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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.

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

HASL olive morris house mary luz

 

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.

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.

HASL Denied the Right to Accompany at Southwark

Southwark’s gatekeeping caught on video

Intimidation and policing of the homeless and vulnerably housed continues at Southwark’s housing offices, however this time we caught it on film.

Southwark have been under fire recently for the many ways in which they deny people making homelessness applications their right to housing. At the start of this year the High Court ordered Southwark to cease certain practices of gatekeeping “with immediate effect,” and in May the Supreme Court found Southwark was wrongly denying its duty of care. Have they changed their tune? Not a bit.

After experiencing bullying and harassment first hand at Southwark’s housing offices, last month HASL members and solicitors Hanson Palomares obtained written confirmation from the Council that homelessness applicants had a right to be accompanied to interviews. Cabinet Member for housing, Richard Livingstone, in a letter dated 14th May, stated that:

“I can therefore confirm that we think it is reasonable for customers to be accompanied to homelessness interviews by their representatives, family or friends”

On Friday the 5th of June HASL members were distributing flyers in front of the housing office (without reason we were denied permission to give out flyers in the office) when we met F, a single father of one who had been evicted from his accommodation by his landlord and had been forced to stay with a friend who was now also forcing the family to leave. Having spent the morning at the office, Southwark denied F a homelessness interview. Instead, Southwark turned F away stating, as shown in Southwark’s summary of the meeting with F, that the friend was required to give a period of 28 days for F to search for private accommodation. This false information shows the continued practices of gatekeeping by Southwark Council.

Letter

A HASL member agreed to accompany F and his son back to the office at F’s request. The video above shows what happened. This is not the first time that HASL members and homelessness applicants have experience arbitrary bullying and intimidation at these offices, it is however the first instance we have on film.

HASL members were called ‘trouble makers’, we were denied entry on the grounds that ‘we knew why,’ that ‘we were not professional’ and that ‘we wanted to cause chaos in the offices.’ Other applicants at the office that day joined our efforts to speak with the security guards who made no attempts to discuss the matter with us nor consult the letter from Southwark’s cabinet members. The manager in the office that day failed to speak with us or deescalate the situation and instead called the police who when they appeared affirmed the right of the security guards to use reasonable force to remove us from the premises should we attempt to enter.

Despite all this, as you may imagine, we had a great response from the leaflets and lots of support from people at the office that day. F, on returning to the office with our advice, was granted a homelessness interview, as is the law, and HASL gained a new member in the process.

HASL believe that the housing crisis is not caused by the most vulnerable, upon whom the blame and the effects of the crisis largely land. We refuse the intimidation and all gate-keeping practices of Southwark and fight for our members to be treated with respect. Another housing system is possible, and at this point it starts with the right to be accompanied to interviews!

You don’t have to attend a homelessness interview alone: join your local housing group!

Bailiffs’ ball crashed by housing protesters

A bailiffs’ awards ceremony was gate-crashed on Wednesday evening by a sixty strong group of angry people. The action was called just a day beforehand by Focus E15 mums after an eagle eyed member of their campaign spotted the existence of the 2015 British Credit Awards with awards going for ‘Enforcement team of the year’ and ‘third party debt collections team of the year’. A table at the event was £4,000.

Crowd blockades bailiff entrance to fancy dinner

Crowd blockades bailiff entrance to fancy dinner

mattress, arm chair, kids toys, and boxes create a mock eviction to blockade the entrance

mattress, arm chair, kids toys, and boxes create a mock eviction to blockade the entrance

Focus E15 mums, other housing groups from across London, and squatters – all people who regularly confront and are abused by bailiffs – blockaded the entrance with a mock eviction; a mattress, clothes, kids toys, and an armchair were scattered on the pavement obstructing the bailiffs. The crowd of sixty people quickly built up and turned bailiffs who tried to get through them away. “How does it feel to feel scared?” asked one protester to a bailiff. “I’m not scared,” he responded as he called to the police for assistance and had his tux covered in paint. The area was filled with shouts of ‘bailiff scum off our street’ and sometimes simply ‘scum’ each time a bailiff appeared. More bailiffs, and badly placed protesters, were hit by paint bombs. Later on, someone saw a delivery of new suits to the building where the dinner was being held. A line of bailiffs and their friends formed on the other side of the road from the protesters contemplating the angry mob ahead of them.

Finding the entrance blocked, bailiffs queue on the other side of the road. But they're not getting through this entrance

Finding the entrance blocked, bailiffs queue on the other side of the road. But they’re not getting through this entrance

bailiff calling the police for help

bailiff calling the police for help

After a while, the bailiffs were forced to use a side entrance to get to their fancy dinner. Police got pretty scared of the size and mood of the crowd and brought along more cops for back up and police dogs to guard the entrance. When the bailiff flow ceased at the main entrance, a group of protesters went to the side entrance where the bailiffs were sneaking in. At this point, the police made an incredibly violent arrest of a young man with four large police men pinning him down, one police officer hitting the man’s face on the pavement, another punching him in the body. He was kept in this position for around ten minutes with police keeping away people trying to film the incident and provide support to the man.

Police violently arrest and assault a young man

Police violently arrest and assault a young man

Police block off a road to protect the bailiffs

Police block off a road to protect the bailiffs

The police brutality aside, the evening was considered a great success by those of us who didn’t have the £4,000 for a table. A number of us remarked how therapeutic it had been to confront the bailiffs in this way. The energetic and militant action is another exciting articulation of the growing London housing movement; already this year, as well as the exhilarating evening crashing the bailiffs’ ball, there has been the impressive March for Homes and the ongoing Aylesbury estate occupation in Elephant and Castle. The Radical Housing Network’s week of action starts on Saturday 14th February – Monday 23rd. As well as these events, there is the daily community organising by a growing number of local housing action groups across the city who confront bailiffs on the doorsteps, make mass visits to the housing office in support of their members and provide moral support and solidarity. Wednesday evening brought together these groups and squatters from across London, making it clear that we won’t take baliff violence and the violence of the housing crisis.

Cops and bailiffs out of our communities! We all need quality, secure homes that we control!

Southwark council try to evict a homeless woman and her supporters who are asking for housing from their town hall

HASL at Southwark town hall

We’ve got some higher res photos of our occupation coming soon!

HASL made a mass visit to Southwark town hall this afternoon to demand social housing for our member T and her kids who are facing eviction and homelessness by Southwark council’s social services this week.

T and her kids have been stuck in poor quality temporary accommodation for 4 years now and are desperately in need of secure social housing in their home borough. This year, Southwark council housing office dropped their duty to house T after she refused an offer of social housing that she could not access due to medical reasons. The council deemed her ‘intentionally homeless’ and she was evicted from temporary accommodation. Of course, no one is intentionally homeless. For the last 6 months she has been living in temporary accommodation provided by social services, but they are refusing to house her any longer and she faces eviction this week.

The presence of our large group meant that Ian Swift, LB Southwark Group Services Manager for Homelessness and Housing Options, came to speak with us and we made our demand for suitable social housing for T and her kids. He returned to his office to look at her case on the computer and returned to our group where he told us incorrect details about her case. We attempted to correct him and discuss the situation more but he refused to listen to us and made yet another Southwark council eviction threat to T and the rest of HASL telling us “if you don’t leave, we will call the police and have you evicted”.

We decided to stick about to make our feelings felt, accompanied by drumming from a talented HASL member. Ian Swift call the police on a homeless woman and her supporters to have them evicted from the building. The police arrived and left. We left of our own accord, pledging to return.

Although we didn’t have our immediate demand met this time, our message that no one is intentionally homeless was made clear to the council and will continue to remind them of this. Everyone needs quality, secure, genuinely affordable homes. A big thanks to everyone who showed up and showed such awesome solidarity!

Join us at our last meeting of the year this Thursday at Papa’s cafe at 12pm to plan our next steps and to give and receive housing support, and plan action together for quality homes for all.

Massive Housing Solidarity, Southwark Council Ineptitude            

Southwark Town Hall occupation

Southwark Town Hall occupation

UPDATE 20/10/2014 We heard from Ruth on Monday that on Friday (the day after our occupation) the council had got back in contact with Ruth and offered her accessible temporary accommodation for Ruth and her kids. Although a one bedroom flat for Ruth and two kids is still not appropriate temporary housing. Massive thanks to everyone who came down and supported.

We left Ruth this evening heading to temporary housing we had achieved after a 2 hour occupation of Southwark town hall and a 3 hour wait at the Peckham housing office where we were subjected to the abuse of aggressive male staff members. We had met together at 10am in the morning and had believed the situation had been resolved with decent temporary accommodation for Ruth and her kids.

Unfortunately, when Ruth arrived at the temporary housing, she found out that Southwark council had given her housing that had stairs leading up to it. Because of her disabilities, she could not physically access this accommodation. This is yet another massive failure of Southwark council in their duty to Ruth and her kids to add to the massive list of failures.

This same week, a damning court judgement highlighted some of the issues in Southwark council’s housing department. Cllr Richard Livingstone tried to brush these aside as a ‘one off’ but Ruth’s situation shows similar abuses and neglect from housing officers. We know for sure that these are not one offs but that this is the culture of hate that operates in the housing office.

The occupation this morning saw twenty supporters and Ruth make their presence felt in Southwark town hall’s lobby. The brilliant Focus E15 mums travelled across from East London to offer their support and solidarity. A Spanish housing activist over here for the counter-MIPIM mobilisations also joined. After an hour or so, when the suited officials of the town hall had enough of angry mothers sticking up for each other and telling them to sort things out, and realised we weren’t going to leave until our main demand of decent temporary housing was met, they agreed that they would get Ruth temporary accommodation.

This felt like a huge victory as our group had managed to overturn a negative decision made by the council through our collective direct action. We were told we could collect the keys to the accommodation from the Bournmouth road housing office. We had been reluctant to go there after a previous visit where staff had been rude to us, with the manager shouting in our face before storming off, but we were assured it would be simple and quick.

Two important questions arise – Why did it take 20 people occupying the town hall before Southwark were able to use their discretion to house Ruth temporarily whilst her appeal took place? Since receiving the appeal lodged over a week ago, which listed Ruth’s health problems and that she has two young children, why did Southwark decide they did not want to offer her temporary housing when it was in their powers to provide this?

Why did Southwark Council offer a woman with mobility issues accommodation which had stairs. Is there not a system that looks at the accessibility of accommodation and makes sure that people are matched up with housing they can actually safely enter and live in?

Leaving our awesome occupation at the town hall, a smaller group visited Bournemouth Road in Peckham to sort out the temporary housing we had been promised. Before we even entered the building, the male staff there were confrontational, abusive, aggressive. They had obviously been told that a group of us were coming and decided the appropriate way to react was to behave in this way. We were a group of 4 women and one baby and the male staff were verbally abusive, shouting in our faces, refusing to give us their names, security staff refusing to show us their badges. One physically intimidated one of the women standing close and moving forward so that she had to back out of the building to get away from him. As he did this she informed him that he could not physically assault her in this way, to which he replied ‘I can assault you’. The men then came outside to take photos of the women outside and informed them that they were going to put them on Facebook.

The experience was extremely distressing for all of the women who told the male staff they felt scared and intimidated by their behaviour. We saw these same staff members verbally and physically abuse other women who were separate from our protest as they entered the building. The aggressive, intimidating behaviour of the male staff is particularly concerning seeing as the housing office is a place that vulnerable women,  many of whom may be survivors of domestic violence, visit to try and get help.

Something must be done about the behaviour we experienced today and that is clearly standard practice in the housing office. The joyous feeling of our occupation felt quickly lost as we were subjected to these people in the housing office and had to wait for three hours for temporary accommodation to be found – which in the end was not accessible for Ruth. We made it clear that we would be supporting Ruth until she gets the safe, secure housing she and her family need. We will also be taking on the toxic environment of Southwark housing until something is done about this. The massive housing solidarity today from people across the borough and across London is inspiring and we’re gonna keep on growing!