Focus E15: the young mothers' struggle for universal housing

For more than six months, a small group of young, homeless mothers have been battling for decent and secure social housing for everyone. The mothers highlight an emerging problem facing thousands across the country: it's getting very hard to find a place to live. Today the women will hand in their petition to City Hall.

Kate Belgrave
21 February 2014

I first met Jasmin Stone, 19, at the “social housing for all” stall that she and other young single mothers held outside the Wilkinsons on the busy Stratford shopping Broadway each Saturday from about September last year. They were out there every weekend, almost without a miss. The stall was rousing and a real eye-catcher by the mall: the women had a face-painting booth for small kids, music, sometimes a lucky dip for the kids and a sound system that they used to broadcast their message.

Their message was two-fold. In the first instance, they were fighting eviction from Focus E15, a rundown temporary hostel for homeless young people (and their babies, in the case of the young mums) they were living in. In 2013, as part of its austerity budget-slashing plans, Newham council decided to cut the £41,000 that it paid towards support for the young people in the hostel. When the funding cut was announced, the East Thames Housing Association, which manages Focus E15, said that it could not continue to house the women and their small children. The women were served notices to leave.

There was no doubt that the women had mixed feelings about the Focus E15 hostel. One young mother, Rachel Bleuitt, 20, described Focus E15 as “like a prison.” She said she'd rather walk round the streets with her three-month-old son Ryan all day than stay in her tiny hostel room.

“You're only allowed to have someone stay for three nights a week, even if it is your mum coming around to help,” Jasmin said. “You have to have a big argument.” The women said that the rooms were tiny, with fold-out beds. The accommodation was supposed to be temporary – a bed and basic facilities for a short space of time for young homeless people - but some of the women had been there several years. “It's not fit for a mother and a baby,” Jasmin said. “There's damp and the repairs don't get done.” The women showed me pictures of broken sinks under which small children crawled and of rubbish piled next to a locked garbage chute.

“There’s mould upon mould,” Rachel said. “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.”

Nonetheless, the hostel had become a home of sorts for the women. It certainly beat homelessness – something the women had experienced first-hand.

As such their second goal was to convince the council and East Thames to find them decent social housing in London. The women were terrified of being pushed into the highly unstable, unaffordable private rental sector. What’s more they knew that nobody would take them anyway, because they were on benefits. Jasmin, who has an 19-month-old daughter called Safia, spent days calling through a list of private landlords and agents that Newham gave her when the council first told her she had to leave Focus E15. “They won't take people on benefits,” she said. “I spent about two days on the phone.”.

They were worried that to beat the benefit cap, now and in the future, Newham council would send them to live miles in some distant town (like Hastings), where private rents were cheaper and tenants on benefits could still be placed. That would remove young mothers like Jasmin from the families and friends in Stratford who they relied on and who could provide all-important free childcare when the women went into training and work - which they all wanted to do.

They also knew that towns like Hastings didn't want them. Hastings borough council leader Jeremy Birch told me as much, too. “We are not happy that we would be taking further people who were benefit dependent,” he said when I called him to talk about it. Birch also said that Hastings council was renovating and cleaning up social housing, but that people on benefits would be excluded from living in that improved housing. He described the moving of young parents from London, away from their parents, as “perverse.” If anything, moving young women to areas of high unemployment miles away from their families and friendship groups seemed designed to keep young women on benefits forever.

So - those were the problems. They are problems that affect all of us who must rent – certainly all of us who must rent and are not millionaires. Everyone who rents a home is on the receiving end. That's why the Focus E15 campaign struck such a chord. The women’s petition called for decent, reasonably-priced social housing for people on low incomes and benefits in the borough. The women wanted social housing in particular. They wanted social housing for everyone. They readily walked up to Broadway shoppers, explained their housing problems and ask people to sign.

Thousands signed and many spoke of their own housing troubles – steep and fast-rising rents, bullying landlords, scandalous overcrowding, slow repairs when things broke, mould, damp and maggots, and short-term tenancies which left people horribly vulnerable to sudden homelessness. There was a general understanding – as well there should be - that people on low incomes were as entitled as anyone to basics like housing. And let's face it - the well-off don't hold back when it comes to helping themselves. We live in an era where MPs like Nadhim Zahawi charge the taxpayer to heat stables for their horses and George Osborne fleeces the taxpayer for a paddock for his. Meanwhile, the Focus E15 mothers and their children must live in tiny, damp rooms in a rundown hostel. By February 2014, several thousand people had signed the Focus E15 petition, which the women planned to take to Boris Johnson. Jasmin spoke for plenty of local people when she said from the start that: “we just want to know where we're going to live. It's been really horrible, because they [the local council] says they don't know where any properties [for us are].”

It was hard not to feel that the council had no intention of finding the women places to live in London. Newham council had recently changed its housing allocation policy to prioritise people who were in work ahead of people who were not. Newham council loaned West Ham football club £40m to move to the Olympic stadium. The council claimed that some £9bn of investment had gone into Newham as a result of the London 2012 games.  Everyone was sure that the real problem was the council didn't want people on benefits to see any of it.

“We've been to see the mayor, Robin Wales,” Jasmin said early on in the campaign, “and he was really negative about everything. He said to us that he was cross with our campaign. He said in reality there's no housing.”

There was a subtext here and it had a lot to do with a lack of sympathy for young, impoverished mothers. More than once, standing outside with the young women and their prams, I saw passersby look at the women and shake their heads and frown. Read some of the snide remarks about birth control and “such generous benefits for single mothers” under this story for the online version of that hostility.

Nobody wanted to make an argument for the rights of young single mothers in the anti-welfare era. Media coverage of the women's problems was intermittent at best. It was certainly intermittent in comparison with reporting of other recent “women’s” campaigns. I think here, as I usually do, of the extraordinary coverage and endless twitter broadcasting gifted to middle-class feminism’s campaign to have Jane Austen's face printed on a banknote – banknotes that low-income women in Jasmin's situation struggled mightily to get their hands on from one day to the next. The banknote campaign - and the opportunistic MPs who supported it, like Stella Creasy - were everywhere in the news last year. It never stopped. Women and children who were directly affected by austerity were nowhere. Standing out in the rain with the women at their stall on Saturdays, it was hard not to long for the day when the likes of the young Focus E15 women were thought worthy of blanket, banknote-type coverage for months and months on end. I suspect that day is a long way off. These women are not politically useful to anyone. Labour won't back them. Labour won't fight the welfare corner. It also guns for people who say it should. Just after I began to publish stories about the Focus E15 mothers on my blog, Newham council sent a snooty email to say that officers would no longer communicate with me, because I was reflecting the council's position unfairly.

One of the women's most inspired actions came in mid-January when the group occupied a showroom flat in the East Thames building and then Newham council's housing offices. That moved things along all right – for good and bad. The women were sick of being stuck in their cramped, dirty hostel, sick of being told that their only option was cruel private rentals in Hastings or Birmingham and sick of a political subtext which strongly suggested that young women who got pregnant – for whatever reason - deserved nothing better than hovels and isolation. So, they decided to force the issue. They gathered on West Ham Lane with posters and placards and took themselves and their children to occupy the showroom flat down the road in East Thames' foyer.

Before they set off for the East Thames building, young mothers Adora Chilaisha, 19, and Tresha Elliott, 21, explained their decision to occupy. Their problem was frustration as much as anything.

“We've got a letter that said we all had to be out,” Adora told the group. “And we've been complaining. We've been protesting outside the Wilkinson there every week. Really and truly we want to let them hear what we have to say, but they're not listening.”

“The main plank is that we don't want to move out of London,” Tresha said. “They're not getting it in their heads. It is expensive [to be here], but they're not looking to give us a council house. We might have to go private which would be even more expensive.”

Inside East Thames, management panic was palpable. You could hear the collective intake of breath as the women strode into the building and pushed their prams into the flat showroom. Once inside the showroom, they set out cakes, balloons and fruit juice for their party. Their little kids began to eat the cake and to dance. “It's the party that we couldn't have at New Year and Christmas, because we had nowhere to go,” Jasmin said as music played. “We didn't have any space there, but there's space here.”

Chris Woodhead, East Thames Assistant Director of Care and Support, turned up at the occupation and tried to turn on the charm. “What's this all about, guys?” he said. “What's it all about today?” He insisted that the women would not be evicted from Focus E15 and that decent local housing would be found. He said that might take some time. The women said they were losing patience and that their children were suffering in the cramped conditions and rot at Focus E15. They'd been speaking with Woodhead for months and felt that nothing had been achieved.

“We were told we were only meant to be there [at Focus E15) for six to eight months. We need to be re-housed and it needs to be done now” Jasmin told Woodhead. “We can't keep on living in a place that’s not suitable for our children. My child has no space to move around. She cries to get out.”

Tresha also talked of the dangers of the cramped conditions. “My next door neighbour's child is three years old. I feel like that place is making him lose his head. That's my honest truth. How is a three-year-old meant to be in one little space for three years? That's just wrong.”

“East Thames has a lot of houses,” Jasmin said.

“Yes, we do have housing,” Woodhead said. But he would not commit to a timeframe for housing the women.

The party went on. Management left the women to it. After several hours, the women decided to walk down the street to occupy Newham Council's housing offices. The tenor was different there. Staff were cold and hard and they told the women point-blank that “you're doing the wrong thing.” The police were called, although they did not approach the occupying group. The young mothers dug in. The group held up banners and chanted: “Newham Council hear us say. Focus Mums are here to stay.”

“I feel like I want to stay here in this office until they sort the housing problem out,” Jasmin said firmly. “That's how strongly I feel about this.” Other people agreed – and they weren't all part of the campaign. A real solidarity quickly built in the waiting room between the young mothers and the many people who were queuing to meet with officers about their own housing problems. People cheered and clapped as the women rolled out their protest banners. Some came over to talk with the women. One woman even began to cry as she spoke. She said that she was homeless and was hoping to find temporary accommodation and that she did not know what to do. Another woman with a baby said she’d been told she’d be sent to live Birmingham, miles away from anyone she knew. People looked so stressed. They had nowhere to live and no real means of paying for a place to live.

Then, Tresha gave a short speech to staff which summed the whole fight up. Everyone got it. Everyone sat quietly to listen to her. “Stop making people homeless,” she said. “Stop making kids miss school. It’s not fair. You get to go home to your nice homes, while people here are struggling. They’re stressed, depressed. It’s not right. You’ve got a place here where you’re meant to help people. You’re meant to help people. You’re not helping people.” She was absolutely on the money. Doesn't matter where you go, or who you talk to - there is no sense that decent housing is a basic human right anymore, or that people should be helped to find it. You either have the sort of background and job that allows you to pay for good housing, or you don't. If you don't and you don't like the fact that you don't and you speak out about it, you're considered a troublemaker.

After the occupations, things moved very fast. Some of the women got calls saying that flats had been found for them in London. Some were in Stratford. Others were in Enfield. They were private lets, though, and just for a year. On the one hand, the women were grateful. Nobody was going to sneer at a home. On the other they were worried that they hadn't won the battle for social housing – for themselves and everyone else who needed it. The women were given an ultimatum from the council. They must take the 12-month lets in the private rental sector, or they would get no more “help” to find housing. If they turned the private-sector lets down, they’d be considered to have made themselves intentionally homeless. It was interesting that Jasmin was found a home ahead of women who were further up the waiting list. She was one of the campaign's key organisers. It seemed the council was keen to get her out of Focus E15 and break up the campaign. Presenting the women with the “short-term private lets in London” ultimatum was a wily move by Newham. It would move members of the campaign group to different parts of London, away from each other. It also meant that the women and their children could be moved out of the city when the lets were up. Their private landlords could evict the women for a host of reasons. They could be facing the same problems in a matter of months - especially if rents increase and if the benefit cap is lowered even further, as George Osborne plans.  There was nothing secure here.

The women made another attempt to take their issues to the council. They tried to enter a mayoral proceedings meeting to appeal again to Wales for social housing in the borough for all. Unfortunately, they were told that the meeting was over and that they weren’t allowed in.

Meanwhile, Wales published an ominous column in the Newham Recorder in February. The council had begun to hand out Asbo warnings to rough sleepers in Stratford Centre. There was a nasty, punitive thread running through the article, suggesting that responsibility for extreme poverty lay entirely with people forced into it. There was a rough sleeping problem around Stratford centre, Wales said, because homeless people had “easy access to waste food and cardboard.” Rough sleepers who “refuse offers of assistance from us or our partners cannot expect to continue to sleep on our streets.” They could expect Asbos if they tried. No political explanation was given for the growing number of rough sleepers. There was nothing about the many reasons why people might be forced to shelter from awful weather in a walkway under cardboard and get drunk to block it all out. There was nothing at all about the fallout from this government’s appalling “welfare reforms” – JSA sanctions, homelessness, severe mental health problems, the loss of hostel housing, being thrown off employment and support allowance and so on.

That is the world Focus E15 mothers will find themselves returned to in 12 months' time. Many of them are still at the hostel and waiting to be housed. Those who've been moved are at the mercy of an increasingly merciless private rental sector. The campaign group still meets every week and still leaflets on the broadway on Saturdays. Further actions are planned. They won't let up. They know the council and the government want them out.

For more articles on the series go to the Cities in Conflict main page.

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