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?



Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Bridge and the River

The Thames is an ancient song.

Anyone who has ever raced over London Bridge burdened with legal papers desperately looking for a taxi will know this. The song might be that you were late for Court.

Later your first Judge asked you “Are you a carpenter or a joiner Mr Mathews?” You were dumbfounded, and suddenly your entire legal career crumbled into ashes. Nothing in Law School had prepared you for a curve ball like that one. Then he kindly explained that I had a pen behind my ear. My first judicial joke! I laughed weakly as the cold sweat dried.


The Thames had a little chuckle as I walked over London Bridge at 10 o’clock in the morning. The briefcase in my hands felt light now. I almost flung my papers into the river in delight as I watched the waters flashing. Then common sense prevailed and I went back to the office.

Time passed. I got a job in Hackney working for a community law centre. We gave free legal advice, and that was often extremely stressful, but over all the work we have done felt redemptive.

Every day I would wait on London Bridge in the morning for the Number 48 bus that would take me sedately to Hackney, and every evening I would cross again to get the train to Streatham.

The river was blue and green, grey and brown. Sometimes it was silver, and sometimes it was fire. Sometimes I was depressed and limped over with the other commuters, sometimes I paused on the middle of the bridge and looked down the barrel of the river at distant Norway. Sometimes I went to a Goth club in Angel and splurged a taxi and as we crossed the river, she crooned to me. “Nat you silly boy, get your head down.” Eyeliner running I saw Sol rise over the City and the sparkling river, and would have said, we can take Mammon.  

On 7/7 there was a big huge traffic jam on London Bridge that slowed things down a lot. I was going out of my mind because seriously I had read my newspaper and I have an extremely low attention span. No mobile phone, not best qualified to live in London.

It was not until we reached Lower Clapton that we knew about the bombings.

On the way back the buses stopped and we had to walk. Thousands of people flowing south towards the river, in a state shock.  Yet we were magnificent.  I remember a tall Jamaican guy giving his phone to a tiny Polish girl he had never met so that she could call her mum in Krakow. There was another guy who had to get to South London to pay cash to labourers who depended on him.

We were frightened, but we were speaking to each other, asking about each other’s families. We were in solidarity and we became friends. The police officers were yellow boulders who directed us, and
we were glad to see them. The crowd that had ignored each other in the morning when they travelled north walked shoulder to shoulder over London Bridge in the afternoon as it travelled south.

The sun was shining and the water was serene. The guy with the cash said he would walk to Brixton, no point getting a train. We stopped halfway over, and the river told us this:

“Unreal City

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,


A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so
many,

I had not thought death had undone so many. “

Time passed.

The world went bust and it became common again to see men in sleeping bags on the south side. Money became unavailable for housing, the disabled were sifted and winnowed, evictions soared as rents rose and families spent months, then years in squalid emergency housing. The mad became madder, the weak became weaker. Mould in the homes of overcrowded homeless families became the most common problem.  

The river was gunmetal and the rain was pelting down when one of the homeless guys told me with deadpan British humour, he was sorry there wasn’t snow, it would be nice if there was a white Christmas.

Three days before the Brexit vote a bunch of pantywaists set up their pitch on the south side, Conservatives for Remain. Brash young men in office shirtsleeves rolled up, facing the river of people coming over the bridge, tired, bored, confused, worried. I cheered them like brothers.

On the day that a political poster came out showing refugees huddled like animals on the Serbian border an MP was stabbed to death by a deranged man full of hate, full of fear.

Jo Cox had lived on a houseboat on the river, not so far from the bridge. At her death her children and widower crossed the waters and spoke to all. There is more that unites us than divides us. The river listened, or we listened to the river.  

Time passed.

Hate crimes grew after the Brexit vote. There was a feeling among hospital doctors that they were not welcome.  People got abused on the street. Mosques and community centres were defaced. People distrusted their neighbours.  Nurses stopped coming for the NHS. We grew mistrustful. “To cox “ entered our language, “ to knife. “

Still the river flowed over the bridge and under the bridge.

Then the murders on Westminster Bridge and on London Bridge.

You have all read about the nurse who ran towards danger, the Romanian who hit the murderer with a box, the bouncer that threw pint glasses, the policeman who fought a knife with a truncheon. The banker who died defending a woman with his skateboard.

The terrorist attacks closed down London Bridge. Later it opened again.

And afterwards when I travelled to work there was a sea of flowers. Somebody has placed boxes of post it notes and scotch tape, and the public was sticking post it notes to London Bridge. From Colombia to Singapore to Malaysia, from Italy to Greece, from Melbourne to Malmo, the message was love.

“London, love will conquer all, and you have a bucketful” read one. “London Bridge is not falling down” said another. Under the flowers someone had placed a doll of a British Bulldog, but also a can of London Pride (a beer).

Later, we heard of other hate crimes. In some cases random racial abuse. In others, people getting hurt.

I asked the guy who hasn’t got a home, and who loves snow instead of rain, and he said the flowers showed a lot of respect, but he thought the hippies had taken over.  He was glad he had missed the big parade, but he still hadn’t got a home.

Love. So easy to promise, so hard to perform.

 A few days later Muslim women gave away roses on the bridge, and people hugged and cried and were respectful. They were our London roses. Peace not war.

The river passed under our feet, and if she has a secret we all can learn, I wish we could all learn and understand it together.

Full of blood, and full of light, and thanks to river cleaning initiatives, full of fish, the river passed on. We will cross over the river on a bridge built by the Romans 2000 years ago in a place called London, and we will try to do better tomorrow.

Let us be a better bridge across this river.

Datta. Dayadhvan. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih.








Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Jungle

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 are 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 2 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 you 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 embarassed and case is adjourned generally on payment of rent plus 5 pounds 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 onto sickness benefits. After waiting for 3 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 2 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 3 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.

Danny 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.

Eddy, 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 contracts fail 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 moneys 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 kid into care in 5 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 8 years ago after mortgage arrears arose, but there was substantial equity left after the mortgage was paid off. She has been homeless, she tells me, for those 8 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 their voters 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 less lawyer 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 have pushed the household into homelessness. Yet even though Legal Aid is still there to prevent the roof over your head, fewer lawyers want to do it. 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 change 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, who have 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. Think 10% 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 3 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 3 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, the most affluent city on Earth. Welcome to the Jungle.




Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Xenophobia

Basil came to the UK as an unaccompanied minor from Jamaica, fleeing death threats because of his sexuality. He claims asylum, which is his legal right.

Betty is the mother and sole carer of a British child, who is deserted by his British father. She asks the Home Office to recognise her leave to remain and care for her son, which is her legal right.

Basil is taken into care by Social Services and is granted leave to remain until his 18th birthday. Before his leave expires he applies again, but it takes 10 years for his application to be dealt with.

Betty receives a letter after 1 year telling her that the registration of her legal right to reside is being considered. Prospective employers are told that this letter means that Betty is maybe entitled to work, but it would be best to ring a hotline just in case, and anyway the letter expires after 6 months.

Basil has the right to claim benefits, but not to work. He also has the right to medical treatment. The former right is not observed and he loses benefits for 18 months because he cannot produce documents that are at the Home Office. He becomes economically reliant on sugar daddies or goes on the game, depending on your perspective. In his shoes I might do the same.

After a while Basil learns that he has HIV.

After taking the letter from the Home Office to employment agencies Betty learns that no one wants to know.

Employers face fines if they hire someone without proper legal documents. With 25 people chasing every job vacancy in Hackney, why should a betting shop (Hackney's growth industry) hire a single mum like Betty? Let alone a single mum with an official letter which says the Home Office has doubts about her right to work?

Basil can't get a GP because his papers are at the Home Office. I provide a solicitors letter. Hell, I go to the GP in person with a letter I have signed. He can't get GP treatment because no-one understands the paperwork. The GP receptionist tells me that she can't make exceptions and she needs something more official than a letter from a solicitor (with a solicitor attached). 

And here's the point. Today Basil has the rights to benefits and healthcare, and Betty has the right to work to support her British son. Yet even so they can't persuade anyone of this right. Even with a solicitor's letter. 

Tomorrow landlords will have a legal duty to ensure that before they grant a tenancy to Basil or Betty they check that they are legally in the country. Yet how will they know? Perhaps they can call the Law Centre.

Whoops.

Tomorrow there will be no Legal Aid for Basil and Betty until we know they have the right immigration papers. And as legal aid for immigration has cut us to just one lawyer, we will be less and less able to know.

The new Immigration Bill enforces strict immigration papers screening of tenants and patients. The new Legal Aid rules will stop us from stopping the cases where tenants are illegally evicted, and sick human beings are denied medical help.

Some of you will read this and feel a surge of delight. Here's to you Johnny Foreigner! Well done.

But consider. How am I supposed to verify that a white cockney with no passport and no driving license is British before I give her advice on preventing the loss of her home? No papers no help love, on to the street with you.

May I suggest that we should either have a reliable system to identify those who are entitled to state support or else have a system where those who don't qualify can wear this loud and clear. Perhaps a yellow star, perhaps a pink triangle.

At best these changes are xenophobic. At worst racist. I hope somewhere out there is listening. 









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