Gatekeeping culture at Southwark council housing offices

 

“Homeless? We will check, check and check again” Poster in Southwark Housing Office

The following testimony highlights 4 types of gatekeeping tactics, employed by Southwark council against homeless people, that are additional to those raised recently in the High Court after a legal challenge by Hansen Palomares: 1) Delay and time wasting, 2) Initial allocation of temporary housing for two days, 3) Isolation, 4) Verbal intimidation and abuse. Our first request of Southwark Council is for senior housing officers and councillors to reaffirm that gatekeeping practice 3) isolation of the homeless person by refusing them an advocate is against their policy and best practice.

Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth members have had extremely bad experiences of visiting Southwark council’s housing office in Peckham. We blogged here about staff physically and verbally abusing our members who were trying to access housing that the council must provide. Another member reported being racially abused by a staff member. Most recently we were contacted by A who had visited the housing office ten times presenting herself as homeless and asking for the support that they have a legal duty to give her and her family. At all of these visits she was turned away by the staff. There is also the well publicized case of Southwark housing officials conspiring to make a man homeless.

We are organizing together to challenge the culture of disrespect and abuse that often vulnerable people are subjected to at Peckham housing office. As well as providing practical support , including accompanying each other to visits to the housing office, we have been speaking with people outside the housing office about their experiences and giving them leaflets about their rights. We have lots more activities planned as part of our campaign, so get in touch with us if you’d like to be involved.

At the same time as we were providing practical support to A in the housing office and challenging the gatekeeping we were confronted with, a legal challenge by Hansen Palomares lawyers won a High Court order that requires Southwark council stop its unlawful practices of turning away homeless applicants without conducting proper investigations into their case (under the Housing Act 1996 local authorities must provide temporary accommodation to anyone who it has reason to believe is homeless or threatened by homelessness, is eligible for assistance, and is in priority need – for more information see the London Coalition Against Poverty leaflet). We hope that this legal victory will bring about change in the housing office. But we also know from first-hand experience that the gatekeeping at Southwark goes far deeper than turning people away from the start. Those who do manage to get a homeless application started at the housing office are subjected to a culture of bullying and intimidation that follows homeless applicants through every level of the process. They are also given misinformation and constantly set up to fail by the staff there. This means that many people who have started a homeless application could be forced to abandon it or told that they have made themselves ‘intentionally homeless’. Our recent experience with A saw us encounter these gatekeeping tactics. Staff consistently acted against the interests of A, doing their best to end the homelessness application whenever they saw an opportunity.

A’s case – How many people does it take to make Southwark council conduct a homelessness application?

A and her family were living in severely overcrowded accommodation which meant that legally they counted as homeless. A made 10 visits to the housing office to get help with her housing situation but each time she was (unlawfully) turned away. She got in touch with us and we were able to help her finally get a homelessness application appointment. Having experienced problems at this housing office before, we organized for other HASL members to go along to the housing office in support of A. In total, it took three full days (in addition to her previous visits) at the housing office, with a number of supporters each time, and a housing lawyer on the other end of the phone providing legal backup to get temporary housing. What should be a really basic process required an enormous amount of labour hours and was shown to have been impossible to navigate alone.

At the initial meeting, we were handed 5 different forms to fill in, some several pages long, to complete. One of these forms was a ‘priority need’ form which included 71 questions – none of them actually establishing whether the person was in priority need, but instead asking about hobbies and whether you’d accept private rented accommodation if they paid the deposit. These questions seem to be tricking the applicant into making themselves seem intentionally homeless – for example, if you said you enjoyed shopping or gardening, they could use this to question the medical issues you raised, or if you stated that you did not want private accommodation, this too could be deemed as making yourself intentionally homeless for failing to look at other options (take a look at the questions and our analysis here). Another sheet of paper had a check list of all the documents that A was told she must provide. Across the top of the sheet it informed us that if we failed to provide all of these within 7 days, her case would be closed. Of course, for many homeless people, these documents could be at friends’ houses, lost, or difficult to obtain in the weeks time frame.

After a morning of form filling, A had an interview in the afternoon. The HASL supporter requested to accompany A to the interview for moral support and also to take notes (especially as English was not A’s first language). The woman who was going to conduct the interview responded to this request by shouting that they would not be allowed into her interview before storming off. We were extremely concerned about A being refused a supporter to the interview with no reason given other than ‘this is my interview’, as well as at the abusive behavior of this staff member.

Day 2

We return to complete the process and the HASL members there in support are once again threatened, now by the worker who tells us she will call the police on us without any cause. They send A to the other building in which the temporary accommodation will be allocated but in this office they tell us that the other office has not sent the permission through. They take another several hours to do so. By which time completing the allocation is rushed and so a panicked A leaves for work running late. Her husband is forced to collect the kids from school and take them on several busses to meet the landlord. The accommodation however has only been granted for two nights, meaning A is forced to return to the office to extend it.

Day 3

Accompanying A once more to the office to have her accommodation extended the worker tells me that only two days were granted ‘because if it was any longer A wouldn’t bring back the forms she is required to complete.’ A has been aided in filling out these forms since her English is not fluent. One form includes a personal statement on why she is homeless. The housing worker tells us that she must now complete the forms from scratch in front of her with the aid of a translator because she does not believe A wrote the forms herself. The meeting is not allowed to begin until the HASL members there for support leaves, a manager is called, more threats are made and we are forced to leave A alone to carry out what is effectively yet another homelessness interview lasting three hours. By which time the allocation procedure requires A to call in sick for work, risking her job and so putting her and the family at risk of homelessness.

Making the process take all day was a way of disciplining A via her housing need, causing her three times to chose between completing the process or risk losing her job.

Eventually, A and her family were provided with temporary accommodation –having successfully challenged all the gatekeeping. This was certainly a victory for all involved. This case shows the importance of practical support and solidarity, as well as the dire need for significant change in the culture at the housing office.

You can take a supporter with you to the housing office

There are a whole load of reasons why someone might want to take a friend or supporter with them to meetings and appointments with the council, or any other institution (for example the Job Centre or Work Capability Assessment interviews), particularly when making a homelessness application. These reasons may include help with note taking and simply moral support during what can be a very stressful time. It is your right to have someone to come along with you to any appointment or interview if you would like this. We hope that Southwark council housing staff and Southwark councilors will confirm that this is indeed the case, that they recognize the importance of this right to have someone with us at meetings, and that they will make sure that this policy is implemented in the housing office. We will be contacting them with this blog post about our right to support and requesting that they send us a written response.

HASL members accompany each other to appointments, if you’d like to get involved in this buddy system, please get in contact or come to one of our regular meetings.

As well as having our right to be accompanied respected, we want an end to all other gatekeeping practices and an end to the abuse and disrespect that people are subjected to by staff. We want to see Southwark council acting in the best interest of their homeless residents, making sure that they get much needed local, secure, social housing.  They’ve got a lot work to do to make this a reality as the two recent damning High court judgments and our testimonies show. We will continue to support homeless people visiting the housing office and will work with lawyers to ensure that the recent High Court judgment is followed by Southwark council.

 

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A Gatekeeping Masterclass from Lambeth Council

After a recent judicial review in the High Court, where Southwark Council was order to stop refusing vulnerable people from applying as homeless through the use of ‘gatekeeping’, we thought other boroughs would have taken some notice. Apparently not. In fact, a housing officer and senior housing manager at Lambeth didn’t even seem to agree that such a thing as gatekeeping existed; it’s a conspiracy against local councils, you see.

Today, HASL visited Lambeth Council at Olive Morris House to support two members whose families are living in private rented sector flats which are infested with rats and bed bugs, have blocked drains and exposed electrical wiring – facts which the council are already aware of.

As the judicial review of Southwark Council’s practices and policies detailed, under the Housing Act 1996, local authorities *must* investigate applications from anyone ‘it has reasons to believe may be homeless or threatened with homelessness’, and provide temporary accommodation to those with children or who appear vulnerable. This means that once a council has taken the housing application, they must then make inquiries about whether the applicant is eligible for assistance and whether a duty is owed. Where the council have reason to believe that an applicant may be homeless, that they are eligible for assistance and in priority need, the duty to secure accommodation for homeless applicants, pending the decision as to whether a duty is owed, applies. This is process is enshrined in law, but trying to get a council to recognise their duty and what they should be doing is nearly impossible – made worse by the hostility people face from council staff and all the other policies and options councils put in place that people have to navigate.

Our first stop was with a housing advisor. After briefly discussing what we were there for, the officer almost immediately refused both housing applications, stating that both families were not homeless. We challenged this flippant decision, reminding the officer of their legal duties. He began questioning who we were so that he could record our details and demanded to see all the other evidence we had for proving that the families were homeless. Gatekeeping hurdle one.

We objected to this unlawful gatekeeping so he called security. During a heated debate, we repeatedly requested an explanation, but he refused and stormed off around the corner whilst security tried to move us away from the desk. Gatekeeping hurdle two.

We stood our ground and eventually were sent to meet with Lambeth’s manager of the welfare reform and private sector teams. With the slick soft power you would expect from a senior council worker, he listened to the facts of the case and agreed with the first housing officer that there was no ‘reason to believe’ that the two families were homeless. Reasonable belief, apparently, is what the housing officer says it is: a gaping hole in your roof exposing you to all the elements wouldn’t meet that definition according to the manager – advice which runs contrary to the High Court’s deliberations in the Southwark case where ‘reason to believe that the applicants are homeless’ is supposed to be a low threshold. The difficulties people face when living in these conditions also has absolutely no bearing on what is reasonable. Despite the fact that other families in the building had been moved out, given the extent of the repair works the landlord needed to do on the flats inside and the environmental report on the problems with fire hazards and health and safety, it was still reasonable for both families and their children to continue living there. Gatekeeping hurdle three.

We were offered all too familiar excuses: “Do you really want to make us send them to Birmingham?” “It’s not our fault there’s no social housing, it was all Thatcher” “We just don’t have any temporary accommodation, what can we do?” “Can’t they just repair the house themselves?” Gatekeeping hurdle four.

After 3 hours of waiting and pleading, and with our members running out of time before picking up their children from school and going to work, it became clear that as with so many of our interactions with Lambeth Council, a decision was going to be made informally in the corridor. Gatekeeping hurdle five.

Both families just want out of their horrendous flats. We wanted something in writing about the council’s refusal to accept the homeless applications. Initially, the senior manager said he could do that, but an hour or so later he made it perfectly clear that it was an inconvenience for him. Gatekeeping hurdle six.

Throughout the day, our collective approach to support was dismissed as ‘Advocacy’. We were accused of acting irresponsibly in demanding written reasons as to why homeless applications were being refused and creating more problems in the future with ‘out of borough’ or out of London accommodation – in the long-winded process of fighting for the council to follow the law, we became the problem and were dramatised as causing more difficulty for the families in the future.

During these kind of interactions, it can become increasingly difficult to hold onto the simple realities that are, in fact, playing out. Today, Lambeth Council sent two families back to accommodation they know to be dangerous and unhealthy, simply because they refused to believe that it *might* be possible that their housing conditions constituted homelessness. We believe they acted unlawfully in doing so.

HASL’s first supper club this Sunday and other updates

Black Panters' Free Breakfast for School Children Programme

Black Panters’ Free Breakfast for School Children Programme

  1. Come to HASL’s first supper club this Sunday!

Join us this Sunday 3-7pm at Art Nouveau, 77 Atlantic road, Brixton for tasty, nutritious free food and to hang out together, play games, and watch films. We hope this will be the first of many. Join and share our facebook event here https://www.facebook.com/events/410377939139589

  1. Linking up with Skills Network and English for Action

We had a brilliant workshop with the wonderful women at Skills Network last Friday. We had a really lively and engaged discussion about what HASL does, our housing rights, the housing crisis, and getting quality housing for everyone. We left feeling really inspired, energized and enraged. We’re looking forward to working together with the Skills Network and supporting each other’s work. Thanks to Skills Network for the invitation and for your energy and enthusiasm.

This Monday, we joined English for Action (participatory ESOL classes, teaching English and organising for social change) for their first community meeting in Walworth. A wide range of issues and concerns were discussed. Unsurprisingly, housing came up a lot. We’re looking forward to working together more with English for Action so that we can support each other to get the quality housing we all need and deserve.

  1. Action call outs

Save the date – Lambeth council leader Lib Peck, whilst ignoring local residents concerned about social cleansing, is making time to breakfast with her developer pals for 90 quid a head on Tuesday 24th March at the London Marriot, County Hall.

Support Gustavo – Gustavo is currently being housed by the council in temporary accommodation, but it’s likely that in the next three weeks, the council will deem him not ‘in priority need’ and will end it’s duty to house him. We say – everyone is priority need! Show your support this Monday 9th, meeting outside Olive Morris house, Brixton hill at 9am.

The Aylesbury protest occupation in Camberwell/Elephant and Castle is calling on supporters to visit their occupation tomorrow daytime – Wednesday – to show their support. People from the occupation have two court dates in the morning. They’ll be outside Camberwell Green Magistrates from 10am-12pm tomorrow in solidarity with one of the residents who was arrested by police at the eviction.

  1. Our next regular meeting and other upcoming events

Our next regular meeting is Thursday 12th March, 12pm at Papa’s cafe, 10-17 Pulross road, Brixton, SW9 8AF. Come along to give and receive housing support, and plan actions together, and to support your local housing action group. We’re all volunteers, we need your input to make all the plans we have happen.

Focus E15 workshops to build a movement around the slogan Social Housing Not Social Cleansing from 18th-21st March at PEER Gallery in Hoxton with a workshop from Skills Network, a workshop on migrants’ housing rights, and a public talk featuring Focus E15, Our West Hendon, and London Coalition Against Poverty. Facebook event and more details here https://www.facebook.com/events/341894719339610

Great Novara radio podcast on poverty, housing and austerity. The stories in this episode show exactly why HASL exists – so that we don’t struggle alone!

Get ready for April – it’s HASL’s birthday! The big two! We’ll set a date for this soon.

HASL occupation of Lambeth town hall – social housing not social cleansing!

HASL occupy Lambeth town hall

HASL occupy Lambeth town hall

Pictures from today’s action on Flickr can be found here.

This afternoon around 30 HASL members visited Lambeth council’s town hall demanding ‘social housing not social cleansing’. The local housing group, made up of homeless and precariously housed people, visited the town hall in the half-term holiday with their children to give the council a sense of what temporary housing feels like: cramped, noisy, and disruptive!

We were joined in our occupation of the town hall’s lobby by Lambeth Pensioners’ Action Group taking our numbers to 50+! Our sister group Haringey Housing Action Group also organised an action in tandem with ours.

Lambeth council refused to meet with our group to speak with us about our concerns and shamefully called the cops to try and evict us. About 10 police came and harrassed our members. We have still not received a response to our letter to Lib Peck about our concerns about recent changes to the social housing register and new powers to force homeless people into the private sector – both of which make everyone’s access to social housing even more difficult. We will continue our campaign on these issues and continue informing people of their rights if they are being pressured into the private sector. See our new leaflet here.

The action is one of many happening across London as part of the Radical Housing Network’s week of action.

Massive thanks to everyone who joined us today!

More info on why we were there…

HASL are protesting at Lambeth council’s use of the Localism Act to push homeless people into the private sector and at changes to the social housing allocations policy which de-link social housing from housing need. Members of HASL in temporary accommodation have experienced bullying from Lambeth housing office to find themselves accommodation in the private rented sector. They also saw their position on the social housing register decrease by a band as homelessness has been de-prioritised for social housing, even though they are desperately in need of secure housing.

Private rented accommodation is completely inappropriate housing, particularly for those who have already experienced homelessness – it is expensive, poor-quality, insecure, and often only ‘affordable’ out of London and the south of England. The private rented sector is the biggest cause of homelessness. Lambeth council should not be forcing homeless people into housing, outside of their communities, which will make them homeless again. They should not be making social housing more difficult for everyone to access, which is what changes to their social housing allocations policy has done.

The group are also concerned about people increasingly being housed in poor-quality temporary housing outside the borough away from schools, community and support networks.

Liz Wyatt, a member of HASL said: “Lambeth had the choice whether to use it’s new powers in the Localism Act to make homeless people’s lives even more difficult and undermine everyone’s access to social housing. It made the wrong choice and has implemented yet more housing policies which go against homeless and precariously housed people in the borough. We’re here to demand that Lambeth council stop socially cleansing its residents by forcing people into the private rented sector. We all need quality, secure, social housing and the council should be doing everything it can do ensure this.

“The Focus E15 mums campaign in east London saw them successfully resist being forced to Manchester, Birmingham and Hastings by Newham council. We plan do the same here in Lambeth and resist social cleansing with collective action. Our group has already had a number of successes in securing housing for our members.”

Bailiffs’ ball crashed by housing protesters

A bailiffs’ awards ceremony was gate-crashed on Wednesday evening by a sixty strong group of angry people. The action was called just a day beforehand by Focus E15 mums after an eagle eyed member of their campaign spotted the existence of the 2015 British Credit Awards with awards going for ‘Enforcement team of the year’ and ‘third party debt collections team of the year’. A table at the event was £4,000.

Crowd blockades bailiff entrance to fancy dinner

Crowd blockades bailiff entrance to fancy dinner

mattress, arm chair, kids toys, and boxes create a mock eviction to blockade the entrance

mattress, arm chair, kids toys, and boxes create a mock eviction to blockade the entrance

Focus E15 mums, other housing groups from across London, and squatters – all people who regularly confront and are abused by bailiffs – blockaded the entrance with a mock eviction; a mattress, clothes, kids toys, and an armchair were scattered on the pavement obstructing the bailiffs. The crowd of sixty people quickly built up and turned bailiffs who tried to get through them away. “How does it feel to feel scared?” asked one protester to a bailiff. “I’m not scared,” he responded as he called to the police for assistance and had his tux covered in paint. The area was filled with shouts of ‘bailiff scum off our street’ and sometimes simply ‘scum’ each time a bailiff appeared. More bailiffs, and badly placed protesters, were hit by paint bombs. Later on, someone saw a delivery of new suits to the building where the dinner was being held. A line of bailiffs and their friends formed on the other side of the road from the protesters contemplating the angry mob ahead of them.

Finding the entrance blocked, bailiffs queue on the other side of the road. But they're not getting through this entrance

Finding the entrance blocked, bailiffs queue on the other side of the road. But they’re not getting through this entrance

bailiff calling the police for help

bailiff calling the police for help

After a while, the bailiffs were forced to use a side entrance to get to their fancy dinner. Police got pretty scared of the size and mood of the crowd and brought along more cops for back up and police dogs to guard the entrance. When the bailiff flow ceased at the main entrance, a group of protesters went to the side entrance where the bailiffs were sneaking in. At this point, the police made an incredibly violent arrest of a young man with four large police men pinning him down, one police officer hitting the man’s face on the pavement, another punching him in the body. He was kept in this position for around ten minutes with police keeping away people trying to film the incident and provide support to the man.

Police violently arrest and assault a young man

Police violently arrest and assault a young man

Police block off a road to protect the bailiffs

Police block off a road to protect the bailiffs

The police brutality aside, the evening was considered a great success by those of us who didn’t have the £4,000 for a table. A number of us remarked how therapeutic it had been to confront the bailiffs in this way. The energetic and militant action is another exciting articulation of the growing London housing movement; already this year, as well as the exhilarating evening crashing the bailiffs’ ball, there has been the impressive March for Homes and the ongoing Aylesbury estate occupation in Elephant and Castle. The Radical Housing Network’s week of action starts on Saturday 14th February – Monday 23rd. As well as these events, there is the daily community organising by a growing number of local housing action groups across the city who confront bailiffs on the doorsteps, make mass visits to the housing office in support of their members and provide moral support and solidarity. Wednesday evening brought together these groups and squatters from across London, making it clear that we won’t take baliff violence and the violence of the housing crisis.

Cops and bailiffs out of our communities! We all need quality, secure homes that we control!

Solidarity with the Aylesbury Estate Occupation!

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Numerous Southwark housing campaigns and other local activists warmly welcome the ongoing occupation of a number of empty homes on the Aylesbury Estate. The current occupation of Chartridge block on the Aylesbury Estate has brought a much-needed spark of inspiration to local residents and housing campaigners.

Southwark Labour council has been publicly claiming how the Aylesbury was not going to be another Heygate, as ‘lessons have been learned’. The Heygate Estate decant programme has been widely denounced as an exercise in both the undignified displacement of locals and initiating the gentrification of the Elephant & Castle. However, exactly like on the Heygate, Southwark has been displacing the Aylesbury residents out of their immediate area and subjecting leaseholders, many of them elderly people who’d lived in the area their whole lives, to unnecessarily brutal Compulsory Purchase Orders. Abysmally low offers for their homes are forcing them to leave their neighbourhood and communities for good.

The right of tenants to return to a ‘regenerated’ Aylesbury would force them to take non-council tenancies in more expensive Housing Association flats, something many residents do not want. In 2001 a majority of Aylesbury residents voted ‘No’ in ballot on the Councils desire to transfer the estate out of council ownership. Not only is this ballot no longer being honoured, the Council has been unwilling to undertake a new ballot of residents on the question of refurbishment instead of a total demolition.

The Council attempts to dismiss the occupiers as ‘not representative’ of the Aylesbury residents while claiming Southwark is building ‘more affordable homes than any other London borough’. Council-backed developments such as the One The Elephant tower contain zero (0) ‘affordable’ homes, let alone any social-rented ones.

Local people know that council-rented homes are the most affordable and secure. Promises by the Council to build 11,000 new council homes in the next 30 years have been met with hesitant support, with no guarantees that this will not simply involve demolitions of estates without residents being balloted.

In a borough that has some 18,000 people on the waiting list for council (and not housing association, nor ‘affordable‘) homes, none of the above can be tolerated any longer.

Since they reclaimed the homes on the Chartridge block, the Aylesbury occupiers have been holding public meetings every day at 6.30pm, and each meeting has been packed with neighbours from the estate itself, other Southwark residents and campaigners from across London. The occupation clearly highlights the disasters of Southwark’s own and London housing and development policies in which profit gained from land speculation comes way before the people whose homes and lives are destroyed in the process. ‘Ordinary’ Londoners, be they the Aylesbury occupiers, FocusE15 mothers or the New Era Estate residents, are showing that alternatives exist and they work.

Our homes are not for sale.

Aylesbury Leaseholders Action Group
Aylesbury Tenants and Leaseholders First
Better Elephant
Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth
People’s Republic of Southwark
SolidariTea
South London Revolutionary Communist Group
Southwark Benefit Justice Campaign
Southwark Defend Council Housing
Southwark Notes
Southwark Tenants

London Coalition Against Poverty first meeting of 2015 featuring Focus E15 mums campaign!

London Coalition Against Poverty is a coalition of local groups who meet to provide support with housing and benefit issues (homelessness, benefit sanctions, welfare cuts, and dodgy private landlords), and take collective action on the issues we face. The local groups meet regularly in their home boroughs. You can read more about how these groups work in this brilliant pamphlet.

Every 3 months or so we all meet together in London Coaliton Against Poverty general meetings to share our expereinces and tactics, questions and ideas, and discuss how we can co-ordinate our activities.

For our first meeting of 2015 we’re excited to have some people from the Focus E15 mums campaign join us. As a main focus of the meeting, we hope to discuss the issues we’ve taken action on and what tactics have worked, what hasn’t worked or things we’re struggling with, and make plans and share ideas for issues we’re yet to tackle. We’ll be making plans for things we’d like to make happen in 2015.

London’s housing crisis is intensifying, and the main political parties are all promising further welfare cuts when we’re already struggling to survive. Come along to listen to and share experiences of organising mutual support groups and to help organise grassroots solidarity and action.

Our first LCAP meeting of the year is being hosted by Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth on Saturday 17th January, 1pm at World Development Movement Offices, 66 Offley road, Oval, SW9 0LS. Whether you’re already involved in your local LCAP group, or you keep on meaning to be, or if you want to start a new group in your area – come along!

There will be food and childcare (please let us know if you need childcare so we can know numbers in advance). haslemail[at]gmail.com