a victim of human trafficking and came to live in refuge,” recalls Jess. “When she left she asked if she could pay to have the locks changed so she could keep the key to her room. We asked her why and she said it was the only place where she had ever been safe and she wanted to keep the key as a token of feeling safe.
“For lots of people, particularly victims of domestic abuse, what home means to them isn’t the things, it is just that they can sleep safely at night and know that their children are safe. And when they wake up in the morning the thing they’ll have to think about is not when they’re going to put a foot wrong, it’s what to give the kids for breakfast.
For lots of people, particularly victims of domestic abuse, what home means to them isn’t the things, it is just that they can sleep safely at night and know that their children are safe.
“Another woman in refuge would sleep on the floor in the living room every night. We kept telling her she should sleep on the bed in her bedroom, which would be more comfortable, but she wouldn’t – and she would mess up her bed in the morning to pretend she had. When we talked to her about it, she said she didn’t deserve to have a room of her own, it was too much.
“She was from the Congo where she’d lived in a room full of people, she’d then been trafficked over here and put with hundreds of people coming and going. So the idea of having a private space of her own and a door she could lock, took learning. You have to learn to feel safe. And she did, eventually.
“Home is massively important, and it can be made anywhere as long as you feel safe. That’s the most important thing.”
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