Alberta has just had major surgery; Bea was rehoused after being shot (twice); Charlie has to leave because of an anxiety attack. Just another day on the housing duty rota for Nathaniel Mathews
And so to the Gee Street Court House for my stint as duty solicitor, to represent any tenant without a lawyer in the undefended possession list. A list where sometimes there is as little as five minutes a case for the District Judges to decide on who must stay, and who must go, and will live to fight another day.
Alberta has an eviction listed in two hours. A single parent who has had serious abdominal surgery this summer, she has been advised to come off her Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) to claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). She is then failed for ESA, told to go back to JSA, then promptly advised by benefit officers to reclaim ESA – which is again refused, apparently when she was having surgery.
The judge stays the warrant for two months.
Bea was rehoused after being shot twice. She used to work with young offenders, more recently as a teaching assistant through an agency. Her income is unstable and in school holidays she is forced to claim Universal Credit. The shiny new benefit that insists on sending your Housing Benefit (HB) directly to you, not your landlord, every month not every week. The theory is that people with proper jobs get paid monthly and this will teach Bea proper budgeting skills. Yet hers is a weekly tenancy and she is paid by the week, when there is work.
‘I wish I had never claimed Universal Credit,’ says Bea, who offers to cash in her pension.
Judge and housing officer feel sorry and embarrassed and case is adjourned generally on payment of rent plus £5 a week. As she leaves, Bea promises to pay off her arrears once the compensation for her injuries arrives – should it arrive.
Charlie worked as bartender and a cashier, always on the edge. He fell apart after he was assaulted and has just gone on to sickness benefits. After waiting for three hours, he finally has to leave due to an anxiety attack. His housing officer is late and apologetic. There has been a screw-up at head office.
The housing officer agrees to adjourn the hearing for two weeks while Housing Benefit adjusts to Charlie’s recently awarded ESA. While we wait to get on, he tells me that he is in despair, because the new Housing Act is the death knell for social housing.
Feeling mildly cheerful at only three cases, I jump on the 55 bus and head back to the office. The sun is up, the air is clear, what could possibly go wrong?
Then I am hit by a blizzard of homelessness.
Danni has lived for years in a fog of mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence. Every time she has a kid the council takes the child away. Incredibly, the council does not think she is vulnerable, so she will be on the street tomorrow. Time to get a judicial review cranked up.
Edie, who is almost 60, interrupts me. She has had a thyroid removed, is diabetic, but does not yet inject insulin, hears voices and is long term depressed. She is on ESA, a fairly stringent benefit that tests functional impairment. The council says she is not vulnerable, and she will be on the streets quite soon.
Freda is a single mum who has recently given birth. As a European she is required to work to claim Tax Credits and housing. Yet despite her best efforts, her zero hours contract fails to give her the paperwork the council wants to verify her activities, so she and her baby will be homeless on Friday.
Gary and his family were evicted the day before yesterday. He suffers from mental illness and relies on local services. His kids are in local schools. Yet the emergency accommodation offered is outside London. Terrified of being uprooted, he refuses. The council appears to have closed his case and will do nothing more to help. The Supreme Court says this is the wrong approach, yet it happens every day.
Helga was found intentionally homeless when she realised that her landlord was going to have her home repossessed because he could not keep up with the mortgage. She kept the rent money so that she could rent somewhere else but could not find a landlord prepared to help benefit claimants, even with the nest egg. She is worried that social workers will take her child into care in give days time because she is homeless.
India left care and started to work in various nurseries. Tragically this success story foundered when, due to the various changes in her jobs, the long hours, the delayed HB assessments, she lost the plot, had a nervous breakdown, fell into rent arrears and was evicted. Having been found intentionally homeless by the council, she may risk her own child being taken into care. She will be homeless in the next few days also.
Jamil worked 30 years in Sainsbury’s and then became too ill to carry on. He’s 60 with various ailments, high blood pressure, depression. He paid into the system all his life and did nothing wrong. Not vulnerable enough it seems. Yet, at the last minute, the council offers him sheltered housing. Problem is, the offer hasn’t come though yet, and his temporary accommodation was terminated yesterday.
As I foolishly wander by reception, Kerry grabs me. Her marital home was sold eight years ago after mortgage arrears, but there was substantial equity left after the mortgage was paid off. She has been homeless, she tells me, for those eight years because the lending company have tied her up with paperwork ever since.
All in one damn day. At this point my brain shuts down and I have to leave the rest of the alphabet until tomorrow.
What conclusions can be drawn from a single day?
Is it that I hate the various councils who have made palpably inhumane decisions about the vulnerability of sick people and are prepared to put them on the streets? Not really. Funding cuts mean there are fewer people working in those councils, and diminishing properties in London for people of little means. Yet I wish that the wealthier leafy suburbs of West London would stop dumping poor people in East London, abnegating all responsibility, and then turning to their voters with a big smile and telling them that the reason that they have lower council tax is that they are more efficient. More efficient at turning a blind eye to the disabled, perhaps.
Is it that there are more evictions and more homeless problems but fewer lawyers to help? Yes. The legal aid cuts have meant that in every single one of the cases that I have mentioned, a loss of service for people with money problems has pushed the household into homelessness. Yet even though legal aid is still there to retain the roof over your head, fewer lawyers want to do the work. The warhorses retire. The colts shy away.
Is it that poor people and people of modest means are being forced out of London? Yes. Those of you who believe that this is healthy expression of the free market, consider. Where will the bartenders and cleaners you rely on live? When you have a stroke, who will empty your bedpan?
Is it that Universal Credit is the panacea? No. The machinery so far has transferred HB applications to the Department of Work and Pensions, which has lost every letter that I have written. This does not look promising.
Is it that the Housing Act will fundamentally wreck social housing? Yes. Council housing will be decimated, which is an expression that is almost always used wrongly, although not on this occasion: think 10 per cent of council stock being sold off every year without any replacements for those who need homes.
Am I in despair? No.
Against all the odds, with three solicitors leaving and awaiting replacements, with our debt adviser breaking his leg at our front door, with our administrator Bella injuring her knee collecting the DX, we have something special.
We have the volunteers. Angharad who was hit by a car on her way to issue a judicial review, but issued. Justin, who helped us win three asylum cases in one day. Aniko, who persuaded the council not to call the police when Mrs Angry came to discuss her rent arrears, then got at £3,000 backdated benefit claim. Onuka, who holds the fort.
Welcome to London, one of the most affluent cities on earth.
A version of this article first appeared on Nathaniel’s blog Frontline Hackney.