Category Archives: Our stories

Southwark Families Stuck in Unsuitable Temporary Accommodation – some of our stories

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This year, Southwark council hold top place for the local authority with the most number of homeless households in Bed & Breakfast/hostel accommodation over the 6 week limit. As you can see from the table, this increase in families being housed in B&B/ hostel accommodation is extreme.

Your rights: Local councils should avoid using B&B/hostel accommodation for families and pregnant women. If they do have to house homeless households in B&B, then it should be for no longer than 6 weeks. If you have been housed over this time in hostel accommodation, then get legal advice from Shelter, the Citizens Advice Bureau, or your local law centre and come along to our meetings for support and action.

Being housed by the council in unsuitable temporary accommodation is a very common problem in our group. In the last year, we have seen this problem get even worse. We have met many Southwark families who are being housed for many months in unsuitable hostel accommodation where they share bathroom and/ or kitchen facilities with other families. Some families have had three different temporary accommodations in one year. Our members talk about the impact of this bad housing on their families. The hostel accommodation and regular moves that people have faced are causing their families mental and physical health problems due to the stress. The unsuitable accommodation is also affecting children’s education significantly. Unsuitable temporary accommodation is a very serious issues that is affecting people’s daily lives, their health and their welfare.

We have been in contact with Southwark council in support of a number of families in our group who have been living in unsuitable hostel accommodation or have been housed out of the borough. We hope that the council will listen to these cases and take the urgent action needed for these families. We also demand that Southwark council take urgent action to find suitable temporary accommodation and permanent council housing for all homeless households in the borough. Southwark council should be deeply ashamed to have the highest number of families living in B&B accommodation over the 6 week limit.

Here are the cases of some of our members:

  • Our member E and her family have been living in hostel accommodation for the last 5 months. Her daughter is studying for her GCSEs and she has a young son as well. Before this, they were housed in another hostel accommodation for a month and a half. E is 7 months pregnant. The hostel rooms they currently live in have mice which have been causing the family enormous stress and sleepless nights. A mouse-infested room and shared facilities is not suitable for a pregnant woman and her family, especially since they have endured these conditions for over half a year already.
  • Our member J and her family have lived in three different hostels since September 2016. Although the current accommodation is not suitable for the family, she would rather not leave, as the stress of moving is so great. But sharing facilities with other households for over a year has been incredibly stressful for the family.
  • Another member H and her baby have lived in a hostel for over a year. She told us: “In the one room I live, I cook, I sleep…my baby is struggling to learn to walk because she does not have enough space.”
  • Our member L, describes her experience. Her family have lived in three different temporary accommodation placements – all of them out of borough and meaning long journeys to school and work:

“Soy  Madre Soltera y trabajo tiempo completo. Despues de una lucha de casi dos años continuos con mi  Lanlord Privado para que no me desalojase  De la casa que alquile finalmente  la ley esta a su favor y me desaloja…el council fue informado de esto desde que me dio la primera notificacion de la corte..aun asi no recibi una respuesta positiva lo unico que me decian era que espere a que me sacara con los bayflis…pedi ayuda a recuperar mi deposito para poder o intentar buscar algo…y tampoco…que solo me ayudaban cuando estuviese en la calle…porque aun tenia techo y no era hommeles…fue asi como llegue a esta situacion….y ahora estoy en una acomodacion en Croydon despues de vivir 4 años continuos en southwark y practicamente estar con todo casi controlado desde..Hora de levantarse hora de comida tiempo de salida de la escuela de mi hija a mi trabajo..y tener una estabilidad familiar ..ahora nos vemos desplazadas de un entorno que para nosotras era casi familiar….ah sido un tiempo realmente estresante porque aunque para el council es normal que mi hija se tarde 1.30 minutos en llegar a su escuela o hasta mas cuando hay demasiado trafico….para nosotras es estresante…porque yo debo estar en mi trabajo 8.30 am ubicado en pentonville road king croos .y mi hija 8.55 am en la escuela….ya se pueden imaginar…nuestro recorrido trenes ; buses…etc…en mi trabajo me siento agobiada por tan larga jornada de transporte…y realmente me preocupa mi hija su  dia a dia .. Mi hija Ama su escuela y por esto y por el tiempo que lleva en ella no la retiro…..aun asi intentando cumplir la jornada de su Escuela…ah llegado tarde porque en ocasiones me valgo de otras personas(abuela.amigas) para que me lleven a mi hija..porque no me alcanza el tiempo para llegar  a mi trabajo…La Escuela me ha llamado la atencion porque no tiene el porcentaje minimo que exige la Educacion…. en asistencia.   cada llegada tarde es un punto negativo para ella….lastimosamente ….veo solo una preocupacion por un numero % …..no por el niño…..fue lo que percibi…porque casi como ultimatum…que no debia llegar mas tarde ..para mi algo casi…imposible…aunque trato con la ayuda de mi madre cumplir……pero no es facil…solo es una parte de lo que nos ha afectado…porque para decir tendria mucho..mas…….Gracias..”

Of course, this problem is not limited to Southwark, last week a short film showed the appalling conditions of a converted warehouse where homeless household were living. A BBC article also looked at dangerous and cramped housing that people are forced to live in.

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Lambeth council – we need to talk about gatekeeping

HASL has highlighted two serious cases of unlawful gatekeeping by Lambeth council as well as other extremely poor treatment of these two homeless HASL members, but Lambeth council have so far failed to respond to address these issues and our wider concerns.

One of the cases of gatekeeping, where a family were turned away from help and returned to their severely overcrowded accommodation, resulted in a woman being physically assaulted by a member of another household in the shared accommodation they were living in.

The other case saw the housing officer pretend to open a homeless application for our member, and then a month later, when our member enquired what had happened to the application, it turned out he had been lying and had never started one in the first place.

These members have pursued reviews and complaints about their treatment with the council, but Lambeth’s internal processes are still not acknowledging the issues we have faced nor are they resolving them satisfactorily. HASL members and supporters have also collectively shown their concern and support for these HASL members using twitter and visiting the housing office as a group.

We are calling on Lambeth’s councillor for housing Matthew Bennett and the head of the housing office to meet with us to listen to these issues and finally work to resolve them. He must acknowledge the seriousness of what has happened in these cases.

As well as unlawful gatekeeping for many months, causing significant harm to our members and their families, both members have also faced other appalling treatment at the housing office. Some issues include:

  • Both members have medical needs that were ‘assessed’ by housing officers with no medical background. Similar to the infamous ATOS medical assessments for disability benefits, these ‘assessments’ were incredibly crude and used an out-dated understanding of vulnerabilities and disabilities. ‘Oh you can do this, can you? You’re fine and don’t require any assistance’ is essentially the conclusions drawn from these poorly conducted assessments. These inadequate assessments have serious consequences for our members who were left without suitable housing.
  • When allocating temporary accommodation to one of our members, a proper suitability assessment, which took into account her children’s needs and well-being, was not conducted.
  • After not receiving the council’s decision letter, our member has been denied her right to review the decision when she did finally got the letter, because she had missed the original deadline. This again goes against what the law says which says clearly that a review can happen within 21 days of receiving the letter (not the date the council sent the letter, especially if it didn’t arrive!)

Current homelessness law does not do enough to protect and support homeless people, but Lambeth council can’t even manage to follow the basic law that exists – from our experience they have regularly failed to meet their legal obligations, causing us significant harm and distress.

We know we are not the only Lambeth residents facing these problems at the housing office. We have spoken to others at the housing office who have spoken about gatekeeping and we have witnessed people in the housing office being unlawfully turned away without help. As well as dealing with these two cases, Lambeth council must change the practices in the housing office so that people are treated with respect and given the help they need.

One of the people affected by gatekeeping at Lambeth explains her situation:

At every single step of the homelessness process I have been denied help by Lambeth council. It has been such an impossible struggle to get even the most basic help that I’m legally entitled to. As well as dealing with homelessness, my medical needs, and trying to get on with my life, I have had to spend huge amounts of energy and time dealing with Lambeth council’s homelessness service. What should be a really simple procedure, where they can support homeless residents, has lasted many months and caused me significant distress and anxiety and further worsened my medical needs. The disrespect and poor treatment I have faced has felt so hurtful and demoralising. 

If I am struggling to get through the homelessness process, and I’ve had incredible support from HASL, then what chance do others doing this alone have?

Lambeth must address the issues we have raised.

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.

Disrepair and Disrespect – Struggling with Southwark Council

We’ve been documenting the unacceptable, and often unlawful, ways in which Southwark Council treats those it has a duty of care to for some time now. This pattern of behaviour becomes increasingly and unsettlingly familiar with each new case we encounter.

Recently, L approached HASL. She has been living with her family in social housing provided by Southwark for 22 years. L has been battling with Southwark Council for the entire time – to try and get essential repair work done on the property and to be treated with respect. In attempting to make Southwark realise the severity of the problems, L has received backing from solicitors and a number of experts regarding the problems within the property. The family have been repeatedly moved out of the property for “repairs to be made” only to return to the same problems and the same poor attitude from Southwark. Attempts to make the property safe have been met with inadequate offers of alternative accommodation and coercion from Southwark.

L sought the advice and support of a new solicitor who progressed to presenting court proceedings to get the disrepair addressed. In the end, L made a successful bid for another property nearby. On moving into her new property, unfortunately a few snagging repairs requirements are outstanding – an issue we’re now working together to try and solve.

L believes, as do we, that no-one should have to face this kind of treatment. Everyone deserves access to secure and safe housing, and it should be the absolute minimum requirement that housing providers should treat their tenants with a sense of basic decency and respect. Instead, L who already faces the stress and complication of long term chronic health conditions has been met with intimidation, racist and classist prejudice and an irrevocable, irreparable and unfair service. We will be working together to make sure Southwark Council are held accountable for their behaviour in dealing with L’s housing situation.

Many of the problems we’ve encountered with Southwark Council are not isolated to individuals. Are you a Southwark council tenant facing similar issues of disrepair or mistreatment? These are conditions no-one should be expected to face, and they definitely shouldn’t have to be faced alone.

Get in touch – Come along to one of our meetings, or come share some food with us on Sunday at our lunch club. Over the last 2 years, we’ve demonstrated that we can win better housing, when we do it together. Join your local housing action group! 

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!

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.