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