Category Archives: Action

Southwark council – no more excuses, no more housing nightmares!

This morning, HASL and our friends from Espacio Mama and English for Action visited Southwark council’s town hall in support of 5 families who face statutory overcrowding and have been subjected to long delays by Southwark council in getting the help they need. As Southwark council’s housing allocations policy states, these families should qualify for band 1 due to the serious and appalling nature of their living conditions. However, the council have insultingly responded that the families have caused the statutory overcrowding by a ‘deliberate act’. We know this is not true and it is an insult to even suggest this. It is basic common sense that these families have not endured years of severely overcrowded housing deliberately.

We demand that Southwark council follow its clear housing allocations policy and ensure these families are placed into band 1 immediately, the banding that reflects their severe housing need.

At the town hall, we bumped into the manager for homeless services Ian Swift on his way in to work, but instead of engaging with the group, he rushed past us, and instructed security to call the police on us!

Thankfully, the security staff decided this was not necessary and we were able to remain in the town hall and were not thrown out into the cold!

Two members from the press office came to speak with us about why we were there. We explained the 5 cases and the two members of staff agreed with us on a number of occasions that it was obvious that the overcrowded situations were not caused by a ‘deliberate act’ of the families. They promised that the cases would be looked into by Housing Director Gerri Scott and that we will hear from them soon. Let’s hope that we get some good news soon, and if not, we’ll be returning!

More information on the cases

As well as failing to follow their housing allocations policy in the spirit with which it was intended, and failing to acknowledge the acute housing crisis as the cause for overcrowding rather than the ‘choice’ of these families, we have also experienced long and unnecessary delays in getting the assistance from the council that we need. We have repeatedly provided the necessary information to process their cases. These delays and problems include:

One member first submitted information on her case on 23 May. She did not get a response for 3 months, and only then, because we contacted the council to chase up the case.

We first emailed Ian Swift about these five cases on 25th July detailing the statutory overcrowding and how they had all tried to access the housing register and had faced a number of problems doing so.

August we received a response finally saying that no applications are open for anyone and no documents have been received (even though 2 had receipts of having accounts). The group had actually visited the housing office and one stop shop on 25 July to submit information and documents, which had obviously not been processed.

HASL met with Ian Swift and a number of housing officers on September 14 where we requested to be told the information they needed in order to review these cases quickly, but they refused to tell us what further information was needed. We were promised that the cases would be independently reviewed within 10 days. 10 working days later and we had heard nothing. After a reminder, the person who had originally looked at the cases returned the reviews to us on October 10.

Accessing the housing register has been an extremely difficult process to follow and understand, particularly for non-English speakers as many of our members are.

In total, we have spent a great deal of our time over many months emailing Ian Swift and his officers, collecting together all the required information, to resolve these cases. Some might say we have been doing their job for them! These serious cases should not be taking months to resolve.

The families have highlighted the incredibly serious consequences of the appalling conditions they face:

Children and young people without space to study and play.

Children experiencing depression and mental ill health due to the overcrowded conditions.

Poor conditions, including the ceiling falling through in the kitchen, and the landlord renting out another room to an abusive person who threatened our member. The children are too scared to enter the kitchen after seeing the ceiling fall in.

Highly unsuitable shared accommodation for families with young children.

Once these cases are resolved, and the families are placed in their correct band 1, we will be happy to work with the council and in particular the housing office, so that the problems we have faced here and not encountered again.

Justice for ML – HASL’s mass visit to the housing office

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Thanks to everyone who came to support ML at Lambeth’s Olive Morris house this morning in a joint HASL and English for Action action! We have simple messages for the council:
A home close to school / una casa circa de la escuela

Justice / justicia

Respect / respeto

This morning, over twenty of us visited Olive Morris House with the simple request that the family be given the suitable social housing they would have had if Lambeth had given them the help they were entitled to back in May last year. ML’s case is one of total neglect by Lambeth council that resulted in her being physically assaulted in the overcrowded shared housing she had visited them to get assistance with. We demand accountability and justice from the council.

Our visit resulted in a short meeting with the manager of the housing office. Whilst they said that they would contact us by the end of the day about the case, they refused to meet our basic request that the family be given secure, social housing in their local area. They also called the police on our group as they were keen to get us out. But we left in our own time of our own accord.

Although we have not got our immediate request met on this visit, we have made our message very clear and spoke to people high up in the housing office to make them aware of this case, the urgent need for action, and that we will continue until our request for suitable social housing is met.

We promised that if our request is not met, we will return as a (growing!) group until it is. Please get involved and join us to fight for good quality homes we all need and deserve! And why not tweet @lambeth_council @cllr_peck in support of ML to keep the pressure on them.

HASL guide to gatekeeping

What is gatekeeping?

Gatekeeping is when people are denied the help, services and support they are legally entitled to by council staff employing different tactics to turn us away and make us give up. Gatekeeping is very common is housing offices when people go to make homeless applications and also in social services when people try to access housing help.

Southwark housing office has a particularly bad reputation for gatekeeping. In February, 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 Mr Kanu was entitled to housing. Sadly, Mr Kanu died shortly after this victory. Despite these legal cases, we know that Southwark housing office still continues to gatekeep homeless people.

What does it mean? What are the impacts?

The effects of gatekeeping are to keep 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.

For the housing office, it means that their homelessness statistics are kept low so that the true scale of homelessness is hidden.

How do you spot it?

Housing office staff say things like: “I can tell you now, you are intentionally homeless”

“You need to bring more evidence before we can start a homeless application and give you interim housing.”

“We can’t help you, you need to find your own housing in the private sector.”

“You’re not homeless until the bailiffs evict you.”

“If you have a roof, then you are not homeless.”

“If they have a pulse, then they’re not vulnerable”

How can we challenge it?

London Coalition Against Poverty has been going since 2007 and is made up of local groups who meet up and provide support and action on each others housing issues. LCAP groups have long been challenging gatekeeping at their local housing offices by:

Making sure that people know their rights

Providing buddies for each other to attend the housing office together

Visiting the housing office as a big group and refusing to leave until a homeless application has been accepted.

Regular leafleting outside housing offices to talk to people about their rights and the housing group and local campaigns and actions challenging gatekeeping at a local housing office.

 

Don’t struggle alone! It’s easy for them to turn one person away, but if we stand up for each other, we can fight for the support and services that we all need and deserve. We welcome you to get involved and help us organise more ways to challenge gatekeeping.

 

HASL get member housed back in her community!

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Yesterday morning, about thirty HASL members and ESOL group English for Action, visited Southwark council’s town hall in support of our member Ruth and her family who had been housed by the council all the way out in Woolwich.

This accommodation was far away from their school, community and work places. To get to school her children had to travel on 3 buses for 2 hours, and then they had to do this after school to get home again. That’s 20 hours commuting each week on 30 buses! This was having an extremely negative impact on the children’s education and well being. Everyone needs and deserves decent housing in their community. We won’t let people be forced out.

We went to demand ‘A home near school’ and after a short time in the town hall’s lobby – where we played Twister, Jenga, and talked with staff about the housing crisis and our group – we were told that alternative temporary accommodation on the Aylesbury estate* had been found for the family. Ruth was relieved and happy at the outcome, as we all are that Ruth and her family are now back home.

But it shouldn’t take 30 people occupying the town hall for homeless people and families to be treated well and provided with suitable temporary accommodation. And we were appalled by one housing managers comments when we asked him why no furniture (no beds!) was provided in the accommodation – “it’s got a roof, it’s liveable”. We doubt he’d call this liveable if it were provided for him and his family. This is no standard or way to treat homeless people.

We want to challenge the poor treatment and provision for homeless people in Southwark and fight social cleansing! Get involved in HASL to help us do this!

Thank you to everyone who came and supported Ruth. Don’t struggle alone! Together we can win!

*The Aylesbury estate is in the process of ‘regeneration’ (demolition of council housing and its replacement with unaffordable private housing = social cleansing). Secure tenants are being moved/forced out leaving perfectly habitable flats empty. Southwark is using some of these flats to house homeless people (and collect rent from them!).  This seems sensible enough as it keeps people in their home borough (and makes Southwark council money). We oppose the demolition of the Aylesbury estate and support all residents and locals who are fighting for it. Check out Fight for the Aylesbury for more information and action.

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Holding Peckham Housing Office to Account

Last week, HASL was outside Southwark Council’s Peckham Housing Office every day from 11am-2pm – handing out leaflets, talking to people experiencing issues with housing and welfare, and offering solidarity with those attending the office. Our presence was part of a broader campaign by the group to support each other, share knowledge of and enforce our rights, and to further document the culture of abuse which dominates the day to day running of the office.

People who spoke to us revealed a clear truth: that Peckham Housing Office is an undeniably abusive space, where people are regularly bullied, intimidated and habitually denied access to the services and help they are entitled to in law (‘gatekeeping’). People attending the office are regularly met with racist and sexist abuse, summarily ejected from or denied entry to the office (sometimes by force) and treated without the basic courtesies and respect that any reasonable person would expect of a public service.

As things currently stand, it is impossible for us to enter the housing office. Every attempt to support each other at appointments inside has been met with physical resistance from security staff – the police have also been called on us twice. This is in direct contradiction with written assurances from Southwark Council’s cabinet member for housing, Richard Livingstone, that “[Southwark Council] think it is reasonable for customers to be accompanied to homelessness interviews by their representatives, friends, or family.”

We described our first day outside the housing office in detail here. As soon as we arrived to set up the stall, we were verbally abused by the office’s security guards. Once they decided to leave us alone, the day turned out to be really productive. We met lots of people, many of them young women with families, or who are pregnant, and facing really stressful housing situations which the council is not helping them resolve effectively.

Tuesday was a lot quieter, although the people we spoke to all shared similar stories of mistreatment. Security staff seemed to be adopting a different approach by being really friendly to people coming into the housing office – we heard hushed comments of “oh, they’re here again today” from passing council staff.

On Wednesday, the security guards had the doors closed, demanding people entering justify themselves before letting them in. Several people were milling around outside the office, some were crying, others were expressing their anger at how they had been treated by their caseworkers. A housing officer came out to speak to us and was saying that the council was overworked and that it was difficult trying to help people who don’t manage their priorities as they were more interested in ‘getting their weaves and nails done’. The housing officer also raised some pretty disturbing views on immigration. Here are just a handful of the stories people shared with us on Wednesday:

  • A woman fleeing with her child from Brent, where she has suffered domestic violence. She was treated appallingly by Brent Council who refused to help her as they said that the violence she was facing was nothing more than a ‘relationship breakdown’. She is now a refugee in Southwark and is trying to secure stable accommodation outside of Brent.
  • A 65 year old single man who has been trying to get a one bedroom flat through Southwark Council’s Finders Fee Scheme (the council pay up to £1,200 on signing of the tenancy) – another scheme designed to push people away from affordable council housing into the precarious private rental sector. He is finding it difficult to find private landlords that will accept tenants his age and on housing benefit.
  • A man and his young daughter placed in temporary accommodation 6 months ago. The council have now told him that the property is ‘illegal’. He explained that it the flat once used to be a single flat, but was split into 3 overcrowded flats. The council have offered him other temporary accommodation in the borough, but it doesn’t have anything in it except for an old cooker. He was told to go to Croydon to pick up the keys and sign a new lease, which means he has to miss a day of work.
  • A young woman being threatened with a possession order for rent arrears of £200. She has been seeking information from the council as to what this means, but they prefer to deal with this via threatening letters. She is going to go back to the housing office to try and work out a deal so that she and her children can keep their home, but remains cynical.

By Thursday, the security guards were back to their usual role of being really difficult to deal with. When we attempted to support a woman who wanted us to attend her appointment with her, staff at the office denied us entry and called the police – who pointed out on arrival that it was a matter between us and the council. At around 1pm they shut all the doors and told everyone – including a heavily pregnant woman who just needed to submit wage slips – to come back later.  And again, throughout the session, we heard the same stories of completely inadequate behaviour from the council

Friday was fairly quiet again – a possible factor being that the housing office don’t do “pre-assessment interviews” on Fridays.  We heard more stories from people that we are already too familiar with: gatekeeping, denial of service, racism.

The stall was well attended by HASL members throughout the week and there was lots of interest from people and an increasing understanding of what HASL is about. People are quite rightly furious about the way the treated by Southwark Council, and the conditions they’re forced to live in. Our hope is that people are able to support each other in channeling this anger into securing the housing we all need and deserve. Our hope is to continue to build a sustainable movement with the aim of improving our immediate material conditions.

Peckham Housing Office has proven itself a place completely unfit for purpose. The past week has clearly demonstrated the climate of inexcusable behaviour which runs the place. It’s for these reasons that it is essential we be able to support each other at housing offices, attending each other’s appointments and interviews. We must be able to hold the behaviour of Southwark Council to account – to make sure they follow relevant laws, that people are not submitted to discriminatory behaviour, and that a basic level of respect is offered to those who face intensely stressful and upsetting housing situations. We will be taking action as a group until this is the case. Watch this space, and more importantly, come get involved!

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Week Long Campaign Outside Peckham Housing Office: Day 1

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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A Gatekeeping Masterclass from Lambeth Council

After a recent judicial review in the High Court, where Southwark Council was order to stop refusing vulnerable people from applying as homeless through the use of ‘gatekeeping’, we thought other boroughs would have taken some notice. Apparently not. In fact, a housing officer and senior housing manager at Lambeth didn’t even seem to agree that such a thing as gatekeeping existed; it’s a conspiracy against local councils, you see.

Today, HASL visited Lambeth Council at Olive Morris House to support two members whose families are living in private rented sector flats which are infested with rats and bed bugs, have blocked drains and exposed electrical wiring – facts which the council are already aware of.

As the judicial review of Southwark Council’s practices and policies detailed, under the Housing Act 1996, local authorities *must* investigate applications from anyone ‘it has reasons to believe may be homeless or threatened with homelessness’, and provide temporary accommodation to those with children or who appear vulnerable. This means that once a council has taken the housing application, they must then make inquiries about whether the applicant is eligible for assistance and whether a duty is owed. Where the council have reason to believe that an applicant may be homeless, that they are eligible for assistance and in priority need, the duty to secure accommodation for homeless applicants, pending the decision as to whether a duty is owed, applies. This is process is enshrined in law, but trying to get a council to recognise their duty and what they should be doing is nearly impossible – made worse by the hostility people face from council staff and all the other policies and options councils put in place that people have to navigate.

Our first stop was with a housing advisor. After briefly discussing what we were there for, the officer almost immediately refused both housing applications, stating that both families were not homeless. We challenged this flippant decision, reminding the officer of their legal duties. He began questioning who we were so that he could record our details and demanded to see all the other evidence we had for proving that the families were homeless. Gatekeeping hurdle one.

We objected to this unlawful gatekeeping so he called security. During a heated debate, we repeatedly requested an explanation, but he refused and stormed off around the corner whilst security tried to move us away from the desk. Gatekeeping hurdle two.

We stood our ground and eventually were sent to meet with Lambeth’s manager of the welfare reform and private sector teams. With the slick soft power you would expect from a senior council worker, he listened to the facts of the case and agreed with the first housing officer that there was no ‘reason to believe’ that the two families were homeless. Reasonable belief, apparently, is what the housing officer says it is: a gaping hole in your roof exposing you to all the elements wouldn’t meet that definition according to the manager – advice which runs contrary to the High Court’s deliberations in the Southwark case where ‘reason to believe that the applicants are homeless’ is supposed to be a low threshold. The difficulties people face when living in these conditions also has absolutely no bearing on what is reasonable. Despite the fact that other families in the building had been moved out, given the extent of the repair works the landlord needed to do on the flats inside and the environmental report on the problems with fire hazards and health and safety, it was still reasonable for both families and their children to continue living there. Gatekeeping hurdle three.

We were offered all too familiar excuses: “Do you really want to make us send them to Birmingham?” “It’s not our fault there’s no social housing, it was all Thatcher” “We just don’t have any temporary accommodation, what can we do?” “Can’t they just repair the house themselves?” Gatekeeping hurdle four.

After 3 hours of waiting and pleading, and with our members running out of time before picking up their children from school and going to work, it became clear that as with so many of our interactions with Lambeth Council, a decision was going to be made informally in the corridor. Gatekeeping hurdle five.

Both families just want out of their horrendous flats. We wanted something in writing about the council’s refusal to accept the homeless applications. Initially, the senior manager said he could do that, but an hour or so later he made it perfectly clear that it was an inconvenience for him. Gatekeeping hurdle six.

Throughout the day, our collective approach to support was dismissed as ‘Advocacy’. We were accused of acting irresponsibly in demanding written reasons as to why homeless applications were being refused and creating more problems in the future with ‘out of borough’ or out of London accommodation – in the long-winded process of fighting for the council to follow the law, we became the problem and were dramatised as causing more difficulty for the families in the future.

During these kind of interactions, it can become increasingly difficult to hold onto the simple realities that are, in fact, playing out. Today, Lambeth Council sent two families back to accommodation they know to be dangerous and unhealthy, simply because they refused to believe that it *might* be possible that their housing conditions constituted homelessness. We believe they acted unlawfully in doing so.