For some time, we’ve been campaigning against the culture of abuse at Southwark Council’s Housing Office in Peckham. HASL – Starting from yesterday – will be outside the office every day this week between 11am and 2pm handing out leaflets, talking to, and supporting people who have to experience the housing office’s sustained bullying, intimidation and gatekeeping. We hope to demonstrate that the abuse is not isolated to a few individuals, but endemic to the everyday running of the office. If Monday’s session was anything to go by, this seems to be the case.
Within 5 minutes setting up the stall on Monday, the security manager and another security officer (M) approached us and began quoting made-up laws about draping our banner on the railings. They began to verbally abuse us and M made direct threats to a member of the group (M also appears in this video where we were denied entry to the building when attempting to support someone who requested it.) When we realised they were simply trying to distract us we ignored them and they gave up. By the end of the session, the offices were unguarded, save for a few housing officers coming out to look at us and the odd gratuitously hurtful comments made by the security manager as he criticised the parenting of a woman who was talking with HASL (people have also reported experiences of victim-blaming by the council, women in particular are often unfairly criticised about their parenting skills because they are in poverty).
We met a lot of people. Every single one of them had a horror story to tell, and were being entirely inadequately served by the council. As we’re habitually denied access to the offices at the moment – in direct contradiction to written assurances from Southwark’s cabinet member for housing, Richard Livingstone – we tried to offer support and advice to people from outside. Here’s are just some of of the stories we heard from the people we met:
- A pregnant mum with a young child who was forced into rent arrears when she got a part time job and the benefits office stopped her housing benefit altogether even though she wasn’t earning enough to justify the wholesale slash in her benefit. The council gave away the direct offer of permanent accommodation they made to her because of the rent arrears and they have now got the bailiffs scheduled for this Friday to evict her from her home. We will be supporting B and her family to resist this eviction on Friday at 10:30am.
- A women who is street homeless and has been trying to secure a homelessness interview for over two weeks, and keeps being turned away. Today she was forcefully removed from the housing office with all her belongings. Southwark told her to come back on Wednesday, but even with an appointment, as we saw with another young woman today, the caseworker might not be at the office at the scheduled time. This lady has nowhere to go, so she is likely to sleep outside the housing office until Wednesday.
- A pregnant women with 3 young children being evicted from her private rental property due to a bureaucratic error with her housing benefit payments. Unable to find alternative accommodation, Southwark Council have repeatedly turned her away without offering explanation or advice.
- A pregnant woman who’s been in stage 1 B&B temp accommodation for 11 weeks (people are supposed to be moved to more permanent and suitable temporary accommodation after 6 weeks). The council keeps trying to force her to distance areas, all of which would make it impossible for her child to attend their school in Peckham.
- A pensioner who stopped to speak to us just because she was passing by on her way home. She then came back after she found a letter in her post box asking her to leave her temporary accommodation by the 6th July. She has a serious medical conditions and is very concerned about what will happen in the coming days. We encouraged her to speak to a housing officer at the council, and when she returned she told us that the eviction notice was about a payment she was said to owe – this wasn’t mentioned on the scary and confusing eviction notice.
- A young woman waiting outside the housing office to meet with her social worker, at her social worker’s request. Her social worker has told her to get a job and find a private rental. The woman didn’t know what the meeting was about, but she was waiting around for it, expecting a call at 12:30. At 12:35 she went in to the office and was told that the social worker was not available. She left still not knowing why she was asked to come there.
Many people who turn up are simply turned away without reason or told things that simply act to delay them getting the help and support they need. People are told to come back at arbitrary points in the future, without appointments. Appointments that are offered regularly result in unexplained non-attendance from council officers. People are told very little information, and find it very difficult to know how their cases are progressing, adding stress to an already hugely stressful situation. Gatekeeping practices, which Southwark has been called out on by the courts, are business as usual at the housing office. Based on our conversations with many people today, not a single person we met had been dealt with according to the Code of Guidance or the relevant legislation. It appears that this is a housing office utterly out of control.
We handed out lots of leaflets, were able to talk to lots of people about what should be happening if Southwark Council were to operate even nominally within their own publicly stated practices. People were grateful to have the opportunity talk and share in each others struggles. We talked about the experiences HASL has had as a group – all of which was really warmly received. We can fight this treatment, if we do it together. People are quite rightly furious at the way they are treated, and we talked about ways we could work together to seek some kind of justice. The stall also offered a chance for newer faces to the group to become more comfortable talking to people, and we were able to share the knowledge we’ve picked up together.
If you can spare even an hour this week to offer support to these stalls, please do drop by any day from now until Friday, from 11am-2pm. Peckham Housing Office, 25 Bournemouth Road, London, SE15 4UJ. We’ll also be talking about the events of the week at our lunch club picnic on Saturday.