A single mother and abuse survivor has been given days by Hackney Council to choose between a move to Stoke-on-Trent or being homeless – just months after a pregnant woman in a similar situation faced the same stark choice.
It was reported in May that the Town Hall had given Jess, a single mother who was seven months pregnant at the time and a survivor of an abusive relationship, a matter of hours to choose between a move to Staffordshire or intentional homelessness.
Now another woman, 34-year-old Zehra, has come forward to express the shock she felt on Monday when she found out she must choose between a move to Stoke-on-Trent for herself and her daughter or to have the Town Hall’s legal duty to find her a home withdrawn.
She was given until 1pm tomorrow to make that decision.
Zehra is receiving treatment and therapy at a local women’s centre and is on medication for anxiety and depression, having fled Turkey for the UK last year after her partner attempted to murder her and her baby while she was pregnant.
Letters of support from the centre and the British Alevi Federation have warned the council that her recovery could be “reversed” by such a distant move.
Zehra said: “I can’t really manage by myself, and I don’t have anybody in the UK to support or help me, apart from cousins and one very close friend in London. All the Turkish community are round here too, so I feel safer than I would in Stoke-on-Trent.
“When I went there, I thought, ‘Oh my God, what will happen when I move here?’ They told me they would put me close to or in London, because I’m receiving therapy.
“I’m just scared. I don’t know what I’m going to do if I go there, because I don’t know anybody there. I’m still shocked, because on Monday I heard [that this was the plan], and I don’t know what will happen on Friday. I don’t know what they’re doing to me.”
Zehra had fled her partner’s violence when her baby was just a few days old to another Turkish city, and then subsequently to the UK where she has family and friends in north-east London.
A recent meeting at the Town Hall with Hackney’s Settled Homes Team – until recently called the Move On Team – was a catalyst for an anxiety attack.
She added: “[The officer] was shocked, so they changed the person. She was talking to me like I was stupid, saying to me, ‘I am going to move you anywhere in the UK. Do you understand? Anywhere in the UK.'”
Zehra was a primary school teacher in Turkey, and hopes to go back to the classroom as soon as she can in the UK, though she will have to start out as a teaching assistant.
She claims she has received no information or support from the council as to what amenities or services are on offer for her in Stoke-on-Trent, which she visited having been met at the station by representatives of private company PAK Relocation.
The council say that discussions with the Move On Team take place over “several months”, and that decisions are made alongside the resident taking into account their needs such as medical care or where their employment is located.
Involvement of the residents concerned is said to be a “key part of the process”, with the policy being that likely locations are discussed “weeks, often months” in advance of a move, though the Town Hall accepts that only a short window is allowed residents to make their decision.
In another echo of Jess’s case, which after a council review was adjourned until after she had given birth, Zehra says she was told that, given her circumstances, she would be found a home close to her support network in Hackney.
Zehra said: “One of my close friends [who lives nearby] is supporting me. When I’m getting panic attacks or depression, she comes and helps to look after my child.
“[The council] know everything and that I’m taking therapy. I came to Hackney because my cousins and friends live near here. My whole support network is in north-east London, that’s why I applied to Hackney for help.”
The Settled Homes Team was established in 2017, and Hackney Community Law Centre (HCLC) has previously said that it has been “inundated” since with homeless families who face “final offers” of private-sector accommodation miles away from London.
The Town Hall has said that originally the Team was used “to support people who wanted to move into settled, private rented accommodation which met their specific needs and wishes, inside and outside of the borough”, but that as the housing crisis worsens, they have increasingly been approaching people who do not want to move.
Housing needs boss Cllr Rebecca Rennison says that the council “reluctantly” carries out the policy due to central government not matching local housing allowance (LHA), the rates used to calculate housing benefit to tenants renting from landlords, to local rents.
The Town Hall says it will seek suitable accommodation “for all residents to whom it owes a housing duty, regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexuality or faith”, though Hackney Community Law Centre has said that those most likely to be moved are single parents with younger children, usually mothers, who are less likely to be in work and less likely to have ties to local schools.
Jane Williams of the Magpie Project, which supports mothers and young children in temporary accommodation, said that moves of the sort faced by Jess and Zehra can be particularly harmful.
Williams said: “The very worst thing is the breaking over and over again of any kind of social networks, friendships, support systems, that single mothers especially need around them to help them out.
“Neighbours who they can leave the child with for ten minutes, connections they make at local children’s centres or religious centres, connections with other mums.
“The saying ‘You need a village to raise a child’ is never more true if you have no money for childcare. People rely on their neighbours and friends so much.
“That sort of social capital is broken every time people move, and it’s incredibly difficult for mums in terms of their emotional and mental health and wellbeing.
“We’ve experienced mums getting so down and desperate. We have had one mother threatening suicide because she couldn’t imagine having to move again out of town with their family.
“If anybody imagined having to pick up everything and move in a week to somewhere where they don’t even know where to point to on a map, you can begin to see how horrific it is, and that’s for people who have existing financial or family back up, or people who haven’t been through the trauma of becoming homeless in the past.”
A council spokesperson said: “Hackney is facing an unprecedented housing crisis, with 13,000 families now on our growing housing waiting list, 3,000 households living in hostels, bed and breakfasts and other temporary accommodation, and a 40 per cent increase in the number of families coming to us for help with homelessness since the Homelessness Reduction Act came in 2018.
“Despite the huge challenge of finding even interim homes for these families in Hackney, we have been able to place two thirds of families in temporary accommodation here in the borough.
“Where we have no choice but to use accommodation elsewhere, we always work closely with the family to ensure any care, support or medical needs are taken into account, and do what we can to assist them with relocating.
“The initial offer of settled accommodation made to this family is currently under review, and we will continue to work closely with them to ensure they are suitably housed.”
Some details have been changed to protect Zehra’s identity.