Rubbish, mice and mould: good enough for young mums without money

Kate Belgrave /   June 29, 2015 at 8:38 PM 1,492 views

Since everyone’s talking about single mums and Cameron’s help-to-buy scheme, I thought I’d post a little something about the living conditions of a group of young mothers I’ve been meeting with recently. I thought – let’s just take a moment to inject a bit of reality into this. Let’s take a moment to look at the awful way that politicians of all stripes really treat single mothers who have nothing and need help. Let’s look at the way politicians behave towards young mothers who serve no useful political purpose – young women, say, who’ve had a baby early on, but have no money, no connections and none of the fancy schooling or (publicly-funded) expenses budgets enjoyed by so many of the MPs who judge these young mothers and who encourage everyone else to judge them and even to dob them in to authorities if they want. These mothers are some of the people on benefits who are taking the rap for a recession caused by the financial sector and for the slaughtering of social security that is so championed by politicians across the board. So – let’s take a moment to look at the way that some of these young women and their children live. The fact is that the young women I’m talking with live in unpleasant places – dirty, mouldy places which, the more I hear about them, sound like the sort of places where small children’s lives are actually at risk. Something needs to be done about this. Probably eff-all will be, given that commentators widely hold that Cameron has won the welfare debate (they say this for all the world as though a two-sided debate has been had) and politicians across the board are too frightened to speak up for the welfare state and/or people who need it. Nonetheless, we press on. We must press on. The group of young mothers I met with yesterday – all classed as homeless and all broke – are fighting a bloody battle with Newham Council for decent, clean housing in the borough for themselves and their small children. Many, apparently, will think they don’t deserve that housing, or housing at all – but that line is rubbish. From MPs, it is monumental rubbish. This is an era where MPs happily house their horses in heated stables courtesy of the taxpayer and expect taxpayers to fund their tennis court repairs and housing upgrades and sales. This is an era in which a career ego like Iain Duncan Smith is permitted to trash whole chunks of the exchequer via his useless Universal Credit “project”. So – the hell with the “scroungers” rhetoric. Clean, warm, decent housing is a right – and not just for horses. It is certainly a right as far as small children are concerned. Anyway, at the moment, these young women, who I’ve written about before, live in Newham’s Focus E15 foyer – a hostel which has about 16 flats for young parents and about 210 flats across the complex. It’s supposed to be temporary accommodation. Some of the women and their children have lived there for several years. And what a charming place it sounds. Last time I met with them, the women said it was “like a prison” – visitors must show ID before going in and visiting hours are restricted. Rooms are very small with folding-out beds and damp is a real problem. And there’s more. Yesterday when we met, I was shown pictures of rubbish piled up outside one woman’s front door and of sinks hanging off walls under which small children crawl. Here are some of the pictures – they’re a bit dark, but fairly clear. Here’s one of the sinks in the room coming away from the wall: Image of sink coming away from the wall Here’s the gap between the wall and the sink in more detail: Gap between sink and wall Here’s some of the rubbish piled up outside one young woman’s front door. Rubbish piled up at door Of even greater concern is the damp, mould and rodents the women describe. Says Rachel, who is 20 and the mother of a three-month-old son who has already had colds and a chesty cough: “There’s no ventilation in the toilet… there’s mould upon mould. We’ve had mice and [we’re] constantly getting damp. There are even rats. [The rubbish ends up by my door] because of where the bin chute is. Half the time they never unlock it, so people just pile their rubbish outside. My door is here and the bin chute is there.” “The smell is disgusting and it is really, really hard to live there. We try and stay out all day,” says 19-year-old Jasmin Stone. So. I put it to you that such conditions are dangerous for young children – extremely dangerous, even. I also put it to you that nobody has the right to impose those dangers on infants – particularly MPs who blow wads of taxpayers’ cash on horses’ paddocks and upgrades to flipped homes, or even, say, Newham councillors who piss £111m away on new office buildings which served primarily as Olympic vanity projects. You will understand why Austerity has become synonymous with Elimination in many minds. Before Christmas, I asked East Thames housing association (the HA which manages Focus E15) if I could visit the hostel. I wanted to see the place and conditions for myself. The answer was a resounding No, because staff and residents were under pressure. I’m raising these issues, though, because they need to be raised. They were raised with me before Christmas and again with supporters and campaigners yesterday. I post the details here, because a real response is required. Not a defensive response – a constructive response that everyone can work with is needed. In the meantime, I guess, we look at the people involved. There are a lot of children involved – kids who deserve their chance. Jasmin brought her 18-month-old daughter Safia with her yesterday – a dear little girl with the bright eyes, ready smile and natural gregariousness of children of that age. It was hard to see what she’d done to deserve a daily lungful of mould and regular trips around trash. I don’t imagine that she was responsible for the recession, or for austerity. She’ll pay for both, though, as will many children of parents whose greatest sins are a lack of funds and political connections. The irony is that these women are fighting eviction from this hostel. The hostel is not much, but it beats homelessness. People are very aware that this sort of accommodation could disappear at any moment as social security is attacked and attacked. Things are borderline as it is for Focus E15. The doors to the “mother and baby unit” have already closed to newcomers. East Thames HA says that it is not accepting new referrals to Focus E15 “until new funding arrangements are in place.” Earlier this year, Newham council made a decision to cut about £41,000 from Supporting People funding for the flats. East Thames HA said that the funding cut meant that they couldn’t afford to pay for support services for the women anymore. That being the case, the women would have to leave. Newham council gets emotional if this is described as an eviction threat: “it is factually inaccurate to report the mothers received eviction notices from Newham Council,” a statement I received reads. “In fact East Thames has issued all of the mums with a notice to quit which allows the mums to access housing support from Newham Council as well as look for options within the private rented sector.” (Right. We all know is happening to housing benefit tenants who are looking for homes with the likes of the now-legendary Fergus Wilson. “Single mothers on benefits have been displaced to the bottom of the pile; sympathy for this group is disappearing,” the great man informed the Guardian yesterday. Indeed). So. Eviction. Notice To Quit. Whatever. The fact is these women and their kids – who are all on benefits for now and all needing support to get things going – are in a bad place when it comes to secure housing. They are all also at the back of a very long queue. Their options: they can hope to find social housing in a borough which has 24,000 people on its council waiting list and recently changed its allocations policy to prioritise ex-servicepeople and people in work over people not in work (a decision, the council tells me, that was made as part of the council’s “resilience approach…. We want to support residents to help develop the skills they need to live independent and successful lives.” I must ask the council whether the “resilience approach” was ever applied to whichever Newham councillors decided on the shambolic £111m new building spree). Another option for the women is Miles Away From Newham. In Patrick Butler’s Guardian story here, Newham council claims that a shortage of social housing the borough means that the mothers may be housed as far away as Birmingham, Manchester or Hastings (a trend that does not delight Hastings worthies). I’ve written about the very real concerns that these women have about the problems they will have if they are sent to live so far away from their families. They want work, but they won’t be able to take it if their parents aren’t around to provide free childcare, because they’re unlikely to be in a position to afford childcare if they have to pay. I know that others resent people who say they want social housing so that they can stay in a place like London to be near family. I am only able to live in London because I share a cramped rented flat myself. That is not the point. The point is we would all do a lot better if we agitated for decent social housing near the places where we need to be. Let’s not forget that our glorious leaders flip homes and upgrade houses at our expense so that they can live where they want, and in style. Why shouldn’t the rest of us demand to be decently housed where we need to be? I would also add that there are people who believe that they could stay in Newham if the political will was there. Yesterday, I was taken for a tour through the Carpenters Estate – an estate that residents have fought hard to keep – and was shown the many boarded-up flats there. That is a topic I’ll get to in more detail in further posts, but you see the point. The other option for the women is, of course, private rental. That isn’t much of an option, though, and we all know that. Jasmin says that she spent several days ringing round a list of landlords and rental agents the council gave her – and got nothing. She repeatedly came up against a No DSS line. When she did manage to find one property, a working couple was able to undercut her, because they came in and paid the deposit. As I say – we all know what would happen if she rang Fergus Wilson. Give Robin Wales/Newham council a shout about all of this: [email protected] @NewhamLondon Or the East Thames Housing Association: [email protected] The Focus E15 mothers have a facebook page here Courtesy of Kate Belgrave

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