Using direct action, housing activists challenge unfeeling and harsh local authority decision-making.
For years the Grenfell Action Group fought for basic housing rights and raised safety issues. They warned that people would die if they were ignored.
Yet the council and landlords did nothing. In your experience is this common?
Do councils ignore people when they ask for safe and secure housing?
People are ignored by the council when it’s obvious they’re vulnerable. They are asking for help for a reason, but the council seem to operate a policy of disbelief.
For the last year, we’ve been supporting four HASL families who live in statutorily overcrowded housing in the private rented sector Southwark. Their living conditions are appalling and inhumane. The last Labour government said statutory overcrowding was ‘no longer defensible in modern society’. It happens everyday.
Southwark council tells people they’ve caused overcrowding themselves, that it is a ‘deliberate act’ to live in overcrowded housing. That they should have found something better, tried zoopla.com. And they even ask why the families choose to live in Southwark. These are families who left Spain because they were homeless and couldn’t find work.
Last December we went to a Southwark Council cabinet meeting. One of our members stood up and said: “I ask you to please help us with our housing. My children especially are suffering at school. Their headmaster is willing to help us and said they are severely underperforming due to the stress of the living situation.”
Another member said: “I have been trying to apply for a long time and my applications have frequently been closed. I am asking you to help me because we are living in a very small space.”
We held up a drawing of her overcrowded house for the councillors to see. “This is a folding table,” she said pointing at the drawing. “This where we have dinner and we have two beds. And a cot and now she is walking so it is getting more difficult. Thank you very much for listening, I ask for your help.”
One of our younger members made a video about her living situation. Filming after school one day she said: “We need help because we have a small room and there is 16 people here. There’s six rooms. It is complicated when it is time to eat and go to the bathroom.”
Another young member, Juan, filmed his home. In the film Juan shows us his bedroom which he shares with his two brothers. His bed is a blanket on the floor. “Let me show you where I do my homework,” he says. “Where we eat, where my brothers do their homework and they always stress me because they don’t let me concentrate to do my exams.”
The council continued to ignore us. We started a petition addressed to the councillor with responsibility for housing.
At Grenfell people raised concerns and were ignored. We’re afraid of what will happen if we’re ignored too. Overcrowded housing is unsafe housing. Victim blaming is not an acceptable response.
We’ve had similar problems with Lambeth council too. One of our members lived with her family in one room. It was tiny. She shared it with her husband and their two daughters. They shared kitchen and bathroom facilities with other families, who lived in the other bedrooms of the small house. In total there were 12 people living in three rooms.
The council refused to help.
Months after this member first went to the council, she was physically assaulted by someone from another household sharing the accommodation.
After the assault, our member went to the housing office again to make a homeless application. The council said she would need to report the assault to the police before they could open a homeless assessment. Because she had a buddy with her, they managed to fight this gatekeeping and get a homeless assessment and temporary housing for the family. But the temporary housing was out of borough meaning long journeys to school for the children.
Together we fought the council’s position and demanded suitable accommodation: we conducted a Twitter campaign, we held a large protest, we made official complaints. The council refused to engage with us directly, but after a protest outside the housing office, our member was given higher priority on the council housing waiting list.
What has the council response been to HASL directly intervening in cases?
The councils’ responses are mixed. But one thing is for sure, both Lambeth and Southwark councils have failed to engage meaningfully and respectfully with us.
They have failed to address the housing issues and abuses we’ve highlighted. They were not interested in supporting some of their most vulnerable residents. Reading through a recent council letter sent to a number of members, councillors seem horrified and resentful that poor migrant families could even consider making Southwark their home.
Most London private renters struggle to find suitable housing. This is more complicated if you have children, claim benefits and don’t have English as a first language. Five families were living in statutorily overcrowded housing because they struggled to find suitable homes. They were locked out of the private rental market because of discrimination and racism. Yet Southwark council deemed them living in overcrowded housing a ‘deliberate act’. This is a quote from the council’s letter:
“...having conducted several searches on the external property website www.zoopla.com we found several properties within southeast London which fell within the local housing allowance rental level.
“I am satisfied that the overcrowded circumstances your household is currently residing within has been caused through a deliberate act ... I have not found any grounds to conclude it is a necessity for your household to reside in the borough to maintain employment.”
Last year we were invited to a meeting with Southwark housing officers to discuss the problems we face. In advance of the meeting we gave the housing officers details of the cases we wanted them to investigate. But when we arrived they hadn’t even looked at the cases. Their response to our questions was, “Yeah, we'll look into it.” They refused to commit to anything there and then. For us, the meeting was a waste of time. Someone noticed that the manager had kept looking at his watch throughout the meeting.
That’s not to say we haven’t had any success. When the council refused to house a woman and her children fleeing domestic violence we campaigned against the decision. Within 24 hours the council changed its mind and housed the family.
Recently, we met another woman made homeless after fleeing domestic violence a year ago. Last October she had approached Southwark housing office, but they stalled in helping her. They should have started a homeless assessment, but failed to do so. She was homeless, forced to sleep on a friend’s sofa.
Earlier this year, she went back to the council this year with a buddy. Still no homeless assessment. This is something she was legally entitled to. During that visit, the woman and her buddy got a copy of the council’s refusal. It was a handwritten note. We shared the note on Twitter. Soon after that the council got in touch and a homeless assessment was arranged.
Direct action, case by case
Other times our influence is indirect. Before HASL and in our early days, we heard reports of Southwark council turning away homeless families without legal help. People said the atmosphere in the housing office was one of bullying and intimidation. People would turn up to our meetings saying they had tried to make a homeless application but had been turned away with nothing.
One family came to our meeting and said they had visited the housing office eight times and each time they had been turned away without any help.
A few years ago, we met a father and his toddler leaving the housing office having been turned away with no housing assistance. “You guys were my saviour that day,” he told us later.
He explains what happened:
“I was sent there to a caseworker, judging me, this man judging me straight saying, ‘no, you can’t have a house, you have to go and look for private accommodation’. And they said I made myself intentionally homeless without investigating my case and they threw me out.
“I came out and I met you guys … you accompanied me and then there was a commotion there [at the housing office] … From there on they had to change. The manager came and then the decision was reversed. I was given another appointment. I came back and it was a bit [easier] for me. Because of the intervention? I don’t know. And from there, we are alright.”
We blogged about what was happening. We helped people get council appointments. We leafleted outside the housing office so people knew their rights. It was a way to show solidarity for people going into appointments.
The council could not ignore us. They began to deal with the gatekeeping. People at HASL meetings stopped saying they couldn’t get homeless appointments. Some of our members were able to secure homeless applications themselves. Others remarked that the atmosphere inside the housing office had improved considerably.
However, there is still work to do. For over a year the council has ignored a number of HASL families who are statutorily overcrowded.