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.
Back to homelessness in East London – where Newham council tells Maya and Rakib, a homeless couple with two very young children, that a flat with smashed and broken storage sheds and no floor coverings, or stove, or furniture is perfectly adequate for (the likes of) them.
The couple is homeless. That means they have no rights and no voice. They must live wherever authorities tell them to live. They must be grateful. They must understand that they’re at the bottom of the pile – and that’s how everyone else sees things.
Truly, homeless people are disenfranchised.
“The council officer said they often rent flats out as shells and that was okay.”
This is important. It shows where the official mindset is at.
Windowsills in the flat
We’ve reached a point (we’ve been at it for a long while) where officers and politicians genuinely believe that it IS okay to shove homeless families into shells and hovels – and that homeless people who are offered a shell, or a hovel, don’t know they’re born.
I think that a lot of officials genuinely believe this. After years of austerity, this institutional contempt is rife.
“At least you’re inside,” the argument goes. In the bureaucratic mind, sleeping on an uncovered floor under a roof is better than sleeping on a park bench – because that’s the choice. That’s where the line is now. We’re all meant to accept it. Homeless people no right to expect the basics, let alone a healthy environment, or anything so romantic as comfort.
Homeless people who hope for the basics are felt to have a scandalous sense of entitlement.
I wrote about 67-year-old Paul in Oldham, who was told by officers at First Choice Homes that the filthy, tiny and rotting static caravan that he lived in counted as adequate housing and he’d make himself intentionally homeless if he left it. I attended a meeting with him where an officer actually said that.
Paul in his caravan
I wrote about Marsha who was shown a place in Woolwich with stained mattresses, a broken, filthy oven and broken doorframes. She was told to accept the place, or else.
Oven at the flat Marsha was shown
Homeless people must accept all of this, or risk a council discharging its duty to them – that is, refusing to help them any further.
Their “choices” come down to – “do you want to live inside, or outside?” and “live in this hovel, or else.” Continue reading →
Posted below are excerpts from a transcript of an interview with homeless Newham woman Marsha, 30.
I post this as an example of homelessness as so many women I interview these days experience it.
Marsha talks about common problems that homeless women with children are always up against now: the lifetime of housing insecurity, the debilitating anxiety and depression, and the public authorities that invade a homeless woman’s privacy and keep her in her place by never letting her forget that they could take her child.
Marsha talks about being trapped forever – in rotten housing and low-paid work.
Few people on the ground believe that this will change soon.
The political and media classes are completely consumed by Brexit.
There’s no time or space for people who rely on the public services that our imploding politics can’t provide.
That is disgusting. I can’t tell you how upsetting it is for everyone involved.
For 18 months, Marsha has lived with her 6-year-old daughter in a single room in a Newham homelessness hostel.
The two share a bed in that room:
Marsha and her daughter in their one-room temporary homelessness hostel accommodation
Before they were placed in this hostel, Marsha and her daughter lived in temporary shared accommodation in a Newham hostel called Belgrave Court.
The two had one room. They shared a kitchen and bathroom with other hostel residents.
Marsha has lived in a lot of places like this. She grew up in shared accommodation.
Marsha’s mother migrated to England from Jamaica. She worked long hours as a cleaner. She brought Marsha to England when Marsha was 12. The two lived in shared housing.
They often had to move. Stability is a privilege that not everyone enjoys.
“…when you’re renting a room… you’re sharing with all different people and there’s always issues, so we’ve always had to just kept to kept on moving, so as a teenager coming up into my adult years, I had to move…”
Marsha says that she was abused when she was younger.
She hates talking about these issues (“I don’t want all my business out there”), although council and jobcentre officers insist that she talks – again and again and again:
“The medical assessment officer, he asked if I had any issues. My issues growing up is not something I’m comfortable talking about, so I just said to him, “bottom line, I suffer from depression. I don’t need to go into the things that make me depressed, because it is uncomfortable to relive certain moments…”
Relentless interrogation by authorities
Marsha is forced to relive her past and present problems, though. Homeless women must repeatedly justify their need for housing and income help to strangers by explaining their backgrounds and experiences again and again. They must tell their stories from the start to each new officer who interviews them – council homelessness officers, MASH (multi-agency safeguarding hub) officers, jobcentre advisers and social workers.
They must tell officers everything: mental health histories, family histories, relationship histories and abuse histories. There’s no letup. There’s no privacy. There is no autonomy. Officers want details when they are deciding if a homeless woman is in need.
They want graphic details, even. Does the woman have panic attacks? How often does she have them? How serious are they? How bad is her depression? Is she medicated? Was she abused? Who was her abuser? What did her abuser do? How has her experience affected her kids?
Officers want to rate a woman’s story. They want her to prove that her problems are genuinely serious, whatever that means.
Marsha says that her medical history of depression and panic attacks (she’s been hospitalised in the past) has sometimes been dismissed in the past, because officers say that panic attacks are run-of-the-mill these days:
“They said to me panic attacks is a common thing, [that] lots of people go through it. [They said] “just find coping mechanisms and you will be all right.”
Officers say that even when Marsha is clearly unwell:
“…the sort of depression that I had at the time – I was always washing my hands. I was always doing stuff. I couldn’t take light. Even now, I can barely stand light. That’s why I put stuff over the window.”
Marsha still drapes sheets and blankets over windows to keep the light out. I visited her at about midday on a Saturday and her hostel room was in shade.
Sheets and blankets draped over the hostel window
Officers know these things, but ask about them repeatedly all the same.
Councils keep detailed files about homeless people, but don’t refer to them, apparently.
“I said to him [the officer], “I’ve got my housing file in my drawer. It’s this thick. I have been complaining since I moved into this property that I have panic attacks at least two to three times a week.”
At a recent meeting with social services, Marsha had to remind the social worker of her name, because the officer wasn’t sure who Marsha was – even though she had called Marsha to the meeting.
The social worker hadn’t looked at Marsha’s file. She just brought Marsha in to question her.
Marsha is living in a homelessness hostel in Newham – in a one-room hellhole which she shares with her six-year-old daughter.
I reported this week that Marsha had written to the council to ask when she and her daughter would be placed in longer-term housing in Newham.
The two have been living in that stifling hostel room together for over a year.
Marsha is desperate for a place in Newham. She is at college. Her daughter is in school. Marsha relies on family for childcare and mental health support. Her mental health is deteriorating, because of her housing problems.
Marsha is being bullied by the council.
Like so many homeless mothers I and others speak with, Marsha fears that children’s services will remove her daughter if she pushes her case.
Certainly, social services have Marsha in their sights. When Marsha wrote to the council about her housing last week, she was suddenly dragged to two meetings with social services. She and her daughter – who is only six – were grilled about their health and wellbeing.
Now, there’s more.
After that story appeared and I emailed the mayor, Marsha got a call from housing options yesterday.
She was told that the council had one private-rented flat in Woolwich that she had to look at and accept. She was told that if she didn’t accept the flat, she’d be out on the streets. End of story.
That’s the way homeless people are spoken to.
The flat was disgusting – cracked walls, filthy oven, broken locks, stained and squalid mattresses and grimy sinks and walls. I’ve posted photos through this article.
The agent who show Marsha the place said that he wouldn’t house his family members in it.
Homeless women, of course, are expected to be grateful for such places.
Marsha called me in a terrible state. She has a choice: she can take her six-year-old child to live in this pigsty, or she can live on the side of the road. That’s not much of a choice in my book.
Marsha has become more and more distressed as this has gone on.
The bullying, the threats from and of social services and the upset and rotten housing that she must expose her child to are taking an obvious toll.
I’ve asked the mayor for a response to this. This is council aggression and bullying, pure and simple. The mayor better come back to me soon.
I’ll tell you this – homeless women I’m speaking with say that they are inevitably treated like this – “do what you’re told and live in whatever hovel we send you to, and be grateful.”
It’s bad enough to know that your mental health is deteriorating because of this and because your kids are exposed to filthy living conditions and your distress.
It’s very bad to know that social services is watching you as that happens.
Readers of this site will know that I’ve recently been interviewing Marsha, a homeless 30-year-old Newham woman who lives with her six-year-old daughter in a single room in a Newham homelessness hostel.
The two have been stuck in this temporary accommodation for over a year.
In the last article, Marsha talked about a concern that many homeless mothers raise. Mothers worry that council social services will try to remove their children because they are homeless. Doesn’t matter what the council can, or can’t, actually do. The threat hangs in the air and that is enough. I’ve written about this before.
In that recent article, Marsha said that Newham social services said they could take her daughter and place the child in care while Marsha “sorted herself out”:
“Social services is telling me – “oh, we can provide a home for your daughter, but not for you.”
“So I am scared.”
There’s been more since then.
On Tuesday morning, Marsha sent an email to her housing officer (Marsha copied me in). She asked for an update on her housing situation and whether she and her child could be moved to a better place than the awful hostel that they’re stuck in.
Marsha is in the dreadful limbo that so many women in poverty are.
She’s facing eviction from the homelessness hostel she’s in.
She’s studying at a local college to try and improve her chances of work and better-paid work.
She doesn’t want to have to move to a flat miles away in Tilbury (which is where the council wants her to go), because Marsha relies on her mother for mental health support and childcare while she studies. If Marsha loses that support, she’ll sink.
Marsha has no-one else to help with childcare while she studies. The jobcentre certainly won’t. Her adviser already threatened to sanction her Universal Credit for spending some of her time studying rather than all of her time looking for work.
So, Marsha sent that email to the council asking about her application for better housing. There’d been earlier emails, too, as well as the stories posted here.
Enter social services.
The next thing Marsha knew was that social services was all over her – and asking questions about her daughter’s health and wellbeing.
Marsha said she felt extremely threatened by this. A woman asks a council questions about her housing application – and suddenly, social services is on the phone demanding meetings and firing off all sorts of questions about the woman and her child’s welfare.
You have to wonder.
Marsha says that first, she was contacted by someone from the local multi-agency safeguarding hub – one of the hubs set up to track children who could be “vulnerable”:
“I literally had to explain myself and my housing situation all over again. He [the MASH officer] was really like getting a bit personal… asking me questions about my doctor, my daughter, my wellbeing, [the] school that she [my daughter] attends, her attendance… just a lot of personal stuff…”
So, there was that.
Then on Thursday last week, Marsha got a call from Newham children’s services, demanding that she attend an appointment with them that very afternoon:
“Another lady called from the social services…she said to me that she’s been given instructions from her manager to call me to arrange a meeting with herself.
I said, “what is it in regards to, because I just spoke to somebody else in the department within the social services and they are saying something different to me…”
“[She said] that she has to do an assessment with me and my daughter to do with my housing issues, and I have to come and see her and I should bring my daughter…
“I said to her – “I’m in college until 4.15pm. Then, I have to pick up my daughter.”
“She was like, “this is important and you have to come and see me. You kind of just have to find time, basically.”
“So I said to her, “okay, well, I’ll grab my daughter from school early and I’ll come and see you.”
“I was really uncomfortable…”
At the meeting, the social worker questioned Marsha and her daughter about Marsha and the child’s wellbeing:
“It is… the stuff they were asking me, Kate, had nothing to do with my housing situation. They were asking my daughter if she sleeps well, how does she play, who helps her with her homework… It’s not relevant.
“It’s almost like I’m being investigated… do you know what I mean… everyone knows that my issues is strictly around housing. I feel so uncomfortable.”
“I feel like the council is just trying to use tactics to force me into a situation…I feel like I’m being punished. I’m trying to get my voice heard and I’m speaking to people and I’m raising issues. I feel like it’s a tactical to make me go away – like they are thinking, “let’s get social services to call around.”
Marsha said the social worker told her that Marsha and her daughter would soon be evicted from their temporary accommodation. Marsha and her young daughter are facing street homelessness.
That was the first Marsha had heard about her impending eviction.
She said that the social worker was shocked to hear that the council’s housing team hadn’t told Marsha that eviction was nearing.
You see my point.
I talk to too many homeless mothers now who say they feel ever-threatened by social services.
They don’t know if councils can take their kids, but Can or Can’t is beside the point. The point is that the spectre of social services is raised at the drop of a hat. An implied threat is plenty good enough to shut homeless people up.
People worry about challenging a council offer of housing, or complaining about the dreadful state of temporary housing, or drawing attention to themselves by asking a council any questions about housing at all. I wonder how many homeless people are disenfranchised – bullied into silence – in this way.
“It’s the normal thing that I’ve been experiencing with council, with social services – bullying, threatening, saying that you have to do this now and you don’t have an option…she [the social worker] sat down yesterday and she said, “as you know there is no affordable housing, affordable properties [in Newham]… it’s just been like 18 months of ongoing like turmoil with them.”
I have more on this which I will publish this week.
The Newham council press office has blacklisted me and so won’t give a comment, but too bad for them. I’ll be emailing the mayor and the head of housing with this article and asking the council what the hell it is doing.
This is an excerpt from a longer article I’m working on:
A fortnight ago, I visited Lukia – a woman with a history of severe depression. She has been in the care of a mental health unit.
For two years, Lukia has lived on an upper floor of a grim homelessness hostel in Newham. She was placed in the hostel by Newham council.
She dislikes living up so high, because she worries about jumping.
“I’m living on the ninth floor, because… my daughter knows that I don’t go near the window… I always feel like I’m going to go down…”
“Like you’re going to jump?”
“Yes, yes… feel like you’re jumping.” Lukia said.
Here’s the view from Lukia’s window:
Her hostel room is also distressing. It’s not really a room. It’s more a hallway with Lukia’s bed and belongings in it. There’s a small kitchen at one end of this hallway and the bed, and window, at the other.
The “room” is filled with suitcases, kitchen items and household belongings:
Why do we make people with serious mental health conditions live like this?
Lukia’s daughter lives in a similar hallway-type room next door, because her mother can’t live alone.
Lukia says the council has offered other temporary accommodation, but she worries about that. She was moved to this hostel from other temporary accommodation, because that accommodation was disgusting:
“They left me there in Romford Road – [that accommodation] was really filthy. We kept on cleaning. We couldn’t do anything. We would have to go through the environmental services… I said I’m not staying in the place. We were about five, six, seven families…. and said you cannot stay in this environment. They all had children. A woman wrote to them – the council – and said, “move these people as soon as possible.” Then, the following day they phoned us and said you have to move…”
What on earth are we doing?
I’d ask Newham Council for a comment on this – in particular, a comment on Lukia’s concerns about jumping and living in a room many stories up – but the council has blacklisted me. There we go.