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.