Sunday, 12 April 2020


The Coronavid Diaries Part 2 - Heroes of Shopping

There’s a big supermarket where I live that is the size of an aircraft carrier. All the big supermarkets docked in Streatham sooner or later.  Some closed, some opened, but some were always here. Always there was bounty if you had the cash.

In ordinary times my strategy had been switch off, get in, get out. I hated that hurly burly, begrudged every minute that I was there, went through the shopping zombies like a man in a dream.

The first weekend after lockdown the shelves aren’t completely bare. Not completely. No toilet paper obviously, no eggs, no tinned tomatoes. No tinned preserves of almost any description. No pasta, no rice, no beans, no hand soap, no disinfectant, no paracetamol. There is very little bread.

Edna is a lady in her fifties I would guess. She’s gazing at the mackerel, of which some tins remain. She’s stunned.

“It isn’t normal” she says. She’s bang on. It is eerie to see shelf after shelf lying empty. It’s a wake-up call.

A wary courtesy is emerging among most of the shoppers who try to stay away from each other as best they can. Better to be slow and cautious. There are little nods and chin pokes that say after you. Most wait patiently until the person in front has moved on, even the person who spends minutes gazing into a list on his mobile phone. We don’t speak much. We’re English after all.

Some bunch up and race by you with their baskets just as before, desperate to get out as soon as they can. My hackles rise. But then again, maybe it makes sense to spend as little time as possible here.

I buy one can of corn of two that are left. I buy a tin of soup which I would never buy, but carrot and coriander is an investment now.

Yet I meet Andrew who looks at my shopping cart and tells me I have too much stuff. He tells me he’s been there every day trying to buy toilet paper. I look at my trolley. I have at least 9 tins. Is this too much?

When I got home we lined our booty up. There did not seem to be much there. Yet after a few days we found that the coronavirus fairy had left three half empty packet of pasta, some lentils, some flour. Later still the fairy had removed a packet of coffee. The coronavirus fairy is capricious.

The second weekend it wasn’t so bad. We lined up outside the store six feet from each other. The sun was blazing and beyond us the common was green and empty.

Jeremy's hands are filthy, his eyes are desperate. He sails in and out, clearly homeless. The government promised to get all the rough sleepers off the street this week-end. We mostly look past him.

Then you start to wonder.  When do you get your shopping cart?  Will you lose your place in line? A young man watching his phone lets me back in without acknowledging my presence.  It was one in one out when you got to the front. A member of the supermarket staff pushes an old guy up the line, trailing an empty handbasket. No-one quarrels with that. Yet the shoppers coming out have nowhere to go but right past you a foot away.

Still there was no toilet paper, no pasta, no rice, no flour, but the shelves were being topped up again overnight. Ahead of me a family were distressed because they couldn’t buy any beans for their rice and peas dinner. I found 2 tins of tomatoes. A packet of crackers. When we got to the eggs there were 3 packets of organic duck eggs left. Who buys duck eggs? I do it seems.

When I got to the check-out a terrified young woman tells me I can’t have my tomatoes because they should be part of a package. She has no physical protection from infections and she is telling me the store might lose 49 p as there is no bar code.  This doesn’t seem right.

The third week the supermarket had it down. Black and yellow tapes on the floor tell everyone what two metres is. One way arrows are everywhere. Barriers have been built to stop anyone from doubling back. To be honest I didn’t clock it at first, and the message on the loudspeaker crackled, but when the penny dropped I became  a right martinet.

“Sorry Madam” says I as a mum with plastic gloves goes the wrong way up the aisle. She nods and thanks me, and later I see her telling someone else. I score some aubergines. “Hey mate one way” I say to a guy trailing his girlfriend in the greengrocer shelves. He shrugs at me.

Another guy is going the wrong way to look at the cornflakes. He spends a good three minutes phoning his wife to ask how much money he should spend on cereal. We wait forever. He has almost nothing in his handbasket.

Then when I get to check-out the workers finally have plastic screens and gloves. The woman serving me is in her fifties. She looks frightened but she’s doing her job. She is determined. I imagine that she has children and grandchildren that she has to support.  

As I get the groceries into the bags I tear up. “I think you are all heroes” I say. She looks surprised. We are both embarrassed as only the English can be.

“Bless” she says.

Monday, 30 March 2020

The Coronavid 19 Diaries Pt 1- Waiting for the Wave to Break


And so dear reader fast forward into the past, in the week of 13.3.2020.

Already the streets of London were emptying out surreally. Anybody used to travelling from Brixton Tube in the last few months can attest that on many mornings the crowds have spilled pout onto the pavement, in  some cases snaking back in a long queue past Electric Avenue, so called because it was one of the first local roads to be electrified. A little further down the road Lambeth Council’s offices and the excellent independent Ritzy Cinema- one of the longest running cinemas in the UK dating back to the 1920’s.

And yet, in that week the carriages were empty. Travelling up from Brixton on the Victoria line nobody in the carriages had to stand unless they wanted to keep 2m distance from the next person. As the journeys are usually cheek by jowl by the time that we pass through the city there was something deeply disconcerting. On switching at Highbury and Islington to take the train into Hackney Downs the train was more crowded but almost everyone was keenly aware of where their neighbour was standing.

Then the occasion when the signals failed once again at Highbury and we had to take the No 30 bus. On countless times in the last few months we have found signal failures have shut down the east to west line from Stratford to Richmond. We are used to crowds milling about while we are told the train is minutes away, then watching it whiz by packed to the gills. Shuffling around on the bus, standing slightly closer than you wanted to, a few with facemasks, some with scarves, I wasn’t sure whether I was comforted as we snaked out down the gentrifying Victorian buildings of St Paul’s Road and through to Dalston Lane because it was business as usual, or whether I wanted something different. Distance.

London wasn’t a ghost city yet, but it was ghostifying.

On the Tuesday the local County Court was largely deserted. The bathroom in the robing room, so called from days when the lawyers could get changed into their gowns, now in the past as a ritual in almost all cases, was out of order. The bathroom on the same floor open to the public has running water and soap, but no hot water. Soap and hot water is the sovereign killer of the killer virus. How are we to keep safe?

The lawyers in the robing room are bemused, rebellious, worried. One points out tartly that as the symptom is not an upset stomach there is no excuse for the absence of toilet paper in the supermarket shelves. Another muses that he has been to 5 Courts that week in 5 days and they are a petri dish of infection. He says this as he dries his hands in the bathroom with a hot air dispenser that is presumably blowing micro-organisms all over us.  Others are worried for their livelyhood. They rely on hearings for their wages. Barristers are self- employed and don’t earn if they aren’t working. Solicitors are usually salaried, but worry about the earnings from their firms dropping off a cliff. There is an esprit de corps. We are key workers keeping the justice system working. We will keep on going.

We settle quickly with the case I am there for, and a District Judge who is experience and sympathetic thanks us all for being there. I discern some bemusement on her part that we are present at all. We scuttle off.

By Thursday my blood is boiling. I realise that however convenient it may be to nip in to the office to catch up on paperwork I am surfing a macho ego-trip. I’m proud to stop people being evicted but why are the Courts even allowing this to happen? Surely people shouldn’t have to travel in from all over London, taking a risk of infection, and then if they lose their case face the risk of death? I send off a 5 page letter. The practioners’ networks are buzzing like angry hornets. The emergency legislation hasn’t yet passed.

On Friday I attend the Duty Solicitor’s list because of, well, duty. The solicitor who manages our Legal Aid contract is there too. We are both grey with stress. She has been continuously lobbying all involved up to and including the Ministry of Justice.  People are sympathetic but nothing has formally changed.

I talk to Tim the security guard having a fag. He tells me that if the Courts close he doesn’t know what he will do. The security staff don’t have proper contracts so if the Court shuts he doesn’t know whether he will have any more work. Maybe he can get work at a supermarket. He lives alone, so if he gets sick he doesn’t know how he will manage to shop.  He gives me a pair of rubber gloves from his own supply.

I talk to Shirley the usher. She says she’s in a goldfish-bowl, lawyers come over to look at her list, hovering inches away, how is she to stay safe?

I have only one case (the lists have a dozen or so usually). The tenant is in horrible rent arrears. It is impossible to do what I usually do and try to analyse the underlying benefits problems. I tell the experienced and sympathetic District Judge she should adjourn the hearing on public health grounds. I fail. The Judge tells me there are no exceptional circumstances since, everybody at Court that day being under a similar risk of death (as I put it) there is nothing that makes my case stand out. We all swallow out tongues at this sophistry. It is a triumph for property rights over people's lives. I ask for leave to appeal and am refused. I lose my case. I feel angry for the Judge that she hasn’t been given clear instructions to make people safe. The hearing takes 4 hours. We all share each other’s germs.

On the way back home I keep 2m away from the person in front of me on the Tube escalator and hope the person behind me is doing the same. Meanwhile the people on the walking side of the escalator keep on descending past me 6 inches away reading their mobile phones making it all pointless.

On Saturday there are still no loo roles in the supermarket. All the flour has disappeared although evidence shows that in a usual week there is plenty because, let’s face it, almost none of you out there bake anymore. No eggs for love nor money.

In that week London was asleep yet awake. We didn’t know quite what we were doing. We all kept trying to keep carrying on. Yet it wasn’t clear why a cleaner or builder on the No 30 bus should have to keep on working, and why supposed key workers like myself were still going on.

If we are to survive this we shall need to treat each other with peace, love and respect. The things that didn’t work already will need to be fixed if we are to make the things that are newly broken work again.

As to the person who keeps buying 48 loo rolls, please stop it. As to the person who has suddenly taken up home baking. I look to tasting those delicious cookies when things are better.


Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Marsha Lives (on 16p a day)


Marsha is pale and bruised. She seems to be hungry.

Marsha has been living on the streets for 3 years but has recently been found a private tenancy with the help of a charity and claimed Universal Credit. That means she has 5 pounds a month to live on after her rent has been paid. Last month she had 12 pounds.

This baffling outcome is all the stranger because the property she is renting is supposed to be affordable for people on benefits (a rental cap known as the Local Housing Allowance-for more information on this see here https://hackney.gov.uk/local-housing-allowance). These properties are becoming exceedingly rare in London, where truly affordable social housing has become even rarer.

What has caused this is the benefits cap- a formula that caps a basket of benefits (which you can see here https://www.gov.uk/benefit-cap) at variable rates depending on the size of the household and whether like Marsha you live in Greater London. Marsha’s benefits cap is 1,282 a month or 15,410 a year.

At first glance that doesn’t look bad. 15,410 a year is barely enough to scrape by on in London, but many starter jobs, in shops, as security guards, as care assistants yield such a pay. If the state is prepared to grant Marsha an income equivalent to a minimum wage job, surely she must be able to get by. That at least is how the benefits cap has been missold.

Let us look first at the brutality of the algorithm. Of the 1,282 Marsha has to live on 1,183 goes to rent. That’s supposed to be an affordable rent for people on lifeline benefits. Yet that would leave her with 99 to live on that month. Take away 69 because of the advance she was given while her Universal Credit claim was being processed (a period of 2 months). Take away some more clawback towards the rent arrears that formed while it happened.

Even Jack Monroe would struggle to live on the 5 a month (1.15 a week) that Marsha is left with. While she has a roof over her head (for now), she was vastly richer begging on the street. Londoners can be mean, but she tells me that she usually managed to beat 16p a day.

Let us look next at the lie that this was missold on. A worker with a modest job earning 15,410 a year could be entitled to a further 9,152 in state aid a year. And well that person should get such help, for after paying rent they too would have nothing to survive on. Go out and get a job then.

The benefits cap was sold to us then, on a prospectus that the grifters would get work, and do better. The lazy would learn to graft or be punished. Be a grafter not a grifter.

But Marsha is pale and bruised. She is 51 years of age. Her CV reads, learnt how to beg on the streets for 3 years. She can’t feed herself now she has a home. I can't see her getting a job tomorrow.

Shall we let Marsha starve?  I hope we are better than that.

And that was one case we saw at Hackney Central Library of 16 on Monday night before the patient staff told us we had to leave.  And another case we cannot do anything about other than to tell you, dear reader.


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Sunday, 3 November 2019

Scourge


There is a scourge of homelessness in our land today. If you have walked about Hackney, as I have for the last 25 years, you will recognise this.

When I started my career Thatcher was in power and the streets of London were carpeted with men and women in sleeping bags, largely ignored by the yuppies who were benefiting from the deregulation of the City.

“Hello, my name is Vanessa. I’m homeless.”

“Please Sir, I’m begging you.”

“They said they would come and meet me and talk about my problems, but it’s been weeks.”

“Big Issue”

“I’m pregnan.t”

“I’m sorry to disturb you all tonight but I’m homeless and I need money for a hostel. If you have any spare change or food that would be greatly appreciated.”

“I was in hospital last week. It was infected.”

“They won’t take the dog.”

“I used to work.”

“I had a heart attack.”

“Please.”

These are the voices. You have all heard them. They are everywhere, around Waterloo, around King’s Cross, around Hackney Central. Some of you gave money, some of you avoided eye contact and walked away. Many of you did both at one time or another. It’s inhuman and it’s understandable.

The problem of homelessness is as bad as it has ever been in Hackney in modern times. All of London would say that about London.

If only we could build 100,000 Council flats a year for the next 5 years, and do away with the Right to Buy. That would get my vote.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Off the street


Off  the Street

In 7 days we saw 4 people who were homeless and living on the street. After that they weren’t homeless.

One missed his family in a far away land and showed us his infected feet. One had been beaten within an inch of her life. One worked on a zero hour contract while her husband’s heart seized up. All of them catapulted to living on the pavement.

Two were refugees. One has serious kidney problems. One was a domestic violence victim. Two have serious mental health problems. One has been mutilated. Three have benefit problems. One is on sick leave. One can’t work due to homelessness. One is about to retire. One will have to move to Universal Credit. One might have the wrong passport.

One has a phone that is almost out of juice. One doesn’t have a phone. One shakes my hand, one rails at me on a daily basis and we agree to do better next time.

One shakes in a place of safety. One speaks excellent English but misunderstands certain words. One was sent to us only 2 hours before Bank Holiday weekend when every rightminded individual is going home.
People are complicated. The river of facts that ran through their lives led to one living on the streets for six months. Another for two weeks. Two for one night.

And all struggled to show that they were vulnerable legally. And all had roofs over their head by the Bank Holiday.

And that was just a sticking plaster.


Sunday, 4 August 2019

Spit on a Stove

The right to homelessness assistance in this country is something that we can all be very proud of. The fact that a family or someone who is vulnerable due to health conditions should have a legal right to have a roof over their head is what civilisation is for.

In a week 3 women we helped established their right to homelessness assistance, to the point that their Local Authorities all accepted the full homelessness duty. A duty to ensure that they should have homes that are suitable and affordable with some security. A reasonable preference to bid for social housing. These are important rights.                                                                                                                                                  
3 cases.

Elizabeth has had mental health problems but was a long term trusted tenant. She couldn’t pay her rent and couldn’t open the mail. She was evicted because she was too afraid to open the door of her flat. A Council said she should get a second chance after careful examination of her medical evidence.

Jackie got a bad reference from her landlord after she was evicted so she and her children became intentionally homeless. Her children did not go to school for some time. A Council told us they had spoken to the landlord and disbelieved his bad reference.  After that her children went to school.

Van came with her mother from Italy as a little girl. After many years of living in the UK, working she found herself splendidly pregnant and homeless. After considering reams of payslips and other evidence, a Council said she is one of us and put her in a hostel.

And it was easy as that.  

In reality 6 years of time were spent by our clients in these cases asserting their civic rights. It took lawyers and volunteers to make this possible. Legal Aid cuts are not for free, and next week another 3 will be homeless.

A great system for helping homeless families isn’t worth spit on a stove when we can cure symptoms but not the disease.

Saturday, 29 December 2018

Universal Discredit

Here are 3 clear cases that show that Universal Credit is not working, because the system is so bad that they will never get to make their applications for help.

Kristie nursed her mother until she died from Cancer. When her mother died her old benefits were redundant and she lost Carers Allowance when she applied for Universal Credit online. After a month her online diary told her her claim had been cancelled because she hadn't visited her Jobcentre. 3 minutes later she was reminded to make an appointment at the Jobcentre. Her income fell from 65 per week to 0.

Jack is a single parent with 2 kids.  He is living in temporary accommodation paid for by a local Council. He claims Universal Credit and correctly didn't claim for Housing Costs. His claim was cancelled because he had followed the law. Now he will be homeless. His income fell from 60 to 0.

Emily was too ill to get to her signing on date. In law someone who claims Jobseekeres Allowance is allowed to have 2 weeks, sometimes  13 weeks on the sick list. Ill advisedly she claims Universal Credit. Her claim was shut down and we couldn't find out why. She has 2 kids and she lives on 60 a week.

Dear Reader, if your eye has reached this far let me tell you why this is wrong.  The Universal Credit Claim is like a promise written on water in invisible ink. Bound to fail.

It was impossible for 3 clients to make a claim. Are you ashamed yet?