In October 2013 Newham Council made the decision to close the mother and baby unit at the Focus E15 hostel in Stratford, East London; 29 young single mothers who lived there were told to leave by 20 October. Some of the mothers were offered temporary accommodation outside of London, some as far away as Birmingham and Manchester, others were offered nothing and were declared officially homeless.
The hostel offered the mothers support for parenting and tuition in literacy and life and work skills, Newham Council footing the £125 per week per person for them to stay there. At the time Newham said that it could no longer afford to pay the £41,000 a year to keep the centre open — the short sightedness of this becomes apparent on learning that Newham is now paying a lot more for many of the ex-E15 mothers to live in substandard, temporary private rented accommodation — some of the mothers’ rents are over £250 per week. This cost-trimming narrative came from a council that boasted of £9 billion pounds of investment from the Olympics since 2012 and loaned West Ham football club £40m in 2013 to move into the Olympic stadium. Newham’s neglect towards its most vulnerable residents and its flippant attitude to council housing is nothing if it is not ideological.
But the mothers weren’t going to go quietly. They started a campaign demanding Newham Council allow them to stay in the hostel, or at least find them somewhere else to live in Newham. Focus E15 Mothers got thousands of signatures on a petition, went on protests and occupied empty properties in Newham several times. On 21 September they entered and occupied a block of four empty flats on the Carpenters Estate and turned it into a social centre. This is the estate that UCL wanted to demolish and build a new campus on a few years ago. Since losing UCL as buyer and even before this point, Newham have been running down the estate — slowly moving out tenants and not replacing them. Many of the flats and houses have been empty for more than eight years. This is in a borough with a waiting list for social housing of over 20,000 people. The E15 mothers say that they’ve broadened their campaign and this neglect of social housing and the people who should be living in it is now their priority.
I went down to meet the mothers in the social centre on Carpenters estate.
Novara: Hi, can you tell me a bit more about the E15 Mothers campaign so far?
Jasmin (left): It’s been quite successful and well publicised, we’ve had a lot of occupations and things like that, all of the mums, all 29 mums, have been rehoused in Newham, which is a victory, but we’re all in private rented accommodation. They’re only 12 month contracts so we don’t know at the end of 12 months what’s going to happen. Maybe they’re going to try to move us out of London again or even if we still are in private rented accommodation, the rents are still extremely high and it’s insecure.
How many of the mums are involved in this social centre now?
We have about six or seven that are involved. But all 29 of us are still in contact, so some others will occasionally come to things. But we’ve met so many more people who are suffering from housing problems. So our campaign is no longer just focused on the E15 mothers anymore — it’s focused on the future. We’ve widened it to help everyone and anyone with housing problems. And that’s what this social centre is all about.
How long are you planning to stay?
We’re going to have a meeting about it but hopefully we’re going to stay as long as possible. We want to use it as a social centre and offer free advice and write letters with people and calling the council for people — that’s another reason why people are being evicted.
What do you think about the Carpenters estate in particular — the council barricading houses and not letting people live in them?
I think it’s absolutely disgusting. It’s really, really upsetting. People are being forced onto the streets and there’s perfectly good accommodation here. We have literally just come here put some furniture down, had a basic clean, haven’t done any work to it and someone could move in here today — someone could move in right now. It’s wrong that they can’t. Some of these properties have been boarded up for eight years.
Can you tell me a bit about what you’ve been through over the last year?
Sam (right): I basically found out I was pregnant and they moved me into E15. I was in the mother and baby unit at E15 for about six months and I actually had my son there. When we got the eviction notices and I was like, ‘oh shit’: it was the day after my due-date. So obviously I was scared. Jasmin and I barely knew each other — we’ve known each other for just over a year. And Jasmin and I and a few other mums went around door knocking at the hostel trying to raise awareness, trying to get some of the mums involved and stuff. They were all really keen to get involved and keep it going and obviously we’re all still here today because of that. And if it weren’t for that campaign, we now have been moved out to either Manchester or Birmingham.
Did the council try to move you to these places?
I wasn’t, no. Jasmin and I were more vocal in the campaign, more public. So I don’t think they would have even tried with us personally. I’m living in private rented accommodation now. My rent is £249 a week.
Do the council pay for that?
I’m supposed to be fully covered but I recently received a letter from Notting Hill Housing Association, trying to tell me that I’m now in arrears for several hundred pounds rent even though I have a letter and a contract stating that I would be fully covered by the council for rent. Notting Hill Housing Association are saying that I’m meant to have been giving them £10 a week myself from the start of the contract. Now they’re saying it’s gone up to £30 a week. And I’m not paying it — the letter and contract from the council states that I don’t have to pay it. They can try to do all they like.
It seems kind of ridiculous that the council are paying that much a week for you to live there when they have perfectly good housing right here which they’re not using.
Yep, I know, I know. My parents and all of my family are living in a semi-detached townhouse, with four bedrooms and they’re paying just over £150 a week for four bedrooms. It’s with the Peabody Trust, which is another housing association. It’s not just this estate either. If you go anywhere, you’re bound to see an abandoned building, an abandoned house. This is what this protest is about: open up places like this. If you know they’re liveable in, open them up. And as you can see today, they are liveable.
How secure is your situation in private housing?
My contract is only a year so come March I don’t know what’s going to go on. I don’t know if they’re going to try to move me again because what they did last time is they moved the mums out separately, a couple a month or one a month, so they must think now that their contracts all have different end dates, they’re all going to be separated. No, sorry it doesn’t work like that — we are all friends, we’re here for each other. And if one person has problems, you have to deal with all of us. We’ve stuck together from the start. Most of the mums were on the council housing bidding lists but because we accepted private rental we had to come off that list, which is ridiculous.
Do you want to see more action like this?
Yeah. We need to stick it to the man.