High rent, unemployment, homelessness and rehousing: The Ahmeds at the #Londonfoodbank

Sadida Ahmed at Greenwich food bank
Sadida Ahmed at Greenwich foodbank

 

Sadida Ahmed and her husband Malik used to have a reasonable life. Yes, they rented from a private landlord, and because this is London they paid a lot for the ‘privilege’ – £1,200 a month. But they both used to work – Malik had spent 15 years working full-time as a security guard. According to Malik, 44,  ‘everything was fine’. But now they are struggling, and they came into the Greenwich food bank pushing their two  daughters of just 17 months and six months in the pram. They became homeless when the landlord gave them notice to quit. The rent had become too high for the couple to afford. They were rehoused by Lambeth Council ‘out of borough’, so they ended up living in a council property  in the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

Before the family moved in they say they were told that the council property was furnished – but it turned out to be unfurnished. So one of the babies doesn’t have a cot and the couple are sleeping (and sitting) on an old mattress in the living room. They do have a cooker – but no washing machine.

Malik is looking for work and Sadida, 28, is four months pregnant. What little money they have – Malik’s Job seeker’s Allowance, child tax credit and child benefit – doesn’t go very far. Having small children is very expensive at the best of times. Money needs to be found for nappies, formula milk and baby clothes, on top of the usual household bills.

Here Malik describes the family’s difficult circumstances.

He says: ‘I have £113 a week and I have to pay bills and pay for the babies’  food. I’m really struggling at the moment and I don’t know what to do and that’s why I’m here. I ran out of food. I’m not getting enough money to look after my family at the moment. I’m keen for work and looking for a job. When a job comes I will be fine, but at the moment it’s really hard.  I have two small babies of six months and 17 months, and my missus she’s pregnant too. Shes 14 weeks plus. It’s really hard to cope with.’

Harpinder Singh, a local councillor in Woolwich happened to be at the food bank, and met the couple. Malik has promised to get in touch with him. Harpinder, who has spent some time in this food bank recently, says that the situations he encounters might be expected ‘in the Far East or Africa, but we shouldn’t see them here’. He says he recently heard of a young family with no electricity or gas at home – ‘and then it becomes a safeguarding issue as they can’t cook food’. The next step in that case was to refer the issue to staff at the council, for an immediate response’.

He believes that the Royal Borough of Greenwich ‘has a willingness to help’. He says that before the most significant changes to the benefits system kicked in, ‘we identified people who were most likely to be affected by the changes – we identified them early and tried to help them get back into work’. He said that ‘to his knowledge we have not had to move people out of borough – not like in Tower Hamlets or Westminster’. He added: ‘It’s about using your resources – we’ve done well (at helping the vulnerable on the limited resources we have.’

Councillor Singh believes that its going to get even harder to help the most needy.  The Local Government Association has warned that support for vulnerable people in crisis will either have to be scaled back or scrapped completely in almost three-quarters of council areas from next April when government stops funding for Local Welfare Assistance schemes. A survey of local authorities suggests ‘councils will hugely struggle to maintain current levels of help for vulnerable people when government scraps the £347 million Local Welfare Assistance fund next year’, according to the LGA, and ‘the ending of government funding for councils’ emergency support schemes comes on top of a 40 per cent reduction in local government funding over the course of this Parliament’.

The Local Welfare Assistance fund was introduced in 2013 to replace government-provided crisis loans, with each local authority area allocated money from the £347 million total. Government’s local government finance settlement published last December revealed that funding would not be continued from 2015, despite no consultation being held on the scheme’s future.

Meanwhile, in the increasingly surreal world of London housing, London Mayor Boris Johnson is said to be about to approve plans today for ‘affordable housing’ flats that could cost tenants up to £2,800 a month to rent. He’s not fighting a one-man crusade either. According to a letter in the Guardian yesterday from chairs of the former crown estate residents’ associations, Peabody, a charity whose founding purpose is to improve the conditions of the poor and needy in London, is ‘also advertising homes it bought from the crown estate in 2011 at ‘affordable’ rents that no key worker can afford’. The former chairs have called on Peabody to ‘scrap this ludicrous rent model and honour its commitments to us and to its founding principles’.

When Malik finds a job, what are the chances that he can move his young family into a home in a location of their choice, at a level of rent that still enables them to lead a decent life?

Is that too much to ask?

 

Homeless cleared from London streets: But many face long stays in waiting areas

David Goddard spent four weeks sleeping on the floor at one of  the three No Second Night Out hubs in London. The target length of stay is 72 hours.
David Goddard spent four weeks sleeping on the floor at one of the three No Second Night Out hubs in London. The target length of stay is 72 hours.
A few weeks ago I wrote about David Goddard, a young homeless man who was released from prison and spent a number of weeks in accommodation known as the hub in Lewisham, South East London. The hub is a place which takes in new rough sleepers, and is run by an organisation called No Second Night Out (NSNO). NSNO was set up in 2011 by Mayor of London Boris Johnson as part of an agenda to end rough sleeping in London by 2012. The Greater London Authority (GLA) pays for the stays. The idea is to stop the homeless spending a second night on the street and to prevent them becoming entrenched there. There are two other NSNO hubs in London providing emergency spaces for the homeless – in Islington and Shepherd’s Bush. NSNO describes these places as “an A&E for the homeless – a safe space”, and as a “staging area”.

David told me that in the past he had an issue with heroin addiction and had been forced to steal to survive. He got into trouble with the police and ended up in prison because of this. He  said a few things about his NSNO hub accommodation that concerned me. He described a room containing about 25 people of both sexes, with people sleeping on the floor and chairs. He also said people as young as 16 or 17 had been there, and that he had been staying there for six weeks.

I needed to check all this out, because of the safeguarding issues potentially raised. To do this I spoke to Deputy Director of NSNO Dan Olney, who talked me through the project. He said: “NSNO is an emergency response to rough sleeping. Before we were around,  an outreach worker would have approached someone on the street. It didn’t provide for  that emergency need, and if they arranged to meet someone the next day it was difficult. Instead we have a hub rather than a hostel and the intended length of stay is 72 hours. The reality is there are cases where people stay there longer than that. It’s usually because we are trying to get an outcome via the local authority.”

When people overstay, “60 per cent of the time it’s because of a third-party – a mix of someone waiting for an appointment with the local authority, or for a response from a housing provider, or they’ve been assessed and are waiting for a housing vacancy”. NSNO “usually” expects the local authority to provide interim accommodation. “Quite often that depends on the client’s needs. A lot of our work is focused on trying to get people a service if they are entitled to it,” he added. David, he says, ended up in the unit for four weeks, rather than the six weeks he mentioned.

David told me that he was asked to leave after he got involved in a dispute with another person staying there. When I met him he had started squatting locally in an industrial unit.

Dan Olney said that if those taken into one of the three hubs had a link with another area (where they have spent three of the last five years), staff arrange to go with them to their “home” local authority and ask them to take on the case. But, “if they don’t meet the thresholds of priority need then there is guidance – but no legal obligation to meet their housing needs”. Of the 6,000 clients they’ve had since 2011, for the ones they recorded, 30 per cent had already approached their local authority for advice and assistance. For example, he told me that in the last quarter – January to March – 91 new rough sleepers had come to the borough of Westminster alone and had become clients of NSNO. But only two had a connection to Westminster. Many of them are EU nationals or from further afield.

So the aim is to do an assessment on each client within 72 hours and to then physically reconnect them to the place where they have a “home connection”. He says that NSNO “literally reconnects people worldwide, and it’s not just (giving them) a ticket – it’s working with the Home Office towards making them an offer”. What then about duty of care for the many clients who can’t be moved on within this time frame? “Security and safety is a big thing for us. We’re staffed 24 hours a day and we have to be very strict with people. If someone is presenting as a risk to people, then we give them a warning. If they’re demonstrating threatening behaviour or if someone is particularly vulnerable to a particular client group we would put them into a different part of the service.”

While the Greater London Authority pays for the stays having awarded the NSNO project a two-year contract, the project is actually run by St Mungo’s Broadway, which describes itself on its website as “a charity, a limited company and a housing association”. It says there that its aim is “helping people recover from the issues that create homelessness”. St Mungo’s Broadway employs the NSNO staff.

NSNO, said Dan, “manages safeguarding ourselves internally, and if we had a concern we would flag it up ourselves and contact the duty officer at local safeguarding services”. As well as a “risk management strategy for everyone in the hub, we have individual risk assessments”. He said the minimum age for someone staying in the hub is 18. “If they are 16 or 17 years old they would go straight to the local authority.”The hubs in Islington and Shepherd’s Bush have the option of separate accommodation for women. Dan said the hub in Lewisham is the staging post for people with lower needs. He added: “For people who have got higher needs we try to press the local authority to get them somewhere away from the hub. David would not have necessarily been acceptable for that, and a lot of time this is the reason for a long stay.”

He described NSNO as a project that is “rapid” at getting people off the streets, “but the systems that are in place around us are not always conducive to us meeting our targets”. Quite often, there’s a dispute with the local authority about whether it should be taking on a client. “It comes down to the person (from the local authority) who had done the assessment. We may think a person has a priority need, but the local authority assessment comes to a different conclusion.” The project is currently drawing up protocols with all local authorities in London, with the aim of ensuring the 72-hour time for dealing with clients is met. “The ethos is about trying to influence external partners to change the way they work to expedite the process to get people off the street,” said Dan. Some local authorities, in his view, are completely engaged with the process. Others, “particularly outer London boroughs – say we’re not having them back”.