These pictures were taken last week at a temporary accommodation hostel called Boundary House. The hostel is in Welwyn Garden City.
London councils like Newham and Waltham Forest send homeless families to live in this squalid place (I spoke with people from both places). Families with small children are packed in together in one room. We were showed around by Elina, 38. She lives in one room with her three young children. Two of the children are in school. Her youngest child is three. In that one room, there are four beds, a small kitchen, a table and everyone’s clothes and belongings hanging or lying where there is space. This is overcrowding to a very unpleasant degree. Five minutes in one room with that clutter closing in is all you need to understand why people in these chaotic, too-small spaces start to climb the walls. Claustrophobia doesn’t begin to describe it.
Photo credit: Snapsthoughts http://photos.snapsthoughts.com/
Elina was sent here to live by Newham council 18 months ago. “They said it would be for three weeks.” I spoke to another woman who lives in one of these rooms with her husband and two of her children. Her two elder children live in another room across the hall. They let us see their flat. Another person who lives in a room on the top floor said the family has a sick child who has had three operations. That person said there was no hot water in the flat. “I have to boil the kettle and lift it through my children to have a bath… I told them and they said because I’m on the top floor the pump doesn’t reach up to the top floor… My child is sick.”
Picture: used and stained mattresses dumped in a storage room. Elina said that she was told by building managers to choose one of these mattresses when she needed a new one.
Photo credit: Snapsthoughts http://photos.snapsthoughts.com/
The costs for living here are prohibitive. These letters show that the cost for one of these rooms gets up past £1300 a month if you include the service charge.
The service charge intrigues me. All these costs intrigue me. I wonder how much property management companies are paid for running these places, or whatever it is that they do? Boundary House residents say that nobody takes responsibility for problems or repairs. This hostel is apparently managed for councils by Theori, a property management outfit of some description (you’ll see that Theori is described in the letter above as “The Proprietor of the accommodation.”) Residents say that nobody seems to be doing much by way of managing or propriet-ing: all they’re aware of is a monumental backwards and forwards exercise in Council-Theori finger-pointing. “You ring the council and you ring Theori. Nothing gets done.”
I get where they are coming from on that. I rang Waltham Forest Council and Theori on Friday for responses to the problems raised by Boundary House residents. This didn’t go too well. Theori said they couldn’t find a manager to talk to me right then. I left my number in case they found one later. I presume they didn’t, because nobody called back. I also rang the Waltham Forest Council press office and spoke to an officer there. He told me to email my questions through and gave me an email address. I sent the questions. The council didn’t respond, or even acknowledge the email. As for Newham Council – sadly, the Newham Council press office stopped talking to me a while ago when I was writing about the Focus E15 mothers’ campaign (“the Council’s communications team will not be continuing an ongoing dialogue with you”, etc, etc) so there wasn’t much point trying to make contact there. Boo.
A Newham council officer did attend a meeting with Boundary House residents on Thursday, though, after pressure from the tenants. I sat in on that meeting. Residents were furious and depressed, really. The officer said that their tenancies (or licences or agreements – whatever they’re called) at Boundary House were to end and that people would be rehoused. He obviously didn’t hold out much hope for decent housing options, though. He talked about a near-impossible private rental market and said that the council couldn’t house people in places that they couldn’t afford.
Okay. A few points for now. The main one is that this is the way a lot of people live now – families with little kids stuck in one far-too-small room in dirty, unkempt and unsafe hostels. Anyone can walk into Boundary House from the street (and people do walk in off the street, residents say. They’ve come in and found drinking parties taking place on the stairs). There are kids of different ages sitting on beds in one cramped room trying to do homework. Little kids have to try and sleep while older children are still wandering around. Clothes are damp and rooms are littered with belongings. There’s nowhere to store things properly. People can’t get basics like decent hot water.
I’ve seen this sort of thing a number of times recently and I keep thinking – there must be a whole generation of little kids living and growing up in places like this now. You can blame the families for poverty if you want – and plenty of people want to do exactly that – but that is getting none of us anywhere. The fact is that housing is getting harder and harder to afford. Pointing the finger at people who can’t afford housing doesn’t change that central fact. Government may insist that it’s up to individuals to Work Hard and Take Responsibility and provide for themselves and their families and all the rest of it, but on we go anyway and people keep turning up with no place to live. Some people in this hostel are in work. Others are studying and volunteering. Some receive benefits. It hardly matters. Nobody has money. This is how the safety net looks when you find yourself without money. This is how it will look for you and your kids if you ever lose your job and the place you’re living in.
People need to start thinking about that and about the future we are creating. For all of us.
Update 27 January:
An email turned up yesterday from Waltham Forest council which said:
“In recent years Waltham Forest has placed an increasing number of homeless applicants in other areas. This is due to the acute shortage of available properties in inner London, caused by shifts in the housing market and changes to the welfare system. We work closely with managing agents on any issues that arise, and can offer specialist support to residents where necessary.”
and also that Boundary House:
“is not a hostel, but an apartment building.”
which made me laugh. I get this from time to time from councils and others – a huffiness about certain language, because that language doesn’t help to draw the picture that a council wants to. I think I will probably continue to refer to Boundary House as a hostel, if it’s all the same with WFC.
I’ll go back to residents with some of the other points in the council’s response. Much of the rest of the council’s response was a defense of the current arrangements. It occurs to me that the council only needed to send a one-line reply to this, really – something along the lines of “we’d better head up there and keep heading up there until people feel comfortable talking to us and things are sorted out.”
Join the march against the Housing Bill this Saturday 30 January. Start from Imperial War Museum 12pm (Kennington Rd/Lambeth Rd SE1 6HZ) and march to Cameron’s publicly funded home in Downing Street for 2pm. Find out more here.
Posting here will less frequent for the next few months while I work on a case studies project. There will be more from this article in that project. You can still get in touch here.