As a member of London-based housing activist groups, I often find myself on the front lines of the struggle of against gentrification and homelessness. It’s a fight that often takes place in the mundane surroundings of housing offices up and down the country; a bureaucratic battle waged over the lives of the precariously housed.
Over the last couple of years, homelessness has been increasing across the city and throughout the rest of the UK; the result of rising rents, low and stagnant wages, and benefit cuts. A whole range of statistics testifies to this rise in homelessness, and to the subsequent social cleansing. Freedom of Information requests show London councils’ efforts to relocate homeless households out of their boroughs or even out of the city altogether. Hundreds of homeless families have refused such moves – which means councils declare them ‘intentionally homeless’. This year is expected to see the highest number of possession orders granted and landlords are lobbying to make evictions even swifter. Meanwhile, local councils are guarding their housing offices against these new homeless applicants. Housing officers use various so-called ‘gatekeeping’ tactics to prevent homeless applications from being made, and then to make the process as difficult as possible if the applicant does get past the first barriers.
At Southwark’s housing office, this gatekeeping starts literally at the front door, where a security guard and a member of staff stand ready to divert you to a touch screen computer to deal with your housing problem. A poster inside the building threatens you: ‘Homeless? We will check, check and check again’. Other tactics used to prevent homeless applications being made involve telling people that they do not meet the eligibility criteria for help, that they have made themselves ‘intentionally homeless’, or that they must look in the private sector for housing. All this despite the fact that housing offices supposedly have a legal duty to help those presenting as homeless and despite turning people away without any support being unlawful.
Such gatekeeping ensures vulnerable homeless people stay homeless or in unsafe, overcrowded housing. It denies them both the immediate help they need and a place on housing registers so that they might eventually grant them access secure to social housing. It is happening daily at housing offices all across London, carried out by staff and managers desperate to ‘save’ the councils’ depleted resources and stop homelessness figures from rising. Hundreds of individuals and families each week are being kept homeless. This process reinforces discriminations based on race, gender, class, disabilities, and those who have English as a second language. EU migrants are often wrongly told they don’t meet eligibility criteria, those who do not have English as a first language are messed about, and women fleeing violence are disbelieved.
Gatekeeping isn’t a new response to the intensifying housing crisis. It has been going on for some time now in housing offices, and in other social and governmental institutions to which the vulnerable look for help. London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP) started out in 2007 in Hackney; they quickly picked up on the problem of gatekeeping at their housing office and began organising around this. Eight years later and deeper into a crisis of public funding, LCAP has grown, developing links with new local groups across London who organise collective support and action on housing problems. These groups target their campaigns against gatekeeping practices in local councils – particularly those in areas hit hard by gentrification, such as Southwark and Lambeth.
In June, Haringey Housing Action Group (HHAG) successfully challenged Haringey council’s gatekeeping when they had refused to provide housing for a heavily pregnant woman. Initially, they responded to their responsibility to house her by recommending that she should have the baby and then wait for the bailiffs and then come to the council. An occupation of the housing office by HHAG members overturned this decision and got her housing the same day.
Southwark council’s unlawful gatekeeping hit the headlines earlier this year after they lost a number of high profile court cases. In February, a High Court judge ordered Southwark council ‘to cease with immediate effect the policies and practices’ which had seen a homeless family refused help by the council and told to look for their own accommodation in the private sector. In May, a homeless man, Mr Kanu, who had been denied help by Southwark council, won in the Supreme Court where the judge ruled that Kanu was entitled to housing. Sadly, Kanu died shortly after this victory. Another complainant, M. Hotak, who took his case against Southwark to the Supreme Court alongside Mr Kanu, was found not to be in priority need, but the Supreme Court ruled that the council should look closely at its protocols with regard to him. And of course, there was the case of the resident known as AA, in which the council was indicted for evicting a Sudanese man and destroying all of his possessions. Although not strictly speaking an example of gatekeeping, this particularly extreme case reveals the often toxic atmosphere and abuse perpetrated by some of the housing officers.
There is also statistical evidence that Southwark are gatekeeping more than other London boroughs. As Nearly Legal pointed out on Twitter, Southwark’s homelessness statistics for May 2014 to January 2015 show that of 1,511 approaches (those that were able to actually get a homeless application started), 48% were accepted and given a full homeless duty compared to a London average of c.61%. Nearly Legal also notes that these statistics once had targets written under some of the homelessness categories. These targets were removed from the document after it was leaked – now it helpfully reads ‘Control homeless applications received (no target set)’.
Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) first visited Southwark’s Peckham housing office just over a year ago in support of one of our members. On that first visit, as we desperately tried to get Mary the housing to which she was entitled, we were confronted by a manager who shouted at us and then stormed away before we could say anything. Other staff members that day told us – in classically disingenuous gatekeeping style – that being in rent arrears meant she wasn’t eligible for help. Another told us we could only get her help from social services. This was our first experience of abusive treatment and disrespect from staff who steadfastly refused to help. From that first visit, it was clear things were not as they should be in the housing office.
On subsequent attempts to support our members, we were again berated and refused the right to sit in on a member’s housing interview – despite requests for interview support. The gatekeeping in this case involved the punitive treatment of Elena and her family over numerous gruelling day-long visits. On two occasions when we were leafleting outside, we had the police called on us by the housing office staff.
Security staff have on other occasions refused to show their security ID, and threatened to physically assault us. They have snatched leaflets from our hands. Multiple times, they totally shut down the housing office, refusing anybody entry, simply because of the presence of one or two people leafleting outside. When the housing office is functioning and open, many of us have been denied entry to the building to support our members who have requested that we accompany them. When we challenge gatekeeping, the housing office goes into lock-down, as if it could not function if forced to meet its legal duties to people.
This is not confined to Southwark housing office. But the aggression and abuse that attends every part of the application process seems to make Southwark stand out from other London housing offices. After the High Court judgement in February, Southwark’s councillor for housing Richard Livingstone claimed the council had stopped the unlawful gatekeeping it had been called out on in court, back in May 2014. Though practices have supposedly been reformed, HASL has since come across very clear cases of Southwark unlawfully gatekeeping applicants. At our regular leafleting sessions, we have spoken to many people who have faced Southwark’s gatekeeping tactics and been denied housing help for, well, whatever reason the staff can come up with.
We met Elena through English for Action (a charity which runs participatory ESOL classes) after her teacher approached us for help. Elena and her family had been living in severely overcrowded accommodation in a house of multiple occupancy. The five of them were living in one room. They shared facilities with the numerous other occupants of the house. The other tenants were hostile to the family. There was constant noise in the place. The accommodation was damp and in very poor condition. Elena had approached the housing office eight to ten times by herself – but each time had been turned away without any help, even though her situation should have triggered a homeless application and the provision of interim housing. “They said they couldn’t do anything. I had to look for myself. They tried to send me out every time I went. I didn’t want to go anymore, they were treating me so badly,” Elena explained. She looked everywhere for private rented accommodation but couldn’t find anywhere that they could afford. The bad housing was having serious effects on the family, “everyone was stressed, the children were scared being in the corridors.”
Elena came to HASL meetings, and we were able to book a homelessness application. We organised for HASL ‘buddies’ to support the family at the housing office. But this wasn’t the end of the gatekeeping and abusive treatment by staff. Whilst the initial gatekeeping had kept the family in severely overcrowded, unsafe housing, causing the family a great deal of stress, subsequent gatekeeping during the homeless application (which took a total of three full days at the housing office) made the experience as difficult and horrible as possible. Five sides of paper with 71 questions, supposedly about ‘priority need’, were given to both Elena and her husband to fill out, even though English is not their first language. Questions included ‘what are your hobbies?’ and whether they would accept private rented accommodation if helped with the deposit. Elena recalls this difficult time: “They made me feel very bad – really guilty because they were asking me why I had put my children in this situation – it was like they were accusing me all the time.” She explained that the presence of HASL throughout the interview process was vital to combating gatekeeping and getting the help the family needed: “Without going with Liz [a HASL buddy], nothing would have happened.”
A couple of months after this case, HASL were leafleting outside the housing office when we met Tom walking from the housing office with his small son. He stopped to tell us that the staff would not house him and his son; they had not even told him that social services could provide housing. “We have nowhere to go tonight,” he told us – just as he had told the housing office staff. Seeing as Tom and his small son met all the requisite racist criteria about their immigration status, that statement alone should have been enough to oblige the council to provide accommodation whilst they looked into the situation. But instead they told Tom that he must ask the people the they had been staying with for more notice and look into private renting.
This is yet another instance of Southwark council telling vulnerable homeless people to look into the private sector instead of providing accommodation as they are legally required to. These are precisely the practices for which they were reprimanded in the High Court back in February. We talked to Tom about his homelessness rights and what the council should have done. We told him that if they still refused, social services could provide accommodation because he has a child. We offered to return to the housing office to help him ask for the interim accommodation he was entitled to. When the HASL member and Tom went to the doorway they were blocked by security refusing to allow the HASL member in, despite Tom’s request that he have someone accompany him, and despite the fact that we produced there and then a letter from councillor Richard Livingstone giving us permission to accompany people to the housing office.
There was a stand-off at the door as security blocked us and two other HASL members joined to ask why they were refusing Tom the support he wanted to challenge the original gatekeeping. Tom was allowed in by himself. Although we couldn’t be in the room, our presence at the door where we attempted to press his basic homelessness rights meant this time an officer went through the correct process with him and eventually provided Tom and his son with housing. Whilst we continued leafleting outside, the police rolled up. The housing office staff had called them. They quickly admitted we were doing nothing wrong and left.
Later that day, HASL challenged councillor Richard Livingstone on Twitter about the events that had occurred. Livingstone’s response, to a situation he had not been present at, was to viciously attack HASL, denying the very reality we had experienced. Livingstone’s version of events included Tom not having been turned away, and not wanting our help to challenge the gatekeeping that hadn’t happened in the first place. Like many when confronted with the extent of gatekeeping practices in local councils, he manipulated the situation and denied the problem. Clearly, those who facilitate gatekeeping and abuse are not limited to the bounds of the housing office.
I spoke with Tom shortly after the event to see how he was doing. “You guys were my saviour that day.” He explained what happened when he first visited the housing office: “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 and you asked me and said this is not legal. I spoke with you guys and you accompanied me and then there was a commotion there and from there 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 easy for me, because of the intervention, I don’t know and from there, we are alright.”
Tom was adamant about the vital and supportive role we had played that day. “I told everyone who asked me how I did it. Left with me alone it was zero zero zero. I didn’t do it by myself – it was your group…They had to swallow their words; your intervention reversed their decision. I am in temporary housing because of you guys…The security guards were saying, ‘These guys can’t help you.’ I said, ‘Who helped turn over the decision?’”
That was June. Since then, HASL has continued to encounter gatekeeping practices. Three families have come to HASL meetings to get help after being denied housing help they are legally entitled to from Peckham council. Fortunately, we have been able to secure them the homeless appointments they had been denied. Others were not so lucky. We have spoken to dozens more people outside the housing office who have been turned away without accommodation – sent out on various bureaucratic wild goose chases after that specific letter from a family member, that correctly signed proof of nationality, or whatever other excuse the housing officers decides would be the most effective distraction.
It has taken collective action, or the threat of it, to support people to challenge gatekeeping. Facing the housing office alone, they got nowhere. HASL has been organising to challenge and transform this toxic culture so that people are treated with respect and given access to the services and housing they need and are entitled to. But when HASL members raise issues of gatekeeping and abuse, both councillors and managers have attempted to turn the blame onto HASL for ‘intimidating’ staff. This kind of victim-blaming is a classic tactic in cultures of abuse and impunity. Our presence at the housing office usually involves two people handing out leaflets outside, perhaps one or two people attempting to give buddy support.
As well as the tremendous power imbalance that operates in the housing office, there is also a significant size difference between HASL members and security staff that makes the idea of us intimidating them laughable – as well as the catalogue of their previous behaviours. Even the local Unison branch has joined in on the attack – demanding that staff (who have been threatening and bullying HASL members and denying them access) are not recorded when doing their job. When facing hostile security and staff, filming the abuse is often the only defence we have – much like for those who find themselves targeted by police and Immigration Enforcement. Yet, instead of being concerned about what exactly their members are doing and taking this seriously, Unison seems to be concerned with defending the rights of members to commit abuse undocumented.
Despite these seemingly huge odds, HASL’s practical support and solidarity and our local campaign against gatekeeping has had a number of concrete successes and attracted a growing number of people. Having realised that they can’t ignore us, managements of certain local offices offered to have a meeting with us about the situation, although of course we approach this with some scepticism. Our regular leafleting and presence outside the housing office ensures that more people know their rights and how to get involved to enforce them, and a number of people have commented that our presence outside has seen an improvement in how the staff treat people.
These may seem like very basic rights – but we’re having fight fiercely to assert them because they’re being so rapidly eroded. But there is hope. Our encounters with local councils have shown that direct action can get the goods; together, we can provide collective support and action to get the housing we all need and deserve.
Photos: Haringey Housing Action Group, Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth
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