This morning, I went to Stratford to report on the Focus E15 young mums‘ attempt to attend Mayor Robin Wales’ proceedings committee. As readers of this blog will know, these young mothers – all classed as homeless and all living in temporary hostel accommodation – have battled for months for secure social housing for themselves and for the rest of us. They wanted to appeal again to Wales for social housing today.
As I arrived, I was handed a copy of this week’s Newham Recorder, which carries a column from Wales about Newham council’s recent crackdown on rough sleepers round the Stratford Centre. As part of a programme that the council charmingly refers to as “a rude awakening for rough sleepers”, Asbo warnings were recently slapped on 28 people who were sleeping out around the mall. The council has been “helped” in this endeavour by the police, the UK Border Agency and Thames Reach.
I found Wales’ column purely extraordinary (you can read the whole thing here). There’s a nasty, punitive thread running through it – a bit like shit through a goose, as the great Justin McKeating would say. It hits exactly the Clean Up or Piss Off pitch that Edwina Currie keeps aiming for. There’s a rough sleeping problem around Stratford centre, Wales says, because there is “easy access to waste food and cardboard,” (he sounds like he’s talking about drawcards for rodents in that bit). Rough sleepers who “refuse offers of assistance from us or our partners cannot expect to continue to sleep on our streets.” They can expect Asbos if they try, it seems. The council is “offering support to those who will accept it and enforcing the law where necessary,” Wales informs us. “I realise that this is a tough message,” he goes on to say, “and that some people will be instinctively unhappy with it.”
Bloody right. I’m one of those people. I bet there are plenty of others. This stuff is appalling. There is nothing remotely forgiving about the piece that Wales has written here. There’s no political context. There’s no detail about the many reasons why people might be trying to shelter from awful weather in cardboard in a walkway and getting pissed to block it all out. There’s nothing at all about the realities of the fallout from this government’s dreadful “welfare reforms” – JSA sanctions, homelessness, severe mental health problems, the loss of hostel housing, being thrown off employment and support allowance and so on and so on and so on. As it happens, I’ve talked with a great many people who are in and out of street homelessness and there’s inevitably a complicated story at the back of it. We need to hear more of these stories and less about Asbos if you ask me. I’ve talked to people with serious mental health conditions who’ve been displaced when their hostel accommodation has been closed. I’ve talked to people who’ve lived in tents while their ESA problems have rolled on and on and they’ve tried to address their serious addiction problems by moving towns. I’ve talked to people who lost their businesses in the recession and ended up unemployed, sanctioned and homeless.
I doubt that Asbos would have sorted those situations out, but it seems that you get councils going for it. And all this in a column from a mayor who Private Eye tells us this week has been using Newham’s repairs and maintenance services to carry out work on his home. This service “undertakes work for non-council tenants and this service is available to any Newham resident,” the council told blogger Mike Law (the story says that Wales paid about £1500 for the work). Which must be great if you have a house and money to pay for its upkeep. It’s probably less exciting if you’re homeless, eating food off the pavement and wrapping yourself in cardboard every night in the Stratford Centre to try and keep warm. There’s something very wrong with all of this. There’s a poisonous inequality inherent in it and the finger of blame is being pointed at people who deserve it least. I think here of the many boarded-up flats on Newham’s Carpenters Estate – homes that sit empty as the council wags a warning finger at 28 people who sleep in a mall and have nowhere to go and may not want to be strongarmed into “specialist support.” Those people may not want to take instruction from mayors who have enough money for their own housing and repairs. They may be sick of seeing the political class come down on the poorest like a shitload of bricks. They may just want decent social housing and paid work, but can’t get either. God knows that is happening everywhere.
Anyway – trying to make that point to the political class is almost impossible now. As I said at the start of this post – this morning, the young women of the Focus E15 housing campaign tried to enter a mayoral proceedings meeting to appeal again to Wales for social housing in the borough. This is a campaign that should interest anyone who isn’t rich and doesn’t own a huge house outright. Without secure social housing, we’re all at the mercy of increasingly merciless private landlords. We’re all looking at short tenancies, badly-maintained flats and skyrocketing rents. But the women have been told that they must take 12-month private lets in the private rental sector, or they’ll will get no more “help” from the council. They wanted to talk to Wales about this again today. Unfortunately, they were told that the meeting was over and that they weren’t allowed in. You’ll see that in this video:
I’d ask the council for a comment on this, except that the council won’t talk to me. That part of things has gone a bit emotional, in a crappy council way. As I wrote here, I can only guess that my earlier stories about the Focus E15 women’s battle for secure social housing and the rotten standards at the temporary hostel they’re living touched a nerve. So, we’ll take what I write as written. Apparently, a press officer turned up later on today to say the mothers should have been let into the mayoral proceedings after all. Pity the proceedings were over.
So. The Focus E15 campaign remains extremely important and will only become more so. These women are pointing up the problems with the private rented sector, the terrible lack of secure social housing and the way that people on benefits and low incomes are treated if they dare to ask for it. Just remember – this is all coming your way, unless you’re rich. Very rich.