Lambeth council leader doesn’t want to speak to poor people

Yum - coco pops outside the Marriot hotel, County Hall

Yum – coco pops outside the Marriot hotel, County Hall

Early this morning, HASL members, residents from Knights Walk estate, and Left Unity gathered outside the Marriot hotel where Lib Peck was due to have a £90 a head breakfast with property developers to plan more disastorus housing policies for our communities.

We had great music, a huge banner, and our own breakfast of coco pops and orange juice so that she couldn’t miss us but for some reason, she tried to pass without acknowledging us. As she entered the hotel a little after 7.30am, members from HASL tried to approach her to raise the issues our members, and many other Lambeth residents, are facing including evictions, homelessness, disrespect at the housing office, demolition of estates, homeless people being pushed into the private sector, and her own calls for the full criminalisation of squatting. But Lib Peck didn’t want to hear about hunger and homelessness in her borough. She muttered something angrily as we tried to engage her in conversation and she rushed off to her fancy breakfast. Rude. We gave her some loud parting shots as the gate was closed in our faces by security.

Lib Peck isn’t interested in bad housing and poverty – but we are, and we’ll continue to fight these together in our communities. And we’ll continue to make our feelings known at every fancy meal that Lib Peck and the rest of Lambeth council have.

Success for Gustavo! Protest works!

Members of HASL, Unite Community and Lambeth Housing Activists are celebrating today as the campaign to win accommodation for Gustavo Garcia, whose circumstances we blogged about previously, has finally been deemed vulnerable by the council and so qualifies for housing under priority need. Only a day before news of this success arrived, Lambeth’s cabinet member for housing – Matthew Bennett – wrote to HASL stating that whilst he “was very concerned from your email to learn that [Gustavo] had suffered a stroke and lost his job” it remained the case that Gustavo didn’t “qualify as being in “priority” need under the homelessness legislation that would see Mr Garcia housed in temporary accommodation”.

What a difference a day makes.

Southwark and Lambeth Housing Action activists occupy Lambeth town hall

Protesters occupying Lambeth Town Hall in support of Gustavo

This u-turn by the council shows us two things. First, that priority need is political. Second, despite pursuing every legal route with help of the very good solicitors at Lambeth Law Centre, it was protest and public pressure that in the end got the goods!

Gustavo and his supporters will be celebrating this victory at our next solidarity kitchen (details to follow). We would like to extend an invitation Lambeth’s new ‘advocate for housing rights’, Cllr Mathew Bennett, who, as this example shows, has clearly championed the cause of equality and access to shelter in his borough.

The fight continues – we need to ensure Gustavo is given decent affordable accommodation in the borough, something we are demand for all!

Everyone is priority need!

Crash Lambeth Council’s property developers breakfast

hasl BREAKFAST MEME
On Tuesday 24th March the leader of Lambeth Council, Lib Peck, is having breakfast with property developers at the swanky London Marriott Hotel at County Hall – no doubt to sell off more of our borough. At £90 a head it’s unlikely many of her residents are going to get a say, or any of the posh breakfast either.

So join Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth outside to let them know we won’t let anymore of Lambeth be sold off, and that we’d rather have a bowl of coco pops anyway!

Get there from 7.30am to welcome Lib Peck’s community destroying guests and bring stuff to make some noise to drown out their sleazy deals!

Join the Facebook event
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For more info on this outrageous breakfast see the Brixton Buzz article on it

 

Lib Peck bundled away from the homelessness of Gustavo Garcia

Today, Lambeth Housing Activists and members of HASL attempted to meet Lambeth Council Leader Lib Peck to discuss the homelessness of local disabled man Gustavo Garcia. Lib Peck was unable to meet with us and was instead bundled away from protesters by security, entering the Town Hall through a side entrance along with Lambeth’s Mayor.

Gustavo before his stroke

Gustavo in 2010 before his stroke

Gustavo Garcia has lived in Brixton for 18 years. Last year he became homeless after suffering a stroke which caused him to become unemployed and so couldn’t afford his rent. His landlord would not accept housing benefit and evicted him. The stroke caused memory loss and physical weakness, and has also led to severe depression.

Gustavo now faces the threat of life on the streets as Lambeth are refusing to let him stay in their temporary accommodation stating he is not in ‘priority need’ so he is not their problem.

The right side of his body is now numb and much weaker and he cannot do the things he used to. His previous job as a window cleaner fills him with fear as he doesn’t have grip in his right hand, so climbing ladders and working at great heights is dangerous for him. He is shaky. This in itself is hard enough to cope with, but his memory loss has also caused him much distress and disorientation. Gustavo came here from Ecuador eighteen years ago, and is now a British citizen. He spoke fluent English prior to his stroke, but the memory loss caused by the stroke means he has forgotten a good deal of the language. “I feel so alone. I can’t sleep at all. I’m always worrying, afraid of being put on the street” he told us.

This is the inhuman face of the housing crisis as Councils ration an ever shrinking number of council flats and manage London’s housing crisis by putting vulnerable people on the streets.

We demand:

  • That Council leader Lib Peck meet with Gustavo and his supporters this week
  • That Gustavo be housed in Lambeth where his support networks exist. That if private, this accommodation must be affordable on Gustavo’s income and be secured for a minimum of two years and that access to a rent deposit scheme is offered.

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.

 

Small-8

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.