Homelessness: the plague that voters are happy to live with

They say that you should keep to your routines in lockdown, so I’ve been getting at Newham council about standards in temporary housing for homeless people – and going nowhere much.

Habit aside, there has been a point to this often-pointless exercise: to ask what the council was doing to protect homeless families from coronavirus in crowded temporary housing such as the Brimstone House homelessness hostel in Stratford.

I recently wrote about Marsha D, a 30-year-old homeless woman who lives with her 6-year-old daughter in a single room in that hostel. The two share that small space and one bed in it – a living arrangement that is replicated across the hostel and across emergency and temporary housing everywhere. They have their own tiny bathroom and kitchen. It’d be hard to isolate in those. Theirs is the sort of cheek-by-jowl setup that would have any contagion licking its lips. Even in so-called normal times, people feel entombed in such places. When there’s a plague on and a stay-at-home lockdown in place, people in these hostels talk about being buried alive.

You should hardly pin hopes on a virus, but I have wondered if this one might spark new sympathy (or even some sympathy) for people who must live in these hellholes.

If covid doesn’t do it, god knows what will. For a very long time now, the problem has been to convince the wider world to give a damn about homelessness, or, even, to convince the wider world to give enough of a damn to change things – to really change things, that is. For all that homelessness is seen as a plague in its own right, it still feels like one that the world is happy to live alongside – certainly one that Tory-voting members of the world are happy to live alongside and even enjoy. You don’t have to be too plugged in to know that this is because that for generations now, many voters have felt that homelessness and poverty are beneath sympathy: the individual’s fault. End of.

Government knows that all too well. There can be no doubt that Boris Johnson and his cabinet of sociopaths have felt tremendously comfortable about losing interest in homeless people who must live sardined into tiny spaces as a killer virus rampages through cramped populations. A whole month has passed since government said it would publish new covid guidance for providers of homelessness hostels and day centres, so I think I’ll stop looking for it. They’ve either hidden it really well, or not bothered to write it.

As for government funding for councils during the outbreak crisis – do me a favour. The bits of money and advance payments that government has chucked at councils to sort out a morass of covid-era housing, homelessness and council tax problems barely amount to a fistful of change when you remember the billions that Tory-led governments have removed from councils in austerity (pdf) – a carnage of cost-cutting, mass redundancies (often of experienced staff) and anti-social-security policies which caused the homelessness problems for people in Marsha’s situation in the first place. As everyone on the scene knows, housing and support needs caused by welfare reform have skyrocketed as funding to meet those needs has disappeared.

The most you can say about this government’s last-minute covid-inspired overtures to councils is that they’re less shit than government’s most recent foul insult to covid-era careworkers – the one where Matt Hancock actually tried to sell the idea that the careworkers who government have left working for poverty wages in a swamp of covid and corpses, and with no PPE, would enjoy the day more with a badge. It was hard to imagine how government could top that for repulsive empty gestures, but there have been attempts. One must be last week’s thanks-for-housing-the-1000s-of-rough-sleepers-that-government-created letter to council homelessness managers from Dame Louise Casey, the government’s homelessness “spearhead” (whatever the f that is). What an absolute pile. I can only imagine how thrilled council staff were to see that in their inboxes. Oddly, Casey’s letter didn’t mention the billions wiped from council budgets since 2010, or the experienced staff lost in that blitz, or the LHA caps, benefit caps, out-of-control market rents and Universal Credit delays that have pushed people out of their homes and into the gutter and the hostels where many still sit, waiting for covid. If lockdown lifts, let’s see Casey deliver those letters to frontline staff in person.

As for Newham and councils in general: I could get very sick of the charades on that front, too. I can tell you how those charades go, though, so let’s do that.

The whole moribund process usually starts with me interviewing a homeless family who have been living in a one-room hostel, or some temporary-housing hellhole for month, or a year, or 2, or 3 years, or whatever it is. Next, I’ll email Newham mayor Rokhsana Fiaz and Newham housing lead John Gray and ask what the council plans to do for that homeless family and how much longer the family should expect to languish in temporary housing squalor, etc. Next, there usually comes a lagtime, which Gray and I sometimes use to bitch at each other over email, or, on a couple of memorable pre-lockdown occasions, in person. At some point in this farce, I’ll usually throw in a question about the empty flats on Newham’s Carpenters estate. Carpenters estate residents were kicked out of their homes years ago to make room for a planned University College London campus which never materialised due to a host of planning and financial screwups. The fallout from that shambles goes on. Flats on the estate continue empty while people in Marsha’s situation grind on in Brimstone House.

On we go. Next, I get a response from the council, or not much of a response, or whatever. Sometimes, families are found better housing. Sometimes, they’re left to rot where they are. The most you can say is that gains are tiny and progress glacial. You feel like you’re wading through tar.

The point about tiny gains is worth noting, though. I want to say something here about expectations on the homelessness scene. Expectations for improvement over the last ten years have been lowered to about zero. I’ve noticed that even about myself. Because councils are so hopelessly under-resourced and because even ghastly housing is impossible to afford, you find yourself celebrating the smallest results like they were the moon landing. It feels as though something monumental has been achieved if a family is moved from, say, an overcrowded hovel to a slightly bigger hovel – when the truth is that nothing remotely decent has been achieved at all.

I was reminded of these shrunken horizons when I received Newham’s responses to the latest questions I sent about Brimstone House and the coronavirus.There was actually nothing to celebrate in these responses, but I got the feeling that I’d be expected to.

To begin with, the council told me that hostel residents could self-isolate in their hostel room and that this was in keeping with government guidance and blah blah etc. Like everyone, I continue to founder when it comes to visualising 2 metres under pressure, but I’d say it’d be a stretch to keep 2 metres away from family members who live in the same room and sleep in the same bed as you. You’d definitely have to be on your game if the bed wasn’t 2 metres wide.

On the hostels-where-different-families-share-kitchens and bathrooms front: the council said it had moved a lot of homeless households out of places where they shared kitchens and bathrooms with others. That sounded better than nothing. It seemed that the council had, however, moved those households into studio and one-bedroom places which sounded a lot like Marsha’s – tiny places with a their own kitchen and bathroom, but still no space to breathe, in a time of virus or not (“the accommodation we have utilised includes studio and one bedroom flats.”) That sounded only very slightly better than nothing. In a civilised society, it’d be absolutely nothing at all. It’s still a disgrace that families in poverty have to live in such housing. It’s also a disgrace that we live in a time and a place where it takes a plague to get families in poverty even that far (the council said that before coronavirus, it had 472 households, which included 186 families with children under the age of 18, in places where they shared bathroom and/or kitchen facilities with another household).

That’s the point, though. Perspectives are utterly screwed. For a long time now, slightly better than nothing has been presented as grounds for applause, whatever the council. If you don’t enter that spirit, you’re considered grossly unfair to councils – in particular, to put-upon Labour councils in a time of Tory government.

Still, I could barely stop the words “tiny gains” from returning to mind when I read the council’s response to the question about empty flats on the Carpenters estate. The council said that it had “utilised” (I take it “utilised” meant “housed people in”) 67 flats on the Carpenters estate – 19 of them “in recent months.” I understand that there are around 400 empty flats on that estate, give or take. I tried hard, but struggled to find 67 a thrilling proportion of 400. Maybe I need to lighten up. Maybe this is as good as it gets – people in poverty living in coffins, killer virus or no.

49 thoughts on “Homelessness: the plague that voters are happy to live with

  1. Kate this is beyond shocking but sadly not new, it got me thinking though. Last year I was forced to move from my self contained place when landlord sold up ( after not paying mortgage so much lol!) I was on legacy benefits which obviously would have meant a move to UC. I’m 56 with arthritis and unrelated neck and back disc issues and work 25 hours a week doing back breaking school cleaning and I’m too terrified of UC to even claim it. All I can “afford ” without it is a room in an HMO. By time rent and bills not covered in contract paid I’m left with about £8 a week more than benefit claimants. My point is the council recently inspected and 2 rooms here are classed as too small to be used ( though they still cram ppl in them they’re so bloody greedy)
    Surely these councils like Newham are breaking their own rules??
    My amazing version of Rachmann has told his tenants only native born Brits such as myself are entitled to claim the deferred rent during Coronavirus! The rest of them have been told they’ll get a few weeks grace then they’ll have to go. I have advised them different of course though so far all of us have been able to pay. I’ll keep you all posted both here and on my own Blog

  2. Kate – sounds like Groundhog Day for you in perpetuity, which must be so frustrating. It would be so much better if Labour weren’t asleep at the wheel and actually challenging the Tories rather than indulging in the niceties of wishing Johnson well and helpfully suggesting that they can help the Tories implement better policies instead of doing what they should do and pull all the stops out to publicise every bit of Tory corruption or incompetence they come across. The Tories know they have a good chance of getting away unscathed over the way they’ve handled Covid 19. Has everyone forgotten about Grenfell, which still hasn’t been sorted, and that was supposed to be high profile, Given that, what chance those people you work with?

    Kat, I totally understand your reticence in no applying for Universal Credit. I had misgivings, but I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve dealt with two advisors who actually seem to be human beings, one of which basically told me that advisors have a lot of leeway over how claimants are managed. This is worrying, and for me just confirms that there is no consistency, so it would be all well and fine for me to outline my experience, but sadly it doesn’t seem to be very representative. The cynic in me believes the system has been specifically designed this way, though there are some who seem to be somewhat in awe of the government for attempting such a fundamental change in the social security system. The Institute for Government self-describes as being neutral, but the awed tone of this document suggests that at least some aren’t as neutral as they claim:

    https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/5064%20IFG%20-%20Universal%20Credit%20Publication%20WEB%20AW.pdf

    My last comment was publicising an online petition in support of the 110 MPs Peers and assorted people who are demanding that the government consider a Recovery Universal Basic Income, (already partially implemented in Spain, where the government is adamant that it’s ‘here to stay’). The campaign is now going up a gear and is asking for us to write to our MPs, as they need more than the current 110 signatories to get any kind of traction. It’s pretty effortless, and you just have to enter your name, e-mail and postcode so that they can send it to the correct MP. If your MP has already signed up to support the demand, then your message will be sent directly to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I don’t expect for a moment that the government will yield, and to be honest I expect that we’ll just get more of the same we’ve been experiencing over the past 10 years, but you never know. But I think it’s still worth adding our names to the demand :

    https://www.basicincomeconversation.org/write-mp?link_id=3&can_id=7add70bc85ad9cb6d857da0a06fc9c47&source=email-its-a-matter-of-principles&email_referrer=email_789494&email_subject=its-a-matter-of-principles

    • The Labour part of the equation is unbelievably difficult. I don’t know – I can only hope that the electorate becomes more interested in equal access to the basics such as decent housing. It could be that minds slowly change if we’re in a sort of ongoing grip of major issues such as the coronavirus, because over time, everyone will have to change their behaviour and views. Those changes don’t happen immediately though – one step forward, many back etc. I suppose that part that really gets me is the glacial pace of change – one person housed at a time, etc. It seems that a social security system can be destroyed very quickly and easily – like a bomb has been chucked at it – but rebuilding even a tiny part of it really is one brick at a time stuff. If it’s rebuilt at all.

      • Strangely here in Wales it’s the Tories who are loudest in calling for huge changes in the approach towards homelesness, including establishing a legal right to housing. It all seems a bit tospy-turvey compared to the UK-wide picture, but then back in the day there were somewhat legitimate claims by the Welsh Tories that they were to the left of Blair’s Labour! this article came out today, (last item in the roundup) and pretty substantially sets out what the Tories in Wales say they want to see, but then we have Senedd elections in May next year, so this is no doubt being heralded as part of the campaigning, though public attitudes towards the homeless in Wales are just a noxious as anywhere else in the UK as there isn’t
        an independent media in Wales, and most seem to adopt their world view from the usual culprits. Nonetheless, it’s encouraging to see: https://nation.cymru/news/senedd-roundup-chief-medic-warns-this-virus-is-not-finished-with-us-yet/

  3. So, apparently, rumour has it the Gov. are going to begin lifting the lockdown, gradually, in stages, a bit at a time, which would be all well and good were it not for the fact that UK death rate is highest in the world, people are still getting infected and still dying, otherwise great so long as the very last thing they do is re-open the Jobcentres, please don’t rush that on my account.

    • I think there’s a grave danger that people will misinterpret any easing of the lockdown measures and there’ll be a sudden rush to the countryside/seaside.

      It’s the last thing we need as these dolts don’t seem to understand simple concepts such as social distancing, as was seen right at the beginning when Snowdonia had never been as busy as that first lockdown weekend.
      Our First Minister is to make an announcement at 12:30… Many of us are hoping he sides with Sturgeon and not Johnson as sudden influx of idiots will worsen the situation, and we already have enough idiots of our own if the tailbacks for the newly reopened KFC and Burger Kings are anything to go by. Utter morons, dying for a burger, literally, maybe.

      But, yes, the Jobcentres can remain closed for ever as far as I’m concerned 🙂

      • I’m really not looking forward to business-as-usual at the Jobcentre. The last couple of months have been a blissful relief in that respect.

        I’ve noticed the road traffic outside my house has definitely increased today, God knows where all these people are going on a Bank Holiday Friday.

        • I have a strong suspicion that Johnson’s latest move is more likely to extend the lockdown rather than shorten it Trev.

          It really does beggar belief that the country with the second highest level of deaths in the World is the UKm brings in the lockdown and is now ending it early despite emerging evidence that it’s the poor people who work in what we call in Wales the ‘foundational economy’ (nurses, doctors, refuse collectors, supermarket workers etc) who are more likely to die from this disease with social care workers twice as likely to die from it.

          We in Wales are waiting with baited breath for the deluge of moronic fools who will try and flout the stricter controls still in place in Wales, and sadly it could get a bit nasty, and certainly we’ll hear a lot of wailing about being fined for entering Wales.

          Fortunately there seems to be an increasing awareness that Johnson’s plans are effectively unworkable if he doesn’t get the cooperation of workers like school teachers, who are increasingly vocal about the impossibility of managing social distancing amongst very small children who just don’t understand. Also more and more doctors are voicing concerns, and the wise will listen to them. I was very surprised today looking at WalesOnline where, for once, anyone slagging off the Welsh government was getting loads of downticks. Things most definitely can’t be anywhere near normal when people have nice things to say about our government!

          It’s going to be a long haul yet Trev, just keep safe. Business as usual won’t happen, and you never know, we might, (even though it’s a bit of a longshot) even get a system of UBI of sorts.

  4. Can’t say I’m impressed with Boris’ latest waffle. Go back to work but don’t use public transport. Erm…not everyone has a car, or a bicycle, many people commute 15 – 25 miles. We don’t all live in pre-war terraced houses right next to the Mill or factory. This isn’t the 1940s.

  5. Poverty and Food Aid:

    “Anna Taylor of the Food Foundation says, there is a level of need that “far outstrips the capacity of frontline charities”.”

    ….”The apparent assumption on the part of Government that a combination of food banks and other food aid providers delivering emergency food parcels, fuelled by large-scale supermarket donations, local authority support, and a token Government contribution, can sustain millions of people currently being thrown into poverty defies belief.”

    ….”There’s a real danger that their [foodbanks] institutionalisation might provide the excuse the UK Government needs to leave food banks to continue to pick up the pieces and fill the crater left by a shattered benefits system.”

    https://www.foodaidnetwork.org.uk/blog/between-the-devil-and-the-deep-blue-sea

  6. Strange, I just got an email from the Jobcentre containing a link to a ‘new’ website:

    “Here is new website that you may find useful, lots of hints and tips and jobs.”

    https://jobhelp.dwp.gov.uk/

    But all it does is redirect you, via a link, to the existing Find A Job site that never has any relevant jobs.

    The email doesn’t say anything about the Jobcentre reopening or any mention of attending appointments.

    • It’s weird that, isn’t it. It’s just been thrown together, presumably to indicate that government is doing something to help people who are out of work – the good old chuck a website together – people will think it means something.

  7. Not directly related to homelessness but could lead to that, just a thought…. 80% of a MP’s salary is still a small fortune to most of us but 80% of Minimum Wage doesn’t even pay the rent. 60% of Minimum Wage doesn’t put food on the table, assuming you haven’t flogged the table. In effect people are being starved back to work, virus or not.

  8. Glad to see you’re okay Trev, I was beginning to wonder.

    Lockdown is… Very much depending on where you are, and everywhere increasingly chaotic.

    Hmmm, not sure I like that ‘more of the same’. I think they’d have to open a whole new Jobcentre or two in Cardiff as both of them are jampacked with desks as it is, and it’s similar in many other places as well. And to think it was only a couple of years ago the DWP was busy closing Jobcentres where they could.

    • Btw, regarding the Budgeting Loan I took in April, I applied for it online and when I submitted my application it confirmed that I had applied and the small-print said that repayments are currently suspended and won’t begin to be taken until “at least July”. I thought oh well that gives me a bit of breathing space, but when I got my Bank statement and it shows that they have begun deducting repayments immediately! At least it will be paid off sooner but it’s nice to know where you stand where money is concerned. They say one thing and then do the opposite. Bearing in mind also that I didn’t get the extra £20 per week as I’m on JSA (now £74 p/w) not UC (now £94 p/w). Although, apparently, I am to receive a further Council Tax reduction at some point (don’t know when) according to some rather confusing communication I received from the Council.

  9. Emergency food parcels for children double in a year – food banks

    “The number of families with children receiving emergency food parcels in the UK has almost doubled in a year, food banks report.

    April was the busiest month ever for Trussell Trust’s food banks, with an 89% increase in emergency food parcels delivered across the UK compared with the same month in 2019.

    An average of 700 parcels were handed out at each of their food banks in April 2020, compared with 369 in April 2019, the Trussell Trust said.
    And the number of parcels provided for children has more than doubled, while almost twice as many families with children are receiving them (a 95% rise).

    The figures are taken from responses from 351 of the 425 food bank charities in the Trussell Trust network.

    The Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), which represents over 346 independent food banks, has reported a 175% increase in need over the same period.
    They have called the soaring demand during the coronavirus pandemic “completely unprecedented”.

    A coalition of charities is calling for the Government to provide more funding for councils so they can quickly get cash to families through a temporary emergency income support scheme.

    They include the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), the Children’s Society, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), StepChange and Turn2us.

    They are worried that when Government support such as the job retention scheme starts to wind down, families will fall into poverty.
    As part of the proposed scheme, benefits for families with children would increase, the benefit cap would be lifted and no deductions would be taken from advance payments.

    Chief executive of the Trussell Trust Emma Revie said: “We have been seeing rises in food bank need for the past five years but this 89% increase – with the number of families coming to food banks doubling – is completely unprecedented and not right.

    “People need to be able to put food on their table. The government must put urgent support in place to ensure people already struggling to keep their heads above water can stay afloat.
    We have outlined what we need our government to do – it’s in our power to protect one another, we’ve seen it during this health crisis, and we need it to continue during this economic one.”

    IFAN coordinator Sabine Goodwin said: “Our food bank figures paint a grim picture of what is unfolding across the UK and the numbers of people having to resort to emergency food parcels to survive.

    “But the solution to the escalating food insecurity crisis has never been the provision of charitable food aid. Everyone needs to be able to afford to buy food and the bare essentials.”

    https://www.itv.com/news/2020-06-03/emergency-food-parcels-for-children-double-in-a-year-food-banks/

  10. Inadequate UK housing blamed for spread of covid


    Lord Kerslake calls for housebuilding package to address overcrowding and ’reunite housing and heath policy’

    The former head of the UK civil service has blamed inadequate UK housing provision for the high prevalenece of covid-19 spread in the UK.

    Lord Kerslake, now chair of housing association Peabody and local housing company Be First, called on the government to bring forward a housebuilding stimulus package in order to address the health inequalities which have seen those in overcrowded housing suffer more deaths from coronavirus.

    Kerslake (pictured, below) used a column in Housing Today to state that it seemed “clear that that one of the reasons the UK has seen higher death rates than elsewhere is because of our inadequate housing system.”

    In May the ONS released data showing a correlation between the spread of covid-19 and various measures of poverty. However, later last month specific links also emerged between both levels of overcrowding and the prevalence of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) with the spread of the disease.

    The figures showed that the four local authorities with the highest rate of overcrowding were also the four authorities with the highest covid death rate, and that the seven most overcrowded councils were all in the top 15 for covid deaths per head of population.

    Kerslake said: “There is clear evidence that the highest death rates from covid-19 are in areas with the most poverty, higher levels of overcrowding, prevalence of HMOs, and greatest demand for social housing. […]

    “On this basis alone, it must surely be time to reunite housing and health policy and come up with an integrated plan to boost the health of the nation through providing quality homes.”

    Kerslake said the most effective way of reducing health inequalities would be to rapidly ramp up the delivery of good quality, genuinely affordable housing. The measures, he said, could form the heart of the economic stimulus package that chancellor Rishi Sunak has been working up, which could be unveiled as soon as July.

    The call follows comments by John Gray, lead member for housing services at Newham Council, which is both the most overcrowded borough in the UK and the one with the highest death rate, who last month was reported branding covid “a housing disease”. ”

    https://www.housingtoday.co.uk/news/inadequate-uk-housing-blamed-for-spread-of-covid/5106369.article

  11. So there’s been a Covid outbreak at a meat factory in Cleckheaton, the location of which was initially kept secret, whilst infection at a care home I know of in Huddersfield remains unreported (11 people inc. Staff and residents as of last Sunday).
    The meat factory was initially reported as being “somewhere in Kirklees”. I didn’t even think Cleckheaton was in Kirklees as it has Bradford postcodes, but then again there are other parts of Kirklees that are closer to Leeds but have Wakefield postcodes. Neither Bradford, Leeds, or Wakefield are in Kirklees, the main town in Kirklees is Huddersfield. Blame the Tories for reorganizing local government in the early 70s, when a thousand years of tradition was wiped away with a swoop of a pen and the old Ridings (dating back to Danelaw) were no more.

  12. “Scrap Universal Credit and replace it with a system that offers a safety net for all” – John Reynolds MP

    https://www.politicshome.com/thehouse/article/scrap-universal-credit-and-replace-it-with-a-system-that-offers-a-safety-net-for-all

    About bloody time too. It could have all been avoided if Labour had the balls to oppose it in the beginning instead of abstaining from voting against the Welfare reforms. Starmer came out against the introduction of a Basic Income, but have they even formulated a viable alternative to UC yet, after all this time?

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