UPDATE 20/10/2014 We heard from Ruth on Monday that on Friday (the day after our occupation) the council had got back in contact with Ruth and offered her accessible temporary accommodation for Ruth and her kids. Although a one bedroom flat for Ruth and two kids is still not appropriate temporary housing. Massive thanks to everyone who came down and supported.
We left Ruth this evening heading to temporary housing we had achieved after a 2 hour occupation of Southwark town hall and a 3 hour wait at the Peckham housing office where we were subjected to the abuse of aggressive male staff members. We had met together at 10am in the morning and had believed the situation had been resolved with decent temporary accommodation for Ruth and her kids.
Unfortunately, when Ruth arrived at the temporary housing, she found out that Southwark council had given her housing that had stairs leading up to it. Because of her disabilities, she could not physically access this accommodation. This is yet another massive failure of Southwark council in their duty to Ruth and her kids to add to the massive list of failures.
This same week, a damning court judgement highlighted some of the issues in Southwark council’s housing department. Cllr Richard Livingstone tried to brush these aside as a ‘one off’ but Ruth’s situation shows similar abuses and neglect from housing officers. We know for sure that these are not one offs but that this is the culture of hate that operates in the housing office.
The occupation this morning saw twenty supporters and Ruth make their presence felt in Southwark town hall’s lobby. The brilliant Focus E15 mums travelled across from East London to offer their support and solidarity. A Spanish housing activist over here for the counter-MIPIM mobilisations also joined. After an hour or so, when the suited officials of the town hall had enough of angry mothers sticking up for each other and telling them to sort things out, and realised we weren’t going to leave until our main demand of decent temporary housing was met, they agreed that they would get Ruth temporary accommodation.
This felt like a huge victory as our group had managed to overturn a negative decision made by the council through our collective direct action. We were told we could collect the keys to the accommodation from the Bournmouth road housing office. We had been reluctant to go there after a previous visit where staff had been rude to us, with the manager shouting in our face before storming off, but we were assured it would be simple and quick.
Two important questions arise – Why did it take 20 people occupying the town hall before Southwark were able to use their discretion to house Ruth temporarily whilst her appeal took place? Since receiving the appeal lodged over a week ago, which listed Ruth’s health problems and that she has two young children, why did Southwark decide they did not want to offer her temporary housing when it was in their powers to provide this?
Why did Southwark Council offer a woman with mobility issues accommodation which had stairs. Is there not a system that looks at the accessibility of accommodation and makes sure that people are matched up with housing they can actually safely enter and live in?
Leaving our awesome occupation at the town hall, a smaller group visited Bournemouth Road in Peckham to sort out the temporary housing we had been promised. Before we even entered the building, the male staff there were confrontational, abusive, aggressive. They had obviously been told that a group of us were coming and decided the appropriate way to react was to behave in this way. We were a group of 4 women and one baby and the male staff were verbally abusive, shouting in our faces, refusing to give us their names, security staff refusing to show us their badges. One physically intimidated one of the women standing close and moving forward so that she had to back out of the building to get away from him. As he did this she informed him that he could not physically assault her in this way, to which he replied ‘I can assault you’. The men then came outside to take photos of the women outside and informed them that they were going to put them on Facebook.
The experience was extremely distressing for all of the women who told the male staff they felt scared and intimidated by their behaviour. We saw these same staff members verbally and physically abuse other women who were separate from our protest as they entered the building. The aggressive, intimidating behaviour of the male staff is particularly concerning seeing as the housing office is a place that vulnerable women, many of whom may be survivors of domestic violence, visit to try and get help.
Something must be done about the behaviour we experienced today and that is clearly standard practice in the housing office. The joyous feeling of our occupation felt quickly lost as we were subjected to these people in the housing office and had to wait for three hours for temporary accommodation to be found – which in the end was not accessible for Ruth. We made it clear that we would be supporting Ruth until she gets the safe, secure housing she and her family need. We will also be taking on the toxic environment of Southwark housing until something is done about this. The massive housing solidarity today from people across the borough and across London is inspiring and we’re gonna keep on growing!