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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.

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