[Ben Reeve Lewis takes a trip down memory lane …]
Can you believe that when I first decided to write a news round-up column for Tessa I didn’t want to get angry or cynical. I wanted to find the more heart-warming, human interest stories. Report on innovations and exciting ideas.
Actually I am one of life’s natural ‘Glass half full’ types but the more I see what is happening in housing the more I take the view that if a glass is half full, there is room in it for more alcohol.
Looking back to the Spike
I came into housing in what seemed more innocent, even optimistic times by working as a teenager in a 1,200 bed direct access night shelter in Peckham, called the Camberwell Spike.
I’ve written about it before. The residents back then were cartoon “Dossers” as they were known at the time.
We didn’t think about the pejorative meaning of the word. To us, working in the trade “Dosser” was just a descriptive title, as were the words “Dive Bombing” (Meaning to pick up discarded cigarette ends from the street) ‘Skippering’, meaning to spend a night sleeping rough and, being the days before cheap booze, drinking “Jack”, meths or surgical spirits mixed with Milk or Cider, depending on personal cocktail preferences.
Such were the realities of my day.
The guys weren’t really like today’s street homeless. They were more cartoon tramp-like, almost to a man over 50 and all looked like Blackbeard the pirate. Sort of quaint looking back.
Neighbours complained about our residents passing out in the street and vomiting in their front gardens, so we tried to make amends by bringing in new clothes for them that we bought from bankrupt fashion chains to tart our lads up.
We once got an assignment of colourful defunct boutique shirts in cellophane wrappers that nobody had checked that we eagerly gave out to Frank and Joe, and Mohammed, only to find when they were all decked-up in their finest and wandering around in the disgruntled community, wearing 70s style pink, cerise, plum and apricot button collared numbers that the word “Tramps” had been stylishly embroidered above the pocket.
What can ya do? Laugh! That’s what. Laugh at the serendipity of life.
But for the third week running I find it difficult to laugh at what is happening to my fellow citizens.
Capping in Croydon
Croydon Council, neighbours to the London borough I work in, got themselves in hot water this week following a Newsnight programme that pilloried them for spending £1.5 million on placing homeless families in a run-down hotel, reported widely but perhaps most accurately on 24 Dash
To be honest, Croydon tells it like it is when they said:
“Caps to the local housing allowance – of between £250 for a one-bedroom flat and £400 for a four-bedroom property – is pricing families on benefits outside the private rented sector.”
Going on to say:
“The amount of new private rented accommodation supply available to the council has fallen from 393 homes in 2008/09 to 31 last year.”
393 – 31??? That is what councils are really facing.
Now I don’t blame PRS landlords for not wanting to take on benefit tenants. Market rents far outstrip LHA levels and landlords have to deal with ‘Computer says no’ Councils if they are going to take them on, but it does annoy me when people in the press and other places get on their high horses about things like this.
I’m going to stand up for my council colleagues on this one. Homelessness is on the increase in no small part due to government policy and their inability or refusal to care about any connections between benefits, unemployment, welfare cuts and housing.
The problem they created then becomes the council’s problem. But councils are dealing with vicious cuts at the same time as having to provide a statutory service.
Who should bear the blame?
The hotel was certainly what we in the housing world would term a ‘Shit-hole’ but nobody is falling over themselves to provide nice clean properties – in fact decent housing providers are pulling away from councils by the day.
So what do you expect? Is it just Croydon being rubbish at dealing with homeless families or does the blame lay elsewhere?
Good old George …
And while we’re on the subject, big news of the week was George Osbourne’s announcement that government is looking to shave another £10 billion off of the welfare budget, again by hitting the poorest among us.
Shelter Blog focussed on how the cuts will impact on plans to cut housing benefit to the under 25s. Author Kate Webb highlighted that such plans are based on stereotypes of young people and their lives:
“Ministers insist that young people should live with their parents, but that’s not an option for those whose parents have died, divorced or downsized, been abusive towards them or simply don’t have the room”.
The only light in all this was the announcement reported in 24 Dash by Tory MP Harriet Baldwin that care leavers and those fleeing domestic violence would be exempt.
A bit of compassion
What made my jaw hit the floor was Ms Baldwin’s statement:….
“We need a welfare safety net in this country for people who have had difficult challenges and difficult starts in life”.
Is this woman not thinking of her career? How can she go so recklessly against her party line? Making statements that suggest notions of compassion or empathy. I’ll bet the chief whip pulled her in and……..whipped her…..Or maybe he just called her a ‘Pleb’ and cycled off through the gates of Downing street giving the finger to the duty cops.
Get a bank account – problem sorted!
Finally, on a lighter note, (read that phrase with curled lip) government announced plans to publish the findings of the pilot project for housing benefit payments going direct to tenants of councils and housing associations later this month (24 Dash again)
Speaking at the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation Annual Conference and Exhibition Lord Freud….damn this sticky……oh!!!!! Sorry Said:
“The work that is being done with tenants has resulted in more people opening bank accounts and becoming financially aware”.
Fantastic news. People are opening bank accounts. That should sort it. The fact that they have nowt to put in those bank accounts is just a detail of course; it’s just a teething problem.
Direct payment problem
Like the teething problem that occurred last month when Green-Square accidentally took money out of tenant’s accounts before the due date, throwing them into rent arrears.
Green-Square’s Ann Cornelius said:
“That really upset our residents because they were really trusting us. £400 on average is a lot of money to hit your bank account and people didn’t have the money they expected when they expected it and also they had a lot of charges. It was an awful lot of hassle for them and us.”
I’m not dissing Ann. I know her personally and have trained many of their staff. She is a lovely, committed and able human being and Green-Square are a great organisation but this shows what can happen. If a tenant is trying to pay off a Wonga Loan and the money isn’t there they get whacked with extra fees. It’s a snowball kind of thing.
Ann ended by saying:
“No matter how good you think your IT systems and profiling are – they’re not that good at the moment. You need an awful lot of information.”.
Even staff at the treasury have their doubts that the various agencies will be able to cope when Universal Credit comes in.
Every technical glitch affects real people down the line, causing chaos, sleepless nights, even broken relationships. While government messes about getting things into shape real lives are being affected.
Ben Reeve Lewis