It’s time to pay careworkers proper sick pay. Stop trying to paper over the f*cking cracks

Here’s another covid-19 clusterf*ck to add to the pile – this one is about careworkers and Statutory Sick Pay:

Someone recently showed me facebook posts in which a ridiculous carehome manager said that they wouldn’t use the government-issued Infection Control Fund to fund full pay for careworkers who were off work and isolating with covid symptoms. As many of you will know, a lot of careworkers are only entitled to Statutory Sick Pay when they’re off sick – SSP being a paltry £95 a week that absolutely nobody can live on. Careworkers certainly can’t live on it and so they go to work when they’re sick. They take illnesses into work with them.

The Infection Control Fund is a £600m whack that Boris Johnson’s dozy government belatedly set aside in May for councils to distribute to carehomes in their boroughs – Matt Hancock or some other Einstein having finally cottoned onto the fact that careworkers with covid-19 symptoms who were only entitled to SSP’s £95 a week would continue to attend work and spread coronavirus, because they couldn’t afford not to.

The idea was that carehomes could use the ICF to (among other infection control measures) pay full wages to careworkers who were off work and isolating with covid symptoms. A far better idea, of course, would be to admit that SSP of £95 a week is an absolute disgrace and to always pay everyone full wages when they’re off sick – with covid or otherwise – but nobody important wants to admit or address that. Elites and employers the world over live in fear that if sick leave pays enough for people to live on, the serfs will simply pretend that they’re ill and groove away on one long beano. This fear is particularly prevalent among care home brass for some reason. They seem to think that inside every careworker is a goof-off just waiting to take the piss and party. Carehomes have been cutting “too generous” sick pay packages for careworkers to the statutory minimum for years.

Thus, the Infection Control Fund – a thin paper to stretch over another yawning central crack. Needless to say, at the local level, interpretations of the use of the ICF have been intriguing – ie absolutely random and often a circus. This ALWAYS happens when government attempts to address a major structural problem (such as Statutory Sick Pay) in a crisis (such as covid-19’s razing through carehomes) by lobbing a handful of cash at it and hoping for the best.

The problem is that you don’t always get the best, no matter how much government hopes for it. The social media screenshots I received of a conversation about the ICF with a carehome manager were certainly an eye-opener. The manager in that dialogue said that they wouldn’t use ICF money to pay full wages for careworkers who were off work with covid symptoms, because it wouldn’t be fair to careworkers who were off sick with illnesses other than covid (the ICF is aimed at careworkers with covid symptoms, or who’ve had a positive test, etc). That manager in that post said the choice was a “moral” one – ie that it would be unfair to pay full wages to one group of sick careworkers, but not to another.

As someone who has written about cuts to careworker conditions for more years than I care to recall, I am confident that this argument is a pile. Over a  decade on the scene has taught me that finance, as opposed to morals, tends to be the motivation for management actions at carehomes. Let’s think about this for a bit. If careworkers were allowed to isolate at home on full pay for 2 weeks, a carehome would have to find and pay replacement staff. Some councils are apparently helping some carehomes cover some of those costs during covid, but they can hardly all be doing that everywhere (I’ve been checking through council ICF plans to try and understand who is doing what and with what). Then, there’s that ever-present carehome terror of setting dangerous precedents by paying careworkers decent sick pay. If careworkers get to experience decent sick pay once, they might get cocky and ask for it again. They might even demand that all staff receive their full wages when sick, all of the time. Continue reading

Question: How did carework end up in such dire straits? Answer: outsourcing

I’m back. I’ve finished my book on austerity – more on getting a copy at the end of this article.

This article is about careworkers. Careworkers’ dreadful pay and working conditions won fleeting attention earlier this year when the coronavirus started wiping out carehome staff and residents, but alas – big media has moved onto new thrills. That can’t be the end of the story, though. Things have to change. Careworkers and carehome residents have been treated like garbage for years:

There is a problem with writing about attacks on careworker wages and working conditions over the past decades or so: I have too many examples to choose from.

Every carehome worker I met in the last decade was on a picket line in that first instance, fighting to protect already-meagre careworker wages from attacks and cutbacks. For as long as I’ve been writing, careworker wages and conditions have been targeted by a particularly witless brand of neoliberal: local councillors (of all political stripes), MPs (ditto) and the boards/trustees of private and third sector care companies who’ve been united by two of our era’s more perverted beliefs: 1) that care can be provided on the cheap and 2) if you achieve this cheapness by slashing careworker wages and standards, care can turn a profit.

Spawned in this manure, the stories are always, always the same. It all starts when care services, in one form or another, are outsourced from councils, or the NHS, to private or third sector companies. In the following months and years, managers of these companies cut careworker wages and sick-and-annual leave allowances, and direct that money elsewhere. Careworker contracts that were based on public sector wages and conditions – wages and conditions that private care companies swear they will protect – are, needless to say, quickly trashed. New carework starters begin on much-reduced wages and leave provisions – the bar set so low that it more or less disappears.

This model is so standard that you can cut and paste examples straight into it. Take the Fremantle careworkers in Barnet – a group of carerworkers who I first met on a picket line in 2007 and at plenty of strikes in the years after that. These long-time Barnet carehome workers (most were women) went home one day to find a letter from the Fremantle Trust, the company to which Barnet council had outsourced carehomes and the careworkers’ jobs.

That letter did not bring good news. The Trust told the the careworkers that their pay would be frozen and their all-important weekend enhancement pay rates removed. Many of the careworkers relied on that after-hours enhancement pay to meet their bills and mortgages. They hardly earned a fortune even with that money. Losing it was a catastrophe. The sums were simple enough – careworkers’ jobs no longer paid the bills:

“Some people are down three or four hundred (pounds) a month,” Fremantle careworker Carmel Reynolds told me at that time. Reynolds been in the job for 23 years at that point. “People organise their families around [that money].”

There was more, of course. There always is. The Fremantle Trust told the careworkers that it would also cut their annual leave allowances and slash their sick leave to the statutory minimum – the very same first-3-days-without-pay statutory sick leave “package” that many are convinced helped to fuel covid-19’s blaze through carehomes in 2020. Careworkers can’t afford to take 3 days’ sick leave unpaid, so they go to work when they’re ill. Fremantle careworkers were pointing that out even in 2007.

True to pompous form, Fremantle management told the shocked careworkers that they could either sign the new contract, or leave. Then, management rubbed the careworkers’ noses in it a little harder – managers told careworkers that if they were really worried about money, they could try and make their stolen wages back by working extra shifts. More work for less money – Fremantle Trust management seemed to reason that careworkers would be grateful for such a gig. No matter that many of the careworkers had children at home and would suddenly have childcare costs that they couldn’t cover. No matter either that the destruction of careworker wages and working conditions was grossly unfair:

“I said [to Fremantle managers] – how do you expect us to be able to cope…?” careworker Lango Gamanga told me. “They [Fremantle managers] said we could do more hours to make up the money… but what about the quality of our life – our daily life?”

Of course – careworkers’ quality of life is rarely a concern in these scenarios. Concern about workers’ quality of life was certainly nowhere to be seen in another battle I’ve picked from my list: the 2014 Care UK support workers dispute in Doncaster. That was the year that Doncaster Care UK workers took weeks-long strike action in protest at – you guessed it – wage cuts in the form of the removal of enhanced weekend and night rates, new-starter pay cut to £7 an hour and – again – cuts to sick leave.

As ever, this shambles started with privatisation. The Doncaster workers – they worked with people with learning difficulties – had their jobs transferred from the NHS to Care UK when the service was outsourced to Care UK. It didn’t take Care UK long to target their new employees. Implying that the careworkers had been spoiled by their NHS wages and working conditions – “annual holiday… for some people is close to 7 weeks on top of public holidays,” groused Care UK learning disability service boss Chris Hindle with the faux outrage that these people specialise in – Care UK proposed wage cuts that saw the Doncaster workers facing losses of £300 and £400 a month – just like the Fremantle workers

At one strike action, careworker Mags Dalton told me the wage cuts were so severe that she’d have to leave her flat and her job, and move back in with her parents in Newcastle while she found another job and saved up for the deposit on another flat. The Care UK cuts meant that she’d lose about £400 a month. Her rent was £465 a month. She couldn’t afford to keep paying:

“I made a life for myself in Doncaster with friends that I love and a job that I love. I only signed up for the house a year ago. I moved in on the 26th of June last year and the 25th of June this year, I moved out. How did that happen?”

It happened for the same reason that it always happens: when services are outsourced, money is re-routed from frontline staff. At Doncaster, Care UK executives tried to argue the usual toss – that cuts to workers’ wages were necessary if the rest of the business was to stay afloat financially. Curiously, senior staff and executive incomes appeared to be exempt from this do-or-die belt-tightening. Bridgepoint Capital, the private equity firm that owned Care UK, had managed to find around £14m for bonuses to senior staff while careworkers were facing pay cuts of £400 a month. Care UK was also reportedly expecting to make a profit of around 6% for the Doncaster contract. Careworker wages were obviously key to this windfall.

Continue reading

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. Continue reading

There’s no way homeless people can isolate in hostels. Families share rooms and beds

Let me take you inside a homelessness hostel so that you can see how exposed homeless people are to any virus:

In recent days, I’ve talked at length with Marsha, a homeless 30-year-old Newham woman who lives with her 6-year-old daughter in a Newham homelessness hostel called Brimstone House. I’ve written about Marsha’s living conditions and housing problems many times in the last year.

Marsha’s housing situation was a disaster long before coronavirus came into the picture. In the hostel, Marsha and her daughter live in one small room together. There’s no bedroom. There’s just one room. All their belongings are piled up in that one room. They share a bed. They can’t open their main window without a key, which they must request. The two have lived in this tiny space for nearly 3 years.

Marsha and her daughter in their one-room temporary homelessness hostel accommodation

Needless to say, isolation is not a starter in this type of arrangement. People actually laugh when you mention it. However – spreading bacteria and viruses IS a starter, to say the very least. Marsha says that last week, her little girl – who has asthma – had a cold. There was no escaping that for Marsha (who also has asthma) – not least because she and her daughter sleep in one bed together on the same mattress:

“You know how kids are – they cough and they don’t put their hands over their mouth…a few times she coughed and I was like, “oh my god.” I just kind of got used to it… there’s no way of escaping it.”

Great, isn’t it? Doubtless there are Tories around who think that Marsha should just learn to hold her breath. My personal view is that high-ranking party members should trade places with Marsha. Boris Johnson should be forced to see out his coronavirus isolation in one of these rooms with Matt Hancock and a few other colleagues who haven’t got covid-19 yet – Thérèse Coffey comes to mind, as does Iain Duncan Smith, who should be made to stay for the entire length of a 6 month lockdown. It is high time that these people went shoulder to shoulder with reality. These hostel rooms drive people out of their minds, even without a killer virus in the mix. With a killer virus in the mix, everyone goes down.

The truth is that there’s no way to escape ANYONE in places like Brimstone House. Several hundred people can live in this building in the cramped rooms (the figures quoted are usually around 210 “units” (flats) with 2 or more people in each tiny flat). Germs don’t have to work to get around. Literally the only way to isolate is to stick your head in a bag. If one building occupant gets so much as a sniffle, everyone gets it – even in so-called good times.

Continue reading

Why a private rented flat means poverty forever

Here’s a short post on a topic that comes up more and more: homeless people who want to resist being placed in private sector tenancies by councils, because they know that private tenancies mean permanent poverty:

Readers of this site will know that I’ve published several interviews this year with Marsha, a 30-year-old homeless Newham woman who lives in a single-room homelessness hostel with her small daughter. That one room serves as living room and bedroom. The two share a bed in that room.

Marsha and her daughter in the one room in their hostel

Marsha is in deadlock with Newham council about future housing.

Marsha is desperate for a social housing flat – a secure(ish) tenancy and rent she might afford. The odds are against her getting such a flat. The odds are against most people. There are about 28,000 households on Newham council’s housing waiting list. Plenty of people on that list live in dire hostels and flats.

The council has insisted through the year that the numbers mean that Marsha’s only real option is a private flat. (There was mention of a flat owned by a charity at one point, but the rent on that was still high and there was much discussion re: whether the flat was ready or not).

The problem is that Marsha knows that private rented housing will very likely finish her chances of financial independence.

“the private rents and the way it is going … it is unaffordable to me… because at the end of the day, what job am I going to be working where I’m working enough, so I’m able to cover my rent and my monthly expenses? I want to put myself in a space where I can have a good income and provide for [my daughter]… “

So, Marsha does what people do. She waits in the homelessness hostel and hopes to avoid eviction from the hostel while she makes a case for social housing. Bidding on social housing flats isn’t going too well. It’s not unusual for people to find themselves in a queue of over a thousand for a place in Newham.

Thing is – Marsha has decided that trying to beat the odds to get social housing makes more sense than trying to force the sums for private rentals to add.

She has a point. It’s a point I hear more and more.

Marsha has looked at cheap private flats out of London. There is a major problem with flats out of London, though (there’s more than one major problem, but we’ll focus on one for now). If she leaves London, Marsha will be miles and a costly train-trip away from her mother. Her mother is the person who provides the free childcare that Marsha needs while she finishes qualifications and looks for work.

Without that free childcare, she’s had it.

Looking for a private rented flat in London is literally a non-starter. The ever-expanding gap between local housing allowance entitlements (which are frozen) and market rents sees to that. Marsha could not meet the shortfall between her LHA allowance and a private rent once the council stopped paying topups.

Private landlords can easily raise rents and evict tenants for people who’ll pay more. If that happened, finding another flat that Marsha could afford, or a landlord who’d even take an LHA tenant, would be near-impossible:

“…this is not the life that I want for [my daughter]…she’s going to grow up relying [on the system] in the same way…I want her to see that I want to work… I want to pay tax. I want to get into the system where I am contributing to that instead of taking from it…”

So, Marsha waits.

She takes a big risk doing that. Turning down a council offer of a private flat – wherever that flat is and whatever state it is in – can finish a homeless person’s chances of housing help from a council. A council can decide that someone has made themselves homeless intentionally if that person says No to a private flat. Eviction from a hostel, or any temporary accommodation, can quickly follow that.

Point is – people will take that risk to avoid private rentals. That’s where we’re at.

It is not – as I’m sure critics of people on benefits will argue – that homeless people have gotten all above themselves and refuse private places because they feel entitled to low-cost social housing in major cities.

It is about homeless people knowing that a private rental is guaranteed to trap them in arrears and ongoing poverty, and return them to homelessness, sofa-surfing and hostels. Why embark on that journey if you’re already there?


Blogging will be light-ish until the end of the year as am finishing up a transcription project of interviews, and homelessness and jobcentre meeting recordings. Still available for contact here.

 

We’ll find you intentionally homeless even though it’s our fault you’re homeless

So.

To the housing frontline again – where a Greater London council officer I interview tells me about another senseless intentional homelessness threat (you can read earlier interviews with that officer about intentional homelessness cases here).

The officer gives this story as another example of the shambles in council homelessness departments in austerity. Staff shortages, extreme caseloads and a mass of application forms and paperwork created by personal housing plans mean that officers in under-resourced housing offices can too easily lose the thread.

The officer talks about a recent case where a Greater London council threatened to find a woman intentionally homeless. The council made this threat even though the council itself was completely responsible for the woman’s homelessness. The council denied the woman housing benefit for 12 months, because it failed to keep proper track of the woman’s supporting paperwork and evidence. She was ultimately evicted for rent arrears. Brilliant.

The officer was responsible for reviewing the woman’s case.

The woman worked as a cleaner. The officer said that she “worked all hours,” to make ends meet. She still didn’t earn much. She claimed housing benefit to help pay her rent.

Just over a year ago, the woman changed jobs. She let her council know about this change.

That’s when the problems began.

For reasons that the woman never understood, the council shut down her housing benefit claim completely. The council wouldn’t restart her claim, or even set up a new one quickly. Continue reading

When women in absolute poverty are denied their kids, legal help and housing

Here’s a scenario that I’ve seen several times now: a woman facing homelessness after losing her kids in a custody battle that she couldn’t afford to fight.

One of the women I’ve written about several times for this blog has been in touch to say that she is facing eviction and homelessness. She has serious rent arrears – thousands of pounds. She has an eviction notice and will be thrown out her flat.

This woman is facing street homelessness. The arrears and eviction likely mean that her council won’t help her find housing. They’ll decide that she’s responsible for her eviction – that she’s made herself intentionally homeless.

Except that things aren’t quite that simple. They rarely are.

This woman is in arrears for two reasons:

The first is the benefit cap. The arrears began when the benefit cap was applied. The woman lost over half of her housing benefit entitlement literally overnight. There was no way she could make up this sudden loss of rent money.

The second reason is that the woman recently lost custody of her children. This was brutal. I can’t give much detail here, but I’ve seen this scenario several times.

The woman’s relationship with her ex-partner ended acrimoniously. Her much-better-resourced ex lawyered up and went to court for the kids. The character assassination this woman endured during this case was nasty.

So was the woman’s isolation. She had no money and no lawyer for most of the time (she scraped together a bit of money for advice early on, but couldn’t keep that going on any level. She didn’t have any money). This woman was one of the thousands of people who are now forced to represent themselves in bitter, convoluted and drawn-out custody fights. Even getting basic advice about entitlements and rights was impossible. She never had a chance.

So – the rent arrears. Already in debt, the woman stopped receiving housing benefit (Universal Credit in her case) for the bedrooms that her children had occupied. She couldn’t meet rent payments at all. The thing is completely out of hand.

She’ll be evicted soon.

God knows what happens after that. I guess that at best, she’ll find a crappy studio flat somewhere – if she can scrape together money for a deposit and rent, and find a landlord who accepts Universal Credit claimants who’ve been evicted for serious rent arrears. At worst, she’ll be street homeless. She’ll have no chance of getting her kids back without a place for them to stay.

Any constructive suggestions on this situation are welcome. I’ve interviewed three women in the same situation in recent times. There must be a way of getting legal representation and housing for people.

Single mothers are placed in terrible housing by councils. Then social services muscles in when the family falls apart because of the terrible housing

Here’s more about the ways that authorities keep homeless single mothers and their kids in chaos and under the thumb.

I’ve posted a transcript from a longer interview with Marsha, 30, at the end of this article.

Marsha is a homeless Newham woman who lives with her little daughter in one room in a Newham homelessness hostel.

The two share a bed in this room. They’ve lived in the hostel for more than two years. I’ve written several stories about Marsha’s situation.

Marsha and her daughter in the one room in their hostel

In the transcript below, Marsha talks at length about the invasive attention that she has drawn from council social services and her daughter’s school as a homeless single mother.

Social services and her daughter’s school have been on Marsha’s case for a while. They order Marsha to bring her daughter to same-day meetings with social workers, or ring to say she must get to her daughter’s school right away.

There’s not always been time for Marsha to arrange for someone to accompany her to these meetings. That’s a big concern. Marsha has been questioned in detail by authorities about her mental and emotional health, and her daughter’s mental and emotional health. She’s been put on the spot by people she does not know in a system that she can’t trust – often without witnesses, or representation. Women I speak with raise this issue all the time.

The thing is – Marsha IS worried about her daughter’s mental and emotional health, and her own. Bad living conditions and relentless questioning from social services and schools inevitably affect a family’s frame of mind.

Marsha has severe depression and anxiety. She often says that she is concerned her small daughter is being negatively affected by their cramped living space and the social services meddling that the little girl has witnessed. You’d be dreaming if you thought that a child would not be affected by those things.

In the transcript below, Marsha says:

“All of a sudden, [my daughter] is seeing me in a very distressed state, because of everything that I’m going through. These people around here – she is exposed to conversations [which she shouldn’t be]…”

The problem is that Marsha must justify her family’s responses to their living conditions to organisations that hold all the cards.

Marsha is in a situation that a lot of homeless single mothers talk about. She’s been placed in poor housing by public authorities [her council]. Then, she’s been made to answer to public authorities as her family’s health has disintegrated because of the poor housing that the family has been placed in and the lack of decent alternatives. There’s no way to win. Marsha has no power in this scene.

Marsha says she understands that authorities have safeguarding roles – but that doesn’t mean that they’re above cornering women. Most single mothers in poor housing I talk with worry constantly about councils taking their children. That means they’re always on the back foot. There can be no balance in conversations that they have with authorities because of it.

Says Marsha in the transcript:

“…it was totally out of order how the council referred me to social services without even telling me [and insisted that Marsha brought her daughter to a social services meeting]. I even said, “I don’t even know why [my daughter] is there [at the meeting].” [The social worker] said, “No, we just want to see if there is any concerns.”

 

“….I still complied, because I’m thinking the last thing that I want to do is jeopardise myself. So, if [the social worker is] saying that she wants to see me and my daughter, of course I am going to see her [the social worker] … [but] I would never had let [my daughter] sit through these conversations [if I’d known how they would affect her]. If I could have called my mother and say, “could you hold [my daughter] for two hours while I have a conversation with this lady [social worker]…”

Women should not be forced to retreat and retreat like this. Continue reading

We know you’re homeless and dangerously depressed and anxious. Let’s push you over the edge

Readers of this site will know that I’ve been interviewing homeless Newham woman Marsha, 30, this year.

Marsha is living in temporary accommodation in a one-room hostel with her little daughter. The two have lived in this cramped space together more than two years.

Marsha has severe depression and anxiety. She sometimes cries when we talk. She is stuck in dreadful poverty in a way that she fears is permanent: “They [Newham Council] will put me in housing (out of London, away from jobs, training and free childcare with family) and I will be on benefits for the rest of my life.”

Marsha gets no respite from a public sector that should be in place to help. Marsha is being crushed by that sector. The public sector has no resources and no patience, imagination, or humanity as a result. That’s austerity.

On her own, Marsha can’t get housing in Newham near family who could look after her daughter while Marsha studies to qualify for the jobs that will get her off Universal Credit.

Marsha relies completely on her mother to look after her daughter and for much-needed emotional support. If Marsha is housed miles away from her mother as the council has historically insisted she must be, she’ll be isolated on benefits and in debilitating depression forever. The facts are also that job and training opportunities are much better in London than they are in the places that councils suggest people live.

This is why homeless families fight so hard to stay in the city. It’s not because homeless families can’t stand the thought of living in towns that don’t have a Harrods. It’s because employment and training opportunities in smaller towns can be hard to come by.

People also worry about racism in other towns, just by the way. We live in febrile times on that score.

Meanwhile – social services and her daughter’s school are constantly on Marsha’s case in a threatening way. They demand that Marsha and her daughter attend same-day meetings to discuss her daughter’s mental and emotional health – health that is inevitably deteriorating because of the conditions that Marsha and her daughter are kept in. Like so many people I speak with, Marsha worries that the mental and emotional health problems that are caused by the family’s living conditions will lead to her daughter being removed.

Meanwhile again, Marsha’s jobcentre adviser has sanctioned Marsha for attending college – rather than sending off the hundreds of never-answered applications for minimum-wage jobs that the DWP demands.

I talk to too many women with children who are held in poverty in this three-way clamp housing, social services and DWP all keeping single mothers in their place.

On the housing front:

I think that Newham council is stringing Marsha along when it comes to promises of better (ie fit for human habitation) housing. Such promises are as cruel and dangerous as they are empty – particularly when you are dealing with people who live in hellholes and have very serious depression.

A couple of months ago, officers showed Marsha a pigsty in Woolwich and told her to live in it, or else (the “or else” being that the council would give Marsha no more “help” if she didn’t shut up and take the flat).

Later on, under pressure, the council apologised to Marsha for treating her in this way.

Councillors said that they would find Marsha and her daughter a better home – ie, something human beings could just about live in. They even said they’d located such place.

That was months ago. Absolutely nothing happened after that. You started to wonder if this better home existed at all.

The council told Marsha that she couldn’t move in, because it was fixing the flat. I can’t imagine what sort of fixing this has involved. It’s been months.

And maybe Marsha was right to wonder if this promised flat was real. Certainly, the promise of it wasn’t. Marsha just told me that the council has rung to say that the flat is off the menu. The council says it has another flat in mind. Marsha was crying when she said that she doubted this. She said she was thinking of giving up – of leaving the homelessness hostel and bunking down wherever she could. This – from someone with very bad depression and anxiety.

You can see why homeless families in Marsha’s situation beg councils for social housing and secure tenancies. It’s not just that private tenancies are notoriously expensive and insecure, and that you’re likely to be facing eviction and homelessness again in a matter of months. It’s that councils can’t keep a grip when they’re farming people out to these places.

I could go on and I will in another post. I have more to post on the non-stop interference that Marsha and women in her situation get from social services.

For now though – Newham council needs to sort this out. Destabilising people with depression in this way is disgusting and dangerous. I’d ask Newham council for comment on this, except that I’ve been blacklisted. I will still ask councillors directly, though. The hell with it.

Back soon. Meanwhile – a few thoughts on the trainwreck that is council homelessness “help”…

Transcribing a lot of interviews atm which takes me a long time. Should be back with posting soon.

A couple of things to think on:

  • I have an interview that I’m working on with a housing officer. This officer said that the council they worked for was placing more and more people in Travelodges for emergency accommodation. It isn’t news that homeless families are placed in Travelodges, but it did make me wonder how much hotel chains collect these days in housing benefit/Universal Credit and if hotel chains built or set up new hotels to cash in.
  • this officer said that there was concern in some council officers about councillors responding in a knee-jerk way to bad publicity about housing. If a homeless family received publicity about their housing problems, some councillors would tell staff to prioritise that case and to find the family decent local housing. If a homeless family didn’t have publicity and/or a lawyer, they wouldn’t get any such treatment and would languish for years in emergency or temporary accommodation – if they were lucky to get even that far. Backlogs of such cases piled up on officers’ desks. Variations on this theme have long been the case, of course. It was just that officers were getting mightily pissed off about it. In times of extreme housing crisis, systems that are supposed to be in place go to pieces.