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On Location – Unwelcome!

Tomorrow, New London Architecture (NLA) are hosting “On Location” – a day long event, with walking tours in and around Southwark throughout the afternoon. Attendance at the event costs a ridiculous £358.80 per ticket (unfortunately Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth couldn’t afford that!)

The aim of the walking tours is for Southwark and its eager property developing partners to point out ‘regeneration’ opportunities across the borough – in their own words, the tours will ‘look at the areas of major development opportunity in the borough of Southwark, looking at the Council’s forward strategy for Elephant and Castle, Old Kent Road, Peckham and Canada Water’ so that they can ‘discuss what these key strategic areas for London need to do to maximize their development potential’.

HASL and residents of Southwark are all too familiar with the effects of the social, economic and political forces at work and social cleansing in our communities. This event highlights the ongoing struggle against the housing crisis, where the council and its affiliates engineer to displace poor, working class people and disappear social housing altogether. “Regeneration” will not benefit us and it is a gross and violent attack on our communities. This has been a strategy of many councils long in the making, but we are seeing a more aggressive push in recent years with horrible consequences.

We have already seen what happened to the Heygate Estate, its communities destroyed rather than the council offering to do the cheaper option of a refurbishment (a chronology of the disgusting events by Southwark Council and its business opportunists can be found here). The Aylesbury Estate – on walking tour A – far larger than the Heygate Estate, has also seen residents decanted under the promise of securing housing that is affordable and decent, a promise which almost never materialises. Many people HASL have met find themselves placed on the estate in temporary accommodation, waiting precariously and full of unease until the site is eventually demolished for owner-occupied property which few can afford. Alongside the destruction of housing itself, the Labour-run Southwark Council have created increasing numbers of homeless people and families. They are complicit in creating a hostile culture, which demonstrates to many residents that they are no longer welcome to live in the area.

Speakers at tomorrow’s event include

– Leader of the council, Cllr Peter John, a real property barrister and member of GMB, who has yet to show any sign of putting an end to the abusive gatekeeping practices at Southwark’s housing office in Peckham;

– Steve Platts, director of regeneration, who is thirstily planning a huge amount of regeneration in the borough;

– Many senior directors from property developers such as Delancey and Berkeley Homes.

The event starts at 9am with a meet and greet and speeches at London South Bank University. The walking tours will happen in the afternoon. More about the event can be found on eventbrite here. If you happen to see a bunch of people in suits with clipboards on this tour, and you feel confident, be sure to let them know what you think. You can also join your local housing action group to take action!

 

Southwark council decide DV survivor can be street homeless – Stand up to Southwark council!

Update today, cllr for Housing Stephanie Cryan responded to our email saying that they are looking for private accommodation for C. We have responded that this is unacceptable. We will not let Southwark council avoid a homelessness duty to C with an offer of insecure, unaffordable private rented accommodation. Forcing homeless people into the homelessness-generating private sector is not a solution. Homeless people, particularly survivors of domestic violence, need the security of council housing. We reiterate our request that the council reverse their cruel and harmful decision not to accept a full homeless duty towards C and we invite you to support our demand (see below).

We are deeply concerned and distressed that our member C, who is a survivor of long term domestic abuse which has left her with post-traumatic stress syndrome, anxiety, panic attacks and other medical issues, has been deemed not in priority need and therefore able to live on the streets by Southwark council yesterday.

We are calling on Southwark to immediately reverse this decision, accept a full homeless duty to C and ensure that she has suitable temporary accommodation in Peckham where she has important family connections. Please join us in tweeting the council @lb_southwark and the councillor for housing @steviecryan to show your support for C.

The new vulnerability test used by councils to decide whether someone is vulnerable enough to be deemed ‘priority need’ – and therefore owed a full homeless duty if other criteria are met as well – looks at whether the applicant would suffer significantly more than ‘an ordinary person’ if they were faced with street homelessness. Clearly our member C, who suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome caused by many years of domestic abuse, would suffer more than an ‘ordinary person’ if she is forced into street homelessness, which is a very real threat. (Although obviously there are clear problems with this test as no one should be forced into street homelessness.)

We are shocked that the council found otherwise, and we are deeply concerned at some of the reasons they gave in deciding that C can live on the streets – they literally say she has the ‘skills’ to deal with street homelessness. Here are some of the statements made by the housing officer when coming to the decision. C’s attempts to get on with her life, and her vital support networks, are used against her as proof by the housing officer that she can cope with homelessness with statements such as – you made an ESA application, therefore you can live on the streets, you made this homeless application, therefore you can live on the streets. As well as these ridiculous conclusions, there is also a deep lack of understanding of vulnerability (having good mobility and literacy skills are used as evidence that she is not vulnerable) and the daily struggle many survivors experience in dealing with domestic violence. These are just some of the hurtful statements contained in the letter that C read yesterday. (our bold and italics)

This Authority understands that you were naturally adversely affected by your experiences as the victim of domestic abuse. However we are of the opinion that your experiences have not prevented you from managing your affairs and accessing relevant services and support from friends and professionals organisations…As a result, we are satisfied that your medical and social issues have not prevented you from undertaking most everyday tasks. It is therefore considered that you have the ability and skills to cope in your situation of homelessness.”

It is the Council’s opinion that you are not vulnerable as a result of your medical condition or your history of domestic violence. We have considered that these circumstances do not significantly impede your normal function or impair your ability to manage your daily tasks, including using public transport, shopping, cooking and managing your health and finances.”

We are also concerned that when C went for her homelessness interview last month, she was denied her supporter that she requested attend with her. Again highlighting how Southwark council have failed to support the interests and well being of survivors. It is likely that the absence of a supporter would have made the interview more difficult for C.

Last month, with the support of South East London Sisters Uncut we highlighted Southwark’s poor treatment of DV survivors with our member S. Southwark council reversed their decision as a result of public pressure on twitter and promised to investigate and produce a policy to ensure that DV survivors receive adequate support and treatment through the difficult homeless application process. But we have not heard anything from Southwark council about this, and yesterday’s decision clearly shows that staff urgently need training on understanding domestic violence and its impact on survivors’ lives.

We will be supporting C to review the council’s decision, but we also believe it is unfair and detrimental to her well being that she should be made to go through this difficult process. We hope that Southwark will take immediate action to reverse the decision.

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Pledge to End Gatekeeping & Disrespect at Southwark Housing Office

Today we published a blog detailing the many examples of gatekeeping and abuse we’ve experienced at Southwark Council’s housing office on Bournemouth Road in the past few years – You can read it here. There is a clear and present problem at the housing office and it needs to stop. We’re determined that together we can put an end to the abuse and mistreatment faced by people and hold Southwark Council to account – something they’ve so refused to do. HASL has written a pledge to end gatekeeping and disrespect at Southwark Housing Office – which we intend to get Southwark Council to publicly commit to following – we hope to get groups we work alongside to sign it alongside us too.

We recognise that the housing crisis is larger than these problems, and we know that even if Southwark Council was to begin to treat people with respect, respect the law and properly established procedures, we’d still have a long way to go to fight for access to secure housing. But, hundreds, if not thousands, of people a year are denied access to the immediate support they have a right to, their requests for help often unrecorded creating a false statistical impression. We can reverse this process, and doing so will make a measurable difference. Southwark Council can do better, and we can make them do better.

Of course, gatekeeping is not an issue simply at Southwark’s housing offices. We know that it’s happening at boroughs across London (we’ve documented Lambeth council gatekeeping here and here) and the UK. Please feel free to use our pledge, perhaps making adaptations to fit the situation at your housing office, to present to your local council and let us know how it goes.

Pledge to End Gatekeeping at Southwark Housing Office

Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth is a local community group made up of homeless and badly housed people who meet up to learn our rights, support each other, work on our housing issues together, and take action for good housing for everyone. Many of us have experienced serious problems at Southwark council’s Peckham housing office when we have tried to access the help and housing provision we are legally entitled to. The significant number of people in our group who have reported serious problems visiting Peckham housing office have led us to understand that there is a widespread culture of disrespect and gatekeeping (when people are denied access to services they have  a legal entitlement to). Some of us even feel the atmosphere and disrespect could be called a culture of hate directed at the homeless people visiting. These problems include regularly being denied a homeless assessment that they are legally obliged to open, being refused a buddy/supporter to accompany someone to the housing office for appointments and interviews, intimidation from staff including security guards, a general high level of disrespect from staff, and other poor treatment including the homeless assessment taking entire days of waiting in the housing office.

We want an end to this treatment of homeless people by the council. We have drawn up the following demands that would make our experiences at the housing office much more bearable and would help Southwark council comply with their legal duties towards homeless people. We hope that Southwark council will sign up to this pledge, that they will display a copy in the housing office, and also publicly detail how they plan to change the practices in the housing office to comply with the pledge. We invite other local community groups to show their support for our pledge by signing up as well.

Pledge of concrete steps Southwark council must take to combat gatekeeping and disrespect towards homeless people at the housing office:

  • Everyone has the right to have at least one person of their choosing to accompany them to the housing office.
  • All staff at the housing office treat people with respect and all reports of disrespect are fully investigated. Treating people with respect includes calm and clear verbal communication, and making the homelessness assessment process (or other housing assistance) as quick and simple as possible; waiting in the housing office for an entire day must end. Other time saving techniques should be implemented, for example, letting people book in for homeless assessments and other appointments online if they wish (whilst maintaining other provision for those without internet access).
  • To reduce the amount of security staff at the housing offices and have a process for full investigation of any mistreatment people have reported.
  • That homelessness rights and the process are clearly explained to people by staff. That basic homelessness rights information, including HASL leaflets, are displayed in the housing office, as well as this pledge.
  • Visitors to the housing office should be given receipts acknowledging their visit, stating what the visit was for, who they spoke to and what action, if any is being taken. If no action is being taken, a reason why should be stated.
  • When someone visits the housing office presenting as homeless, a homelessness application is opened immediately, as homelessness law states.
  • If people have been denied the simple rights on this pledge they should be moved immediately to Band 1 on the housing waiting list. This is to compensate for the increased stress Southwark will have caused homeless people by breaking this simple pledge.

We’re inviting community groups and other anti-poverty groups and organisations to sign up to the pledge to show Southwark council that it has wide public support. If your group would like to sign up to our pledge, please get in contact with us at haslemail@gmail.com We also invite you to use and adapt our gatekeeping pledge to present it to your local council.

This pledge is supported by:

North East London Migrant Action

London Campaign Against Police & State Violence

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Southwark Council Housing Offices – A Report

[CN: Gaslighting / Abuse Apologism / State Violence / Assaults]

Southwark Council Housing Offices: 17-19 & 21-23 Bournemouth Road, Peckham

Introduction

Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth (HASL) – a group made up of local residents who work together to improve our housing situations in Southwark and Lambeth – has been operating for three years.  HASL have been attempting to offer support to the users of Southwark council’s housing offices on Bournemouth Road for over a year. This report aims to describe in clear terms the culture of abuse, disrespect and complete disregard for housing and homelessness legislation perpetuated in these offices.

Gatekeeping

Gatekeeping is a term which describes the processes by which people are denied the help, services and support they are legally entitled to by council staff. Council staff employ different tactics to turn people away and deter them from accessing what is theirs. Gatekeeping is an everyday practice at the housing offices on Bournemouth Road – particularly for people attempting to make homeless applications or contact social services to access housing help.

Southwark council already have a particularly bad reputation for gatekeeping. In February 2015, a High Court judge ordered Southwark council ‘to cease with immediate effect the policies and practices’ which had seen a homeless family refused help by the council and told to look for their own accommodation in the private sector.  In May, a homeless man, Mr Kanu, who had been denied help by Southwark council, won in the Supreme Court where the judge ruled that Southwark’s homelessness decision was unlawful. Sadly, Mr Kanu died shortly after this victory. Despite these legal cases, HASL and hundreds of other people still experience a continual process of denial of service.

Gatekeeping keeps vulnerable homeless people homeless or in unsafe, overcrowded housing.  It denies them the immediate housing help they need and their place on the housing register so that they might eventually access secure social housing.

Charities are predicting a particularly bad winter with high street homelessness this year, with gatekeeping playing a role in this. Women trying to escape violence have nowhere safe to go. Gatekeeping by the housing office keeps homelessness statistics low so that the true scale of homelessness is hidden.

Gatekeeping isn’t simply shutting the door – although this tactic is something that is done far too often – it pervades the process of applying as homeless. From being turned away at the door and shouted at by reception staff, to long waits for appointments, baffling and over-complicated forms and abusive staff, the entire office seems set up to turn people away. We’ve documented examples of this process at work below. These are not isolated stories – they illustrate patterns of behaviour many people who have spoken to us at the housing office have loudly, and angrily, echoed.

Gatekeeping: At the Door

The first place where people attempting to access council services meet resistance is upon trying to enter the housing offices, where they’re regularly challenged by security staff who utilise a number of tactics to either turn people away or intimidate them. Here are just some of the behaviours/tactics we’ve witnessed. Again, many of the people we talk to have complained of similar treatment.

  • Security staff demanding in an aggressive manner why the person is attempting to enter the office. Security staff will regularly invade the person’s personal space during this exchange. Many people seeking support from Southwark council in these situations are incredibly vulnerable. It’s completely unacceptable that the first interaction they experience might be with very large and physically intimidating men.
  • Having established the reason for visiting, security staff will regularly deny people access to the building – often on entirely spurious and unacceptable grounds. Some of the excuses given have included:
  • “We don’t do appointments here, you need to go somewhere else”
  • “We’re closed today”
  • “You don’t need to come in, come back another day”
  • “You need to go to the one-stop shop for that”

Whilst there are occasions that this is the correct advice to offer, we’ve spoken to many people who, having been turned away, in fact had a very clear legal right to be attempting to seek help from the council.

There have been at least three occasions where we have been denied entry to the housing office for attempting to accompany each other. This is made even more ridiculous by the fact that the Cabinet Member for Housing at Southwark council, Richard Livingstone, has made it explicitly clear in a letter to HASL that “I therefore can confirm that we think it is reasonable for customers to be accompanied to homelessness interviews by their representatives family or friends:

5th June 2015 – We had been leafletting quietly outside the offices, talking to people coming and going and sharing knowledge of our legal rights. We met a man and his son who had been unlawfully turned away from Peckham housing office. The council had a legal duty to provide accommodation for him and his son, but instead had turned them away with nowhere to go. We talked about how the interaction should have gone, and he asked us to accompany him back into the office to try and get Southwark council to follow the relevant legislation. On attempting to enter the office, we were abused by security staff – who denied us entry without offering a single explanation. We documented our attempts to gain access to the office, as is our right, in this video

1st July 2014 – We spoke to a woman outside who was there to attend an appointment. She asked us to accompany her to the appointment as she wasn’t confident about the process. We were denied entry on the door without explanation and in direct contradiction to the permission we had previously received from Richard Livingstone. Instead of allowing us in or explaining themselves, staff instead called the police. On arrival, the police admitted there was nothing they could do and immediately left.

Security Staff operating at Bournemouth Road are a major hurdle to the successful operation of the offices – we will elaborate more on their behaviour later in the report.

Gatekeeping: At Reception

If someone approaching the housing office is able to gain entry, they meet the next hurdle in the gatekeeping process – approaching reception to ask for help. Many people we’ve spoken to have complained of a culture of disrespect when seeking help. Staff are rude and abusive, and fail to respect the vulnerable nature of many people approaching for support. Council officers on reception will often provide rudimentary and inaccurate reasons to turn people away – often unlawfully. Barriers which are or should be known to be false are offered as explanations for why the support being sought isn’t available.

It’s worth noting here that many people – due to a lack of working knowledge of their specific legal rights – will consider being turned away in this manner as an official decision. As we have come to learn, the council routinely neglects to put its decisions in writing, which means that people presenting themselves to the housing office are denied the information they need to challenge the council’s decisions and the process the council used to reach its decision. This tactic is also a convenient way to reduce the number of people who should appear in the council’s homelessness statistics.

This implicit abuse of authority is completely unacceptable. People should be informed of all their rights on seeking this kind of support, not denied them as a means to turn them away. Below are just some examples – again, many people we talk to at the housing office have experienced these exact same excuses:

25th Sept 2014 – HASL members supporting each other through a homelessness application were met with intimidation and threats by staff. R had visited the housing office to make this application on two previous instances but was turned away being told that working full-time meant she was not entitled to apply. Nothing was put in writing. HASL attempted to make a fresh application for homelessness with R but were refused point-blank.

29th June 2015 – We met a street homeless women who had been trying to make a homeless application for months and kept being turned away at reception – to be told to come back at a later (unspecified) date.

29th June 2015 – We spoke with a pregnant woman who was being evicted on 31st July from her PRS accommodation. Southwark council were turning an application away at reception stating “you have to be evicted first” before they would accept a homeless application, in direct contradiction with the homelessness legislation and code of guidance.

29th June 2015 – We met a handful of people who approached the office and were turned away without reason, repeatedly, and told to come back only to be told again to come back. Some had been returning for months on end. People have been offered appointments, only to turn up to find the staff member “on holiday”.

Gatekeeping: Appointments / Delays

Those who are able to convince Southwark council staff that they have a legitimate claim face the next hurdle – long, complicated appointments, often involving hours of waiting around. People regularly spend all day in the housing office waiting to be seen – a situation that can be impossible for people with precarious work or those already in a vulnerable state. Staff at appointments are regularly rude and forceful and people complain of being pressured into decisions – the consequences of turning them down unexplained and unclear. HASL supported someone through a homeless application process earlier this year – the appointments themselves were problematic as the person involved should have been immediately given temporary accommodation on the first day she attended the housing office but that hadn’t happened. Those two days are indicative of the frustrations and avoidable delays that pervade the process.. This kind of experience is a regular occurrence and has been described to us by many people.

6th Feb 2015 – homelessness application appointment with R at 9.30am

We were handed a very long list of documents we needed to show (and were warned that if we didn’t get all these documents together the case would be closed). A lot of time was spent gathering the documents and going through all the other forms. Southwark’s staff member then booked us an appointment for 2.30pm for an interview with an interpreter.

We filled out a 72-question ‘in priority need’ form which had questions including: what are your interests and hobbies? Have you ever missed a signing-on appointment? If we gave you money for a deposit for a private rented home, would you find one? Lots of these seemed to set people up for a finding of ‘intentionally homeless’. Ironically, for an ‘in priority need’ form, there was nothing about her children and their ages, which is what qualified R and her family being in priority need.

R felt confused and distressed at all the information required. The council officer was rude and disrespectful.

We returned at 2.30pm for the interview. A HASL member tried to go along as well as a supporter and to take notes for R because she wouldn’t be able to take her own notes while speaking, and the interpreter clearly couldn’t either. The council officer was very rude and shouted at the HASL member, and wouldn’t let them accompany R inside. She stormed off so it was impossible to ask for guidance or rules that could justify this decision.

When R came out we spoke to the interpreter to check they had an outcome in writing and he said to the HASL member that because R had to leave at 3.15pm for work (although the appointment went on til 3.45pm so R might have been late for work because of this) they didn’t have enough time to cover everything and they were returning on Monday to finish everything off then.

We went to speak to the council officer to ask why there hadn’t been enough time to provide temporary housing – they had been in the last appointment for an hour – when it was simple enough to establish they were homeless, in priority need, and eligible. We also asked why a decision hadn’t been put in writing. The council officer shouted at us a lot more, claiming that they had offered temporary accommodation to Ruth, but they hadn’t been able to take it because they were pressured for time.

Feb 9th 2015 – 9:30am – 3pm – We arrived and were seen right away by Doreen Woodburne. Doreen was far from happy to see us. We were told we would transfer to the other building next door to: a) complete a housing benefit application; and b) be given temporary accommodation. We were given appointment times for this for 10-10:30am. The time was already 10:20. We were assured everything would be completed by 1pm.

We went to the office next door. We were given a very long housing benefit form to complete and submit before 11am. This could not be done because R had no house for which to make a claim.

We were seen by someone who said she was waiting for confirmation from the other office before proceeding. We were told a five-bed property in Brent would be offered to the family. We had to wait for the previous office (Doreen) to confirm that temporary accommodation had been granted.

We waited. R had to leave for work by 3pm at the latest. After making several more requests to speed up the process we were finally seen at 2:30pm

The house in Brent originally offered had now apparently been ‘taken’. A three-bed house in Bexleyheath was offered instead. The council officer was impatient and pressured us to sign for it, which R did because there was no choice (if the offer was refused, the council would discharge its duty).

R was then told she has the accommodation for two nights only. The council officer dealing with temporary accommodation did not tell us why, claiming “it’s the other office who deals with this”. R was told she needed to complete a mass of paperwork that she was issued with on Friday and could not complete in time for today (it was very confusing and overcomplicated). She tells us to come back for R’s next appointment. We weren’t aware that there was another appointment – with some effort we persuaded the council officer to find out when it was (11.30am on Wednesday). We called Doreen who told us to call the caseworker, Angela Johnson, who did not pick up.

One regularly-used tactic is for Southwark council staff to tell people who need its services to attend appointments. Often the service user will attend the appointment, only to find the council officer hasn’t even bothered to attend or inform the person of the cancellation. This has happened to many people who have talked to us, but here is one specific example:

29th June 2015 – We spoke to a man who had divorced his wife but still has to live with the family, which was causing lots of issues at home. He was part-way through a homelessness assessment but was immensely frustrated about the months that it was taking. He was very annoyed at repeatedly being told to attend the housing office for an appointment, only to find the council worker who’d called them was not even present on the day (this had happened at least five times to this person)

Staff: Council Officers / Workers

The staff at housing offices – from receptionist to duty manager – create a hostile environment, treating service users as an enemy to be defeated rather than a person with a problem that needs solving. Just a glance at the examples outlined above show an approach rooted in abusiveness rather than respect. But, beyond the attempts to deny people services they should be able to access, we’ve seen, experienced or heard first hand that council Officers / Workers regularly:

    • Speak to service users in aggressive and disrespectful ways
    • Give inaccurate and incomplete answers to simple questions/queries
    • Shout at people rightly frustrated at being treated like this
    • Fail to recognise the vulnerability of many people attending their offices, and make no effort to accommodate this vulnerability
    • Use the authority of their roles to demand personal information unnecessary or irrelevant to the service/provision being sought.

Staff: Security Staff

The security staff at Bournemouth Road are rude, abusive and violent. They are completely unfit to be working in their current capacity, and should be removed from their roles immediately. They operate seemingly without oversight, don’t follow any kind of discernibly clear policy, and create a horrible environment for people seeking help. As well as the clearly described and inexcusable behaviour we’ve already mentioned in this report, we’ve experienced and seen some very troubling actions by security staff  – some of which have been criminal in nature.

Assaults

On a number of occasions, HASL members have witnessed security staff shoving and pushing local residents in and out of the housing offices. HASL members have also regularly been assaulted by security staff on attempting to enter the building to attend appointments inside. These assaults often form an attempt to deny access to the building. On requesting an explanation for these assaults, and the denial of access they lead to, none has ever been offered.

8th September 2015 – A HASL member walked through an open door to talk to another HASL member inside, waiting for an appointment. Security staff pounced on the HASL member as they entered, and assaulted and dragged them out of the office without explanation, shouting only “You. Out”. When the HASL member inside attempted to offer support, she was threatened with being thrown out too, and for a while wasn’t allowed back into the office. This HASL member was eventually allowed back in and left to face a confusing meeting alone.

Even on days when HASL members have been allowed access, they’ve had to face a gauntlet of abuse and assault at the entrance:

16th October 2014 – After being on the receiving end of months of inadequate treatment at the local housing office, we visited Southwark Town Hall as a group to request suitable accommodation for one of our members. Having resolved the issue at the town hall a number of people needed to visit Bournemouth Road Offices. Staff at the Town Hall phoned ahead to make Bournemouth Road aware of our arrival. On attempting to enter the offices at Bournemouth Road, HASL members were assaulted (pushed / shoved and shouted at) by security staff.

Collective Punishment

Security staff also regularly deploy a form of collective punishment as a means of asserting arbitrary control over access to the housing offices. In response to a perceived threat to their authority, often caused by an individual’s objection to the treatment they’re receiving, security staff will lock all the doors, sometimes for up to an hour, denying access to anyone attempting to enter and announcing the office is “closed”. This technique has been used against HASL members on a number of occasions, in response to our mere presence outside the building with flyers:

8th September 2015 – After throwing a HASL member out of the building without explanation (they had simply walked into the office, and had never obstructed the operation of the office on any previous occasion), security staff decided to shut down the whole office, refusing entry to the queue of people that had formed outside. It took HASL members leaving the visible area for 30 minutes before the office was reopened.

14th October 2015 – 2 HASL members had been standing outside the offices, quietly handing out leaflets and talking to people coming in and out of the offices, security staff appeared at the doors and locked them all, demanding who people trying to access the building were there to see/what they wanted. People had to knock on the door and wait for a security guard to give them entry. After 10 minutes of this, security staff started telling people arriving that they were on “lockdown” because of “a protest”. The HASL members left the area again – this time it took 25 minutes for security staff to reopen the office.

It should be obvious that security staff should not have the power to shut down the operation of council services without reasonable suspicion of a threat to security. None of the examples we’ve given, or the examples given to us by service users could be accurately described as such.

Refusal to present SIA accreditation

Security Staff at the housing offices have always refused to show us identification. We’ve repeatedly requested to see their SIA cards to confirm their identity and to ensure compliance with the law. These requests have been met with denial, or refusal. We know the staff carry them on their person, as we have witnessed them tucked into lapels or hidden beneath clothing. Refusal to show this Identification is a serious offence:

Jun 5 2015 – A specific request to see identification was made to security staff denying access to the building. It was refused.

14th October 2015 – Likewise, specific request to see identification was made to security staff. It was again refused.

Harassment

HASL members and members of the public are regularly harassed outside the housing offices. We will often be taunted by security staff and managers when we set up our stall. Personal comments will be made, and people will be ridiculed. To offer one example:

29th June 2014 – HASL ran a stall. Within 5 minutes of setting up, the security manager approached us and began making threats – quoting acts of parliament that don’t exist. Another security officer (known to the security officers as “Mikey”), visibly upset at being filmed unlawfully denying entry to the building on a previous occasion, made a threat of violence to one of our group.

Right to Accompany

On May 14 2015 – Richard Livingstone, Southwark Councillor and Cabinet member for Housing, confirmed to us in writing that “I therefore can confirm that we think it is reasonable for customers to be accompanied to homelessness interviews by their representatives family or friends“. This has not proven to be the case, repeatedly. It can’t be acceptable for the explicit statement of an elected representative of the council to be so routinely ignored by the entirety of his staff.

A Month at the Housing Office

We decided to spend a month documenting the behaviour of the housing office – although since we’re currently not allowed to enter the office to support each other, we could only observe from outside the building. We felt it was important to demonstrate that the gatekeeping by Southwark council wasn’t isolated to individual encounters, but rather a pattern of behaviour.  Whilst we were there, the behaviour of the security staff did noticeably improve, but we continued to meet people facing the same gatekeeping inside throughout the month. Here is a day by day breakdown of the people we met, and the gatekeeping they’d been facing.

Date Incident
12 Oct 2015
Spoke with a woman who had been sent with her children to Gravesend (the daughter was in year 11 GCSE year which councils are supposed to take note of when giving temporary accommodation). She refused this offer and is now reviewing their decision. Southwark council were taking a long time to get back in touch with her about the outcome of the review. Her children are sleeping on a friend’s floor.
Spoke with a man who has a homeless duty with Southwark council from 3 years ago. They gave him housing which was unsuitable (dangerous neighbours) and still haven’t given him suitable housing 3 years on. He has been living with his partner.
Spoke to a woman from Women’s Aid who was coming as a supporter for another woman. Woman from Women’s Aid said ‘they’ve got a bit of a reputation Southwark’
14 Oct 2015
Arrived and things seemed okay. But 20 minutes later we were noticed by security and all the security guards appeared at the doors and locked them, demanding who ppl trying to access the building were there to see/what they wanted. Ppl had to knock on the door and wait for a security guard to give them entry.
Security started telling people arriving that they were on lockdown because of a protest, so we walked away around the corner and waited 15 mins to see if they would start letting people in – it took a good 25mins before they did.
16 Oct 2015
The partner of someone we spoke to had been kicked out of her private-rented property. She had been working part time and contributing towards rent with a combination of her own earnings and some benefits, but when she increased the number of hours she was working and started earning more, she either had

benefits cut or the landlord decided no longer to accept the way she was paying with this combination. Either way, a section 21 eviction notice arrived through the door and just two days later the landlord came round in person and asked her to vacate the property – which she has done. We think two really bad things may have happened here:

(i) council didn’t follow the first three steps qualifying homelessness, taking into account affordability;

(ii) landlord in person came round and asked tenant to leave, when longer notice should have been given.

19 Oct 2015
Met family who are overcrowded – one bedroom private rented flat with mother (maybe a partner I’m not sure) and three children under 10 years old – housing office said they should turn the living room into a bedroom.
Met M as we leafleted – who we helped get a homeless application and temporary housing back in June! They have now accepted a full homeless duty to him and he is bidding for social housing.
Met a couple, the woman is pregnant – they have had a homeless application accepted but they haven’t been given interim accommodation (this has happened before so maybe is a new tactic). They are being pressured into private housing though. Man said they’d suggested he moved to Liverpool – he had mentioned he had some family there so we think this is why they have suggested this.
Spoke with a single man who was trying to get help with housing. He was there the whole hour we were there and when he came out he said that they had told him that the person he needed to see wasn’t there today. Time-wasting and gatekeeping. They hadn’t begun a homeless application, even though he was there presenting as homeless, they are just telling him to return another time.
22 Oct 2015
Lots of people who I talked to complained of general rudeness, abusiveness and disrespect from housing officers.
23 Oct 2015
Lots of people who I talked to complained of general rudeness, abusiveness and disrespect from housing officers.
29 Oct 2015
Met women whose friend was being turned away because Southwark were claiming domestic violence at her home (in Manchester) didn’t make her homeless.
Met women who was now being evicted (she is on the housing waiting list, but is currently not going to have something ready before the eviction will happen) – was in process of trying to plead with council to accept this situation.
Lots of people (about 10 or so) complained of general rudeness, abusiveness and disrespect from housing officers.
2 Nov 2015
Woman in temporary accommodation that was soon running out was advised by housing office to leave her children with friends and relocate to temporary accommodation down in Kent. Her partner outlined a whole history of awful treatment of her and her case.
P – homeless, leaving the office with full suitcases and bags and nowhere to sleep that night. Was made to feel as though because he’s not receiving benefits he’s not eligible for housing. He mentioned difficulties reading their information.
Met A woman who’s having some issue with some housing benefits that appears to threaten her current temporary accommodation.
6 Nov 2015
A women was turned away who met the first 3 criteria for homelessness – should have been offered instant temporary accommodation
A man who was turned away asking to submit a homeless application until he could prove with paperwork that he was homeless
2 parents and their child who were street homeless – turned away without any help by Southwark Council

Conclusion

Not a single one of these situations should have happened, or be allowed to continue to happen. Even as isolated incidents, they shouldn’t be tolerated, but together they show a pattern of gatekeeping and abuse at Southwark council’s Housing Offices in Peckham. It is essential that Southwark council set out in clear terms how and when they will bring this behaviour to an end, ensure the law is followed, and that these public services can be run within acceptable parameters.

Lambeth council’s systemic gatekeeping of single homeless people

HASL have uncovered – and are challenging – yet more gatekeeping of homeless people by Lambeth housing office. We have blogged about our member Mary Luz who was denied housing help last May and forced to return to severely overcrowded housing. We knew from conversations with people at the housing office and from our visits there that this was not the only instance of gatekeeping at Lambeth housing office.

It is very common for single homeless people to face gatekeeping at housing offices, as often they may not meet the automatic priority need test (for example, if you have children, you are automatically in priority need). In this case, we have found Lambeth housing office have a built-in policy to gatekeep single homeless people. Homelessness is rising, and youth homelessness in particular – a group that is likely to be significantly affected by Lambeth’s unlawful policy.

Our long time HASL member, we’ll call her Liz to protect her privacy, has recently faced gatekeeping by Lambeth council which has resulted in her being kept homeless for two extra months, and facing anxiety, stress and demoralisation that comes with being treated so poorly and denied basic rights. Liz requested a homelessness assessment at Lambeth housing office back in March 2016. She stressed the important mantra that she was homeless and in priority need – which means that the local authority is legally obliged to conduct inquiries into the person’s situation. She was booked what she was told was a homelessness assessment for the following week.

 
Attending the homelessness assessment with a buddy, the housing officer attempted a number of gatekeeping tricks, but Liz and her buddy thought they had navigated these successfully ending the meeting with the officer informing her that he would open a homeless assessment. He handed her numerous forms to fill out which again seemed to suggest the opening of a homeless assessment. Again during this meeting, Liz stressed she was homeless and in priority need at which the legal obligation to conduct inquiries kicks in.

After not hearing anything for almost two months, Liz contacted him to find out what had happened to her application. He didn’t respond, so with the help of HASL she wrote a letter to Lambeth council last week threatening legal action. This finally prompted Lambeth into action and revealed their gatekeeping tactics and lies that they had subjected Liz (and numerous other single homeless people) to. She was informed that she had not in fact had a homeless assessment but a ‘housing assessment for a single person’. So she would now be booked in for an actual homeless assessment this week – having to go through another stressful interview/meeting talking about her homelessness and vulnerabilities, as well as this assessment now being delayed by two months.

It turns out that Liz was lied to about being booked a homeless assessment, lied to during the meeting where she was told an application would be opened, and lied to by the housing officer that she was not eligible to join the housing register. Importantly, the ‘housing assessment for a single person’ meeting, suggests that it is Lambeth’s policy to gatekeep single homeless people with this meeting.

Liz explains herself:

I feel extremely demoralised by this experience. Dealing with homelessness and the homelessness application process is difficult enough – finding out that you believed you went through this process already, but actually you hadn’t because they purposefully had decided not to meet their legal obligations is even more difficult. They have made me endure homelessness for an unnecessary extra two months.

They make it such a struggle that you want to give up, which of course, is entirely their plan. I also feel furious at the multiple lies told to my face to deny me my rightful access to housing. I feel thankful that I’ve got the support and solidarity of my housing action group so I’m not going through this alone.”

Liz has made a formal complaint about the situation and HASL will be planning further actions to challenge gatekeeping and mistreatment. She should not be made to endure the homeless process again because of Lambeth’s failures to do this the first time and should be placed in band B where there is criteria for homeless people working with the council to deal with homelessness. Of course, twitter is a helpful place to make public complaints to @lambeth_council @cllr_peck and @cllrmattbennet about issues in their housing office.

HASL have also drawn up a pledge against gatekeeping that we will be approaching Lambeth council with.

1 year of mistreatment and highly unsuitable housing because of Lambeth council.

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Please help us demand the secure, local social housing that Mary Luz and her family desperately need after over a year of appalling, dangerous housing conditions and neglect and mistreatment from Lambeth council. Join our twitter and email storm this Monday 10am12pm. More details below.

Mary Luz won’t give up and neither will we!

In response to pressure from Mary Luz and HASL, Lambeth council said they would review the temporary accommodation and banding that the family have. Mary Luz collected together statements of support to bring her and her family back to their home borough from children’s schools, Mary Luz’s doctors, the family’s church, and her English teacher at English for Action. She did this by the 7 day deadline set by Lambeth. But they have not given an outcome to their review within the one month deadline they set themselves. The family have spent yet another month in unsuitable accommodation. This delay is just another insult in the long list of failures and mistreatment Mary Luz has endured. Her youngest daughter almost missed her SATs exam because of the long journey to school, causing her enormous distress. Lambeth must give the family the secure, social housing that they should have got a year ago!

This month marks 1 year since Mary Luz first approached Lambeth council for housing help because of severe overcrowding. She was unlawfully turned away without any housing help by the council and the family were forced to remain in unsuitable, severely overcrowded housing for many more months, causing the family great stress and hardship. Mary Luz was then the victim of an assault in the accommodation, by a woman from another family sharing the accommodation. This domestic violence incident was caused by Lambeth council’s neglect.

After the assault, Lambeth finally opened up a homeless application and provided temporary housing– but only after the intervention of HASL and English for Action who challenged the council’s gatekeeping tactics. They were yet again trying to send Mary Luz back to dangerous, unsuitable accommodation.

This was in December, and the council provided unsuitable temporary accommodation for the family out in Lewisham. The children have a two hour journey to school, and Mary Luz has long and difficult journeys to visit her doctors and her hospital who are all based in Lambeth.

The catalogue of poor treatment and severe neglect – with consequences that put the family in physical danger – is extensive.

If Lambeth council had provided housing help when Mary Luz visited them in May last year, the family could have been given social housing, as their allocations policy states that private rented accommodation where council enforcement action is needed, gives people this priority. If the council had offered any housing help, it’s likely the family would be in social housing by now. Lambeth must make sure that the family are given the secure, social housing back home in their home borough that they desperately need.

Leader of Lambeth council Lib Peck hasn’t made an effort to support her resident Mary Luz. But she does have time to meet and speak to property developers next month.

This is Mary Luz’s message to the council:

I’m still waiting for an answer – every day I am. My daughters are too – desperately waiting to move back to Lambeth because they have many activities in the borough – they can’t go to any more and it makes them so upset! I don’t know how to calm them down – it makes me feel terrible. At the moment they’re doing exams, and they arrive late to school because of the long journey, it makes them feel so bad. How much longer will I have to wait for Lambeth’s reply?

Please join us tweeting and emailing the council to demand urgent action is taken. See our template tweet and email below.

Tweet to Council Leader Lib Peck & Cabinet Member for Housing, Matthew Bennett

Email:

lpeck@lambeth.gov.uk, cknaggs@lambeth.gov.uk, mpbennett@lambeth.gov.uk, haslemail@gmail.com

Dear Lambeth council,

Hopefully you are familiar with Mary Luz’s case. I’m writing to express my concern that Lambeth council have not yet taken the urgent action needed to make sure the family are given the social housing they should have been given a year ago.

Mary Luz and her family have spent yet another month in unsuitable temporary accommodation. The review was supposed to be concluded within a month, yet the family have heard nothing. The situation is extremely urgent, particularly as her children have exams this month.

The family have endured over a year of appalling and unsuitable housing conditions, because of Lambeth council. They desperately need to return to their home borough to secure social housing.

HASL have contacted you about a number serious incidents of poor treatment Mary Luz was subjected to. We do hope that you will listen to these and respond. Right now, our concern is the immediate housing needs of the family.

We hope you will act immediately to make sure the family have access to secure, social housing.

Yours sincerely,

Southwark council – accept your duty to house a survivor of domestic violence and her family

Southwark council must support survivors, not force them back to abusive relationships.

HASL and Sisters Uncut are supporting ‘S’ and her three children who have been told by Southwark council that they must leave their interim accommodation even though they have nowhere else to go.  Southwark council’s housing officers have told S that it is safe for her and her children to return to her abusive partner so they will not accept a full homeless duty and provide temporary accommodation for the family.

We are deeply concerned at Southwark council’s treatment of a survivor of domestic violence. S explained the difficulty it took to reach the stage where she felt able to escape, and now Southwark are forcing her to return.

We are calling on Southwark council to make sure the family are kept in their accommodation and that a full homeless duty is accepted. Southwark council must listen to and respect the experiences of survivors of domestic violence. The family desperately need a secure home. They have already fled their previous home, they must not be thrown onto the street with nowhere to go.

Please join us and Sisters Uncut tweeting Southwark council in support of S.

We all need safe, secure, social housing. No one should be forced to live in an unsafe situation.

Read more on Southwark’s treatment of survivors of domestic violence in this blog by Sisters Uncut cross-posted below.

In January, a woman who we’ll refer to as ‘S’ escaped with her three children from the home that she was sharing with her abusive husband. After years of physical, sexual, financial and psychological abuse, S’s household had become a place so unsafe that she actively avoided being alone when her husband was around. After a recent incident of physical abuse, S took her children and sought help from Southwark Council. As a mother of three young children fleeing an abusive relationship S has the right to secure and stable housing, a place where she can find respite from the suffering and the hardship that her and her family have endured.

However, although Southwark Council initially provided S with temporary accommodation, they soon rescinded their support. They sent a letter to S stating that “it is reasonable for you to continue to occupy your accommodation (with your husband)” and that “we are not satisfied that your continued occupation of the property would lead to any further domestic abuse towards you”. This is the place that S had fled only a month before; a place where, in the final months before escaping, she had slept in the living room with the couch pressed against the door to prevent her husband from coming in at night to molest her.

The fact that Southwark Council believe this house is an acceptable place for S to live is a disgusting example of their failure to provide a safety net for survivors seeking to live a life free from fear. Their message to these women is clear: we don’t believe you and this isn’t our problem.

Currently, councils have a duty to house people who are homeless due to experiencing domestic violence if they are a UK citizen or eligible for support (i.e. can access benefits), are pregnant or have children, or are care leavers or under 18. Additionally, councils should take into account any vulnerabilities a person presents with, such as a mental health condition or having an experience of domestic violence. Many councils choose to overlook the additional vulnerability someone has after experiencing domestic violence when it comes to coping with homelessness.

It is clear that Southwark do not take domestic violence seriously and do not believe it is their responsibility to intervene, support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable for abuse. Just a few months ago, Southwark Councillor Dan Garfield was found guilty of abusing his wife. Worryingly, Southwark Council had been aware of the abuse perpetrated by him and even after his first police caution for assaulting his wife, was promoted to a position of authority within Labour in Southwark. Southwark Council have since defended this decision stating they “felt it was right to allow those involved to deal with this as a private family matter”.

Domestic violence is not a private matter: the anti-violence movement was founded in order to challenge this antiquated and harmful notion that violence against women that happens within a relationship should not be a public issue. In reality, we know that intimate partner violence often intersects with, and is reinforced by, harmful state practices and policies such as denying women safe housing when they need to leave an abusive relationship. Councils must take responsibility for providing safe housing and suitable support services for survivors.

With S’s case, Southwark Council have decided this is not a matter of domestic abuse but merely a “relationship breakdown”. In a letter written to S., Southwark write that “relationship breakdowns are commonplace and naturally it is difficult for parties involved to communicate and live together when their relationship is strained – however this does not render the tenancy unreasonable for your continued occupation”.

We can see then that even where women fleeing violence do meet the eligibility criteria for being housed, councils can simply decide they do not have a duty towards them by claiming that the relationship the woman has left was not abusive. This perpetuates a dangerous message to survivors: you will not be believed, so do not bother to disclose to anyone.

Sisters Uncut call for Southwark Council to urgently review their treatment of domestic violence survivors.

Homeless assessment teams currently have very little training on how to recognise domestic abuse; in S’s case, this meant her relationship has “not been deemed as domestic violence” in spite of her own account of the abuse and several third-party supporting documents (such as police references and a letter from a domestic violence agency). Rather than support S, the council have treated her with suspicion. Her words have been purposefully distorted to suggest her relationship was not actually abusive. By refusing to believe S’s account of her own abuse, Southwark have effectively chosen to take the side of S’s abuser, and their disturbing gaslighting tactics reflect those employed by her ex partner.

Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) and Sisters Uncut are coming together to shed light on Southwark’s mistreatment of domestic violence survivors. We demand secure and stable housing for all survivors of domestic violence who desperately need housing to flee an abusive relationship.