The one where the council officer hangs up the phone on a homeless woman…


Here’s an example of the struggle that people who are on the rough end of austerity have even to be heard. Thought I’d throw this one up there as just another example from the many I’m working through:

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to go in for an experiment of a kind. I sat with two women who live with their small children in temporary accommodation in Boundary House, a cramped Welwyn Garden City homelessness hostel, and called the Waltham Forest Council press office so that the women could respond directly to a press statement that the council had sent me about standards at Boundary House.

Waltham Forest Council sends homeless families to live in tiny, one-room hostel flats at Boundary House, sometimes for a couple of years at a time. Some families live four to a single-room studio flat. There are and have been all kinds of difficulties at Boundary House. Residents talk about overcrowding, problems with a lack of hot water, problems with security in the building – so, when I first wrote about the place, I sent questions about these sorts of issues to the Waltham Forest council press office. “We will investigate this further if full details are provided,” the council said in a line about the hot water. I saw that line kind of beaming out at me and I thought – Okay. I’ll read that as an invitation and take the council up on it. The hell with it. I’ll call the press office while I’m sitting with Boundary House residents and hand the phone to residents so that they can provide the press office with those “full details” to pass onto the housing department for resolution.

Some might say that it was unorthodox to ring the press office in that way, but I can’t say that I gave or give much of a stuff about that. Residents were saying then that calling the housing department with problems yielded poor results and I personally long ago reached the point where I’ll try anything to get any officer’s attention on these sorts of issues, so in I went. I thought residents might as well give the press office invitation to investigate “full details” further a whirl.

Alas, this idea tanked: the press office didn’t want to speak directly to Boundary House residents. It seemed the office would take details from me, but not from the residents, even though they were a) better acquainted with their own details than I was and b) sitting right there next to me and available to speak. I argued this toss backwards and forwards on the phone with one bloke for about ten minutes. And then, the kicker: when I handed the phone to Alicia Phillips, a young mother who’d been stuck living in one of these tiny, single-room flats in Boundary House with her two young children for two years and who wanted to pass on “full details” of her problems at Boundary House to the council, the press office bloke hung up the phone. I rang the council and ask for a callback, just in case the hanging-up had been some kind of terrible technical mistake. Alas, that callback never came. The press office emailed me after a while, saying that it was probably better if we stuck to their format for communications. Boo.

Here is a recording of the hanging up:

I thought that the hanging-up was off, to say the least. I thought it was off, even knowing the way that press offices operate. I had the pleasure (ahem) of a job as a council press officer back in the day, so I am familiar with the workings of the role therein: an officer takes questions from a journalist, seeks a response from the relevant council officers and councillors, polishes that response until it is beautifully smooth and about 98% meaningless, and then sends a final, finessed result to the journalist. You’ll hear the council say in the recording that I don’t understand how the system works, but I do. I really do. Been there, etc. I understand perfectly well that press officers don’t resolve problems, as such. They collate council responses to problems.

For what they’re worth. As a rule, these responses are completely useless (certainly, most of the ones I sent over the years in the job meant nothing to anyone. They were paper printouts and faxes then, too. I bet people just used them to line the bottoms of budgie cages). It’ll be news to nobody that press office statements are almost entirely concerned with defending a council’s actions and reputation, as opposed to prioritising and addressing the worries of service users. They’re almost admirable the way that they shine no light whatsoever on the situation that you’re trying to get to the bottom of. You really might as well stick a jpeg of a horse’s butt on the end of your article. Still they come, though, and still we ask for them. I vaguely remember being told at journalism school that you must always ask for a council or government department’s view in the interests of “balance.” I’ve stuck with that instruction for reasons that increasingly escape me. I find that as I age, my patience for some of the garbage I’m sent is wearing thin (you should see some of the drivel that the DWP press office has poured into my inbox over the years).

Anyway. As I say, the week before the phone hanging-up day at Boundary House, I contacted the Waltham Forest press office for comment from the council about the conditions at Boundary House. Residents had raised all sorts of problems with me when I visited the hostel in the last week of January. There was that issue of hot water – some people said that they had no hot water to speak of in their flats. Overcrowding was a terrible problem as I have observed – three or four people living in single room with kitchen and beds for more than a year (Waltham Forest confirmed that the median stay in Boundary House for a homeless family was two years). Residents said that security in the building was hopeless, because the front-door intercom was broken at that point. It absolutely was broken, too. I tried the intercom myself and found that the front door keypad was as dead as a dodo, just as residents said. The screen on the intercom was blank and stayed blank, no matter how you faffed with the keypad. I even took a video of the intercom not working, or at least, of the intercom being impossible to work (maybe there was a magic formula. I couldn’t find it). You can see that here:

Strangers could and did wander in off the street. On one of the days that I visited, Alicia said that her double buggy had been stolen from the downstairs foyer. She has two very young children. Her son has had heart surgery. “I’ve got appointments at the doctors’ and the hospitals which I have to take my son to. How am I going to take them both? If she (her daughter) sleeps, what am I going to do?” (I understand that the intercom has now finally been fixed).

So…the council sent me a statement a few days after I made contact. I did not care for that statement. Like I say, I’m getting older and patience is draining from me very fast. I definitely wasn’t in the mood when this statement turned up.

It began with the usual “It’s not Our Fault – It’s Government’s fault” shtick, with Cabinet Member for Housing Khevyn Limbajee quoted as saying that Waltham Forest placed an increasing number of homeless applicants in “other areas,” [I guess like Welwyn Garden City] because of the “acute shortage of available properties in inner London,” caused by “shifts in the housing market and changes to the welfare system,” etc, etc. I hear this line a lot, as you might well imagine: it’s the “Welfare Reform made us do it,” dodge. And okay – I realise that there is truth in the observation that councils are up against it. The part that irritates me is that there’s absolutely no fight in that observation. The housing crisis is delivered as a fait accompli in these statements: a fact that residents, journalists and councils must acknowledge and accept. I get that things are tough all over, but the bottom line is that when times are hard, I want to hear something better than The War Is Over And We Lost when I find families with little kids living in crapholes. We Roll Over And Die is not really my idea of fighting talk.

Next, this council statement rather sniffily informed me that Boundary House was “not a hostel, but an apartment building,” for all the world as though semantics took priority in a discussion about rotten temporary accommodation. We won’t linger on that one. WHO GIVES A SHIT was and is the only fitting response to that.

As far as Boundary House residents’ specific complaints were concerned – I felt that these were dismissed to more of an extent than I found acceptable. Regarding security in the building: the council seemed to imply that Boundary House was kept secure by the intercom system and that it was residents’ fault if strangers got in. “The main front door is shut at all times (unless left open by residents) and visitors can only access the lobby through the entry-phone system.” As we have already seen, this was only a great idea in theory, because intercom was a challenge to work in real life. Like I say, I’ve heard that it has been fixed recently, which is good news, but it sure as hell wasn’t a starter on the day I turned up. Me and a delivery guy who arrived at the same time poked around at it for a while.

Moving on, though – the council’s statement said that neither the council, nor Theori, was aware of problems with no supply of hot water. “Theori staff will visit the next day whenever a problem is reported,” the council claimed.” This rather skirted the fact that residents were complaining then that neither the council nor Theori took responsibility for problems. So that left us with a situation. The council claimed that the system for reporting problems at Boundary House worked. The residents said that it did not. The burden of proof fell on residents, as it inevitably does. This stuff always pisses me off. No allowance is made by councils for the possibility that reporting systems might not be as efficient as all that. No allowance is made, either, for the fact that residents in temporary housing generally can feel nervous about complaining too often. They might raise an issue and then decide to leave it. People are very aware that a council holds their housing future in its hands.

Still, as I say, the “we will investigate this further if full details are provided,” seemed reason to put Boundary House residents directly in touch with the author, or collator, of that statement. The press office was prepared to take those “full details” from me to pass to housing and to investigate further. Why not have residents pass on those “full details” to the press office themselves?

We know how that one ended.

There you have it, people – another day at the office in austerity with fraught service users, a council with a lot to say, but no real answers and a megashambles with no obvious end. I can’t tell you how often I have these sorts of experiences. I simply offer this one today as a random example. I might as well. This is how it’s going on the ground at the moment. Nobody wants to talk to anyone and everyone’s shouting, and really, it’s all shit. I don’t think that asking a press office to speak to homeless people about claims made about their living arrangements by a council in a press statement is unreasonable. Quite the reverse. I think it’s about recognising that people involved in the housing crisis are actual people and talking directly with them. But hell – what would I know. I understand that since that day, Waltham Forest officers have been to see Boundary House residents and that some problems have been fixed. Residents still wait to hear about re-housing, though, so I guess they’ll have to keep shouting.

What a fight people must put up just to be heard. That’s the key point, really.

PS: I wonder if there would have been a hanging-up if I’d had someone “important” standing by to talk – a Russell Brand, say, or maybe another Name from the telly. I don’t know. Maybe everyone does hang up on Russell Brand. Still – perhaps I should give that approach a whirl.

3 thoughts on “The one where the council officer hangs up the phone on a homeless woman…

  1. You notice more of this attitude now from officials in areas such as housing, unemployment and disability.
    That the needy are somehow less deserving of compassion, or even much in the way of politeness. As if a new language is developing, a different approach in this age of austerity. The verbal equivalent of ‘less eligibility’.

  2. It’s true. And if anyone on the receiving end ever raises their voice or gets angry or whatever, they’re dismissed as aggressive. Homelessness does tend to make people angry, I find. They’re not allowed to be, though. We’re all supposed to be into polite protest and all that.

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