Update January 21 2014
In the post below, I described some of the problems that young mums at the temporary Focus E15 hostel have with their accommodation. (These young women are campaigning for decent social housing in Newham borough. You can read more about their fight here). They talked about rubbish, mice and even rats in the Focus E15 hostel that they live in and I saw photographs of trash in the halls and broken sinks as you’ll see below in the original post. The women said that mould was a real problem at Focus E15, as was a lack of ventilation. That concerned me, not least because there are very small children living in that hostel. I could not leave things there.
So, I contacted the East Thames Housing Association, sent them the link to this post and asked if I could have a tour through the hostel with them to see things for myself and discuss some of these issues with them. If they cleaned things up and dealt to problems in anticipation of that visit – then even better. They agreed to that visit, which was good. A meeting was set up for this Monday – me and several officers were due to attend. But then last Friday, East Thames emailed me to say that they were cancelling the visit. I could no longer enter Focus E15. They’d found out that I’d been at the Focus E15 mothers’ occupation of the HA and the council on Friday and had reported on it and that they felt I was part of the campaign. That being the case, they would not take me through the hostel. They thought I’d be biased.
There are a couple of things here. The first is that there were a number of journalists at Friday’s action. Attending a protest does not make you part of a campaign, or allows you in any way to own it. This campaign belongs to the young mothers. Attending a campaign makes you a reporter who is attending a protest and who follows a story closely and who gets to know people who are involved and the things they’re doing. I have certainly spent hours over the past month with the young women of the Focus E15 campaign and gone to meetings and talked to the women as they’ve leafleted and organised – which is what you do when you’re talking to people and getting an understanding of their issues. Once upon a time, when I started out in journalism, that’s exactly what you did. Nobody saw anything strange about it. You spent ages with people affected by policy, rather than with people who wrote policy. Unfortunately, journalists today tend to spend their time with policymakers, not the people who have to live with the fallout from policy decisions. Think about the endless hours that Westminster journalists spend hanging out with MPs, rather than the people who are affected by policy. I’ll be writing a much longer essay about the whole campaign in a little while and that essay will reflect the fact that I’ve spent time with the Focus E15 people through their campaign.
The other point I’d make, though, is that campaigners are exactly the people who should be permitted through the hostel. If you ask me, these hostels should be opened up to regular inspections from housing campaigners – of whom there are a good number in East London – and the people who live there should be allowed to take whoever they like through to raise issues. I really don’t care if the HA wants to call me biased. Fine. I get called plenty worse. And who gives a damn if I am. None of that changes the fact that people have raised serious issues about the living standards little kids are having to tolerate in that hostel and that this needs looking at. Mould and ventilation problems – those things are dangerous. Infants should not be exposed to things like that. At Friday’s occupation, the young mothers raised again the issue of space at the hostel – they say rooms are so small at the hostel that little kids can’t move around and cry to get out. The hostel is only supposed to be temporary accommodation, but some of the mothers and their children have been there for years. There are little kids involved here. Can’t just leave things there.
One suggestion I would make to East Thames is that we reschedule the meeting at Focus E15 and film it. That way, everyone would have an individual record.
Original post: January 5 2014.
Since everyone’s talking about single mums and Cameron’s help-to-buy scheme, I thought I’d post a little something about the living conditions of a group of young mothers I’ve been meeting with recently. I thought – let’s just take a moment to inject a bit of reality into this. Let’s take a moment to look at the awful way that politicians of all stripes really treat single mothers who have nothing and need help. Let’s look at the way politicians behave towards young mothers who serve no useful political purpose – young women, say, who’ve had a baby early on, but have no money, no connections and none of the fancy schooling or (publicly-funded) expenses budgets enjoyed by so many of the MPs who judge these young mothers and who encourage everyone else to judge them and even to dob them in to authorities if they want. These mothers are some of the people on benefits who are taking the rap for a recession caused by the financial sector and for the slaughtering of social security that is so championed by politicians across the board. So – let’s take a moment to look at the way that some of these young women and their children live.
The fact is that the young women I’m talking with live in unpleasant places – dirty, mouldy places which, the more I hear about them, sound like the sort of places where small children’s lives are actually at risk. Something needs to be done about this. Probably eff-all will be, given that commentators widely hold that Cameron has won the welfare debate (they say this for all the world as though a two-sided debate has been had) and politicians across the board are too frightened to speak up for the welfare state and/or people who need it. Nonetheless, we press on. We must press on. The group of young mothers I met with yesterday – all classed as homeless and all broke – are fighting a bloody battle with Newham Council for decent, clean housing in the borough for themselves and their small children. Many, apparently, will think they don’t deserve that housing, or housing at all – but that line is rubbish. From MPs, it is monumental rubbish. This is an era where MPs happily house their horses in heated stables courtesy of the taxpayer and expect taxpayers to fund their tennis court repairs and housing upgrades and sales. This is an era in which a career ego like Iain Duncan Smith is permitted to trash whole chunks of the exchequer via his useless Universal Credit “project”. So – the hell with the “scroungers” rhetoric. Clean, warm, decent housing is a right – and not just for horses. It is certainly a right as far as small children are concerned.
Anyway, at the moment, these young women, who I’ve written about before, live in Newham’s Focus E15 foyer – a hostel which has about 16 flats for young parents and about 210 flats across the complex. It’s supposed to be temporary accommodation. Some of the women and their children have lived there for several years.
And what a charming place it sounds. Last time I met with them, the women said it was “like a prison” – visitors must show ID before going in and visiting hours are restricted. Rooms are very small with folding-out beds and damp is a real problem. And there’s more. Yesterday when we met, I was shown pictures of rubbish piled up outside one woman’s front door and of sinks hanging off walls under which small children crawl.
Here are some of the pictures – they’re a bit dark, but fairly clear.
Here’s one of the sinks in the room coming away from the wall:
Here’s the gap between the wall and the sink in more detail:
Here’s some of the rubbish piled up outside one young woman’s front door.
Of even greater concern is the damp, mould and rodents the women describe. Says Rachel, who is 20 and the mother of a three-month-old son who has already had colds and a chesty cough: “There’s no ventilation in the toilet… there’s mould upon mould. We’ve had mice and [we’re] constantly getting damp. There are even rats. [The rubbish ends up by my door] because of where the bin chute is. Half the time they never unlock it, so people just pile their rubbish outside. My door is here and the bin chute is there.”
“The smell is disgusting and it is really, really hard to live there. We try and stay out all day,” says 19-year-old Jasmin Stone.
So. I put it to you that such conditions are dangerous for young children – extremely dangerous, even. I also put it to you that nobody has the right to impose those dangers on infants – particularly MPs who blow wads of taxpayers’ cash on horses’ paddocks and upgrades to flipped homes, or even, say, Newham councillors who piss £111m away on new office buildings which served primarily as Olympic vanity projects. You will understand why Austerity has become synonymous with Elimination in many minds. Before Christmas, I asked East Thames housing association (the HA which manages Focus E15) if I could visit the hostel. I wanted to see the place and conditions for myself. The answer was a resounding No, because staff and residents were under pressure. I’m raising these issues, though, because they need to be raised. They were raised with me before Christmas and again with supporters and campaigners yesterday. I post the details here, because a real response is required. Not a defensive response – a constructive response that everyone can work with is needed.
In the meantime, I guess, we look at the people involved. There are a lot of children involved – kids who deserve their chance. Jasmin brought her 18-month-old daughter Safia with her yesterday – a dear little girl with the bright eyes, ready smile and natural gregariousness of children of that age. It was hard to see what she’d done to deserve a daily lungful of mould and regular trips around trash. I don’t imagine that she was responsible for the recession, or for austerity. She’ll pay for both, though, as will many children of parents whose greatest sins are a lack of funds and political connections.
The irony is that these women are fighting eviction from this hostel. The hostel is not much, but it beats homelessness. People are very aware that this sort of accommodation could disappear at any moment as social security is attacked and attacked. Things are borderline as it is for Focus E15. The doors to the “mother and baby unit” have already closed to newcomers. East Thames HA says that it is not accepting new referrals to Focus E15 “until new funding arrangements are in place.” Earlier this year, Newham council made a decision to cut about £41,000 from Supporting People funding for the flats. East Thames HA said that the funding cut meant that without support, the service for the women couldn’t continue. That being the case, the women would have to leave.
Newham council gets emotional if this is described as an eviction threat: “it is factually inaccurate to report the mothers received eviction notices from Newham Council,” a statement I received reads. “In fact East Thames has issued all of the mums with a notice to quit which allows the mums to access housing support from Newham Council as well as look for options within the private rented sector.” (Right. We all know is happening to housing benefit tenants who are looking for homes with the likes of the now-legendary Fergus Wilson. “Single mothers on benefits have been displaced to the bottom of the pile; sympathy for this group is disappearing,” the great man informed the Guardian yesterday. Indeed).
So. Eviction. Notice To Quit. Whatever. The fact is these women and their kids – who are all on benefits for now and all needing support to get things going – are in a bad place when it comes to secure housing. They are all also at the back of a very long queue.
Their options: they can hope to find social housing in a borough which has 24,000 people on its council waiting list and recently changed its allocations policy to prioritise ex-servicepeople and people in work over people not in work (a decision, the council tells me, that was made as part of the council’s “resilience approach…. We want to support residents to help develop the skills they need to live independent and successful lives.” I must ask the council whether the “resilience approach” was ever applied to whichever Newham councillors decided on the shambolic £111m new building spree). Another option for the women is Miles Away From Newham. In Patrick Butler’s Guardian story here, Newham council claims that a shortage of social housing the borough means that the mothers may be housed as far away as Birmingham, Manchester or Hastings (a trend that does not delight Hastings worthies).
I’ve written about the very real concerns that these women have about the problems they will have if they are sent to live so far away from their families. They want work, but they won’t be able to take it if their parents aren’t around to provide free childcare, because they’re unlikely to be in a position to afford childcare if they have to pay.
I know that others resent people who say they want social housing so that they can stay in a place like London to be near family. I am only able to live in London because I share a cramped rented flat myself. That is not the point. The point is we would all do a lot better if we agitated for decent social housing near the places where we need to be. Let’s not forget that our glorious leaders flip homes and upgrade houses at our expense so that they can live where they want, and in style. Why shouldn’t the rest of us demand to be decently housed where we need to be? I would also add that there are people who believe that they could stay in Newham if the political will was there. Yesterday, I was taken for a tour through the Carpenters Estate – an estate that residents have fought hard to keep – and was shown the many boarded-up flats there. That is a topic I’ll get to in more detail in further posts, but you see the point. The other option for the women is, of course, private rental. That isn’t much of an option, though, and we all know that. Jasmin says that she spent several days ringing round a list of landlords and rental agents the council gave her – and got nothing. She repeatedly came up against a No DSS line. When she did manage to find one property, a working couple was able to undercut her, because they came in and paid the deposit. As I say – we all know what would happen if she rang Fergus Wilson.
Give Robin Wales/Newham council a shout about all of this:
Or the East Thames Housing Association: