‘We are still human’: Local homeless households speak out over living conditions

Nearly 4,000 children are recorded as living in temporary accommodation locally

A group of 27 homeless households in temporary accommodation in Hackney have spoken out over their living conditions in the borough.

The residents, who live in a mixture of hostels and self-contained flats, paint a picture of a borough with a long way to go in improving the quality of shelter given to some of its most vulnerable.

A range of issues have been mentioned, including the level of support and a lack of access to basic facilities, including washing machines and wi-fi.

Among the more damning findings from the residents’ testimony, presented in a joint report from Shelter, Healthwatch Hackney and NHS Community Voice, is that only a quarter of the group said they had a housing officer after six months in temporary accommodation.

Over half did not know who their housing officer or main contact at Hackney was, and 81 per cent said they were not told how to access local services.

Malak, who lives in a local hostel with her partner and 16-month-old daughter, said: “There are three washing machines between us and the adjoining hostel – to cater for more than 100 rooms, many of which are lived in by families. It’s a constant battle.

“If you see a washing machine free you’ve just got to get in there. It’s a total game of chance if there’s one free – usually it’s choc-a-bloc.

“They don’t provide wi-fi either and we aren’t allowed to bring our own into the building, so I have to use internet on my phone. That has made working from home quite a struggle during the pandemic. Connectivity is so important and essential nowadays for work and education.

“I bid for social housing every week, but I am number 200 or over every time. I refuse to just live in a bed for however long it takes to get out of here, so I will try and make this place look like a home and feel like a home as much as I can.”

Another hostel resident Cristina added: “I don’t have any support besides my neighbours. Even though we’re in a hostel, we are still human. When the council put you here, they forget about you.”

In September 2020, 3,319 households were recorded as homeless and in temporary accommodation in the borough, which includes nearly 4,000 children.

Other results found by the joint report included:

  • 62 per cent had no access to Wi-Fi, whether free or paid
  • A third did not have access to washing machines
  • 66 per cent shared a room with at least one child, with 80 per cent saying they did not think their accommodation was suitable
  • 78 per cent said living in temporary accommodation had impacted on their mental health

The report also finds residents struggling with the level of disrepair in their homes amid worries over safety.

Around two thirds of problems were not remedied within four weeks of being reported, with 15 per cent not repaired at all. 

Hostel resident Habbiba said: “The cooker has been broken for three weeks and a burst pipe leaks into the room. I still haven’t been moved. It’s expensive having to always buy takeaways.”

Romany-Jade, who also lives in a hostel, added: “Someone robbed me in the hostel. You can get in easy through the windows. The person was found not guilty and they still haven’t moved me. My child cries all the time. I feel like I’m dying slowly.”

The publication of the findings come as part of a joint campaign between Shelter and Healthwatch Hackney to support residents to campaign for changes in the practice of both Hackney Council and landlords.

Five recommendations have been made, including on access to wi-fi and laundry facilities, and on the level of support. The organisations are also calling for residents to reliably receive information when moving into temporary accommodation on their property, on local services, and on their rights.

They also ask Hackney Council to move to “empower” residents through allowing their shared concerns to be addressed through open forums.

In her testimony, Tania, who lives in a self-contained flat, said: “I’ve never lived on my own. I had no information on how council tax or benefits work, which led to me getting in arrears.”

Milla, who is in a hostel, added: “My housing officer never got back to me. I was given a name when I moved in and they didn’t respond once. It was only when a third party got in touch that they replied. I feel like my son and I have just been left here.”

Amy Wilkes, Shelter London Hub Manager, said: “People shouldn’t have to struggle to find somewhere to wash their clothes in the middle of a pandemic.

“Equally, no one should find themselves without access to the internet, especially when we’re in lockdown. Wi-fi is a lifeline to be able to get into permanent accommodation, access benefits and look for jobs. And for children, it is absolutely vital for their schooling.

“We know the issues raised by residents in Hackney are seen in other boroughs too. So, I am excited this truly resident-led campaign will begin to address the problems with temporary accommodation and I look forward to seeing how this work can be replicated right across the capital.”

Lola Njoku, NHS Community Voice Manager said: “The impact on living in temporary accommodation on the mental health of residents is of deep concern.

“Investing in improving housing plays an important role in preventing ill health and improving well-being. As well as being the right thing to do, it is also the most cost-effective intervention.”

A spokesperson for Hackney Council said: “We welcome this report and these recommendations by Shelter, and have made or are already working hard to realise the improvements they are asking for. The aims of Shelter and the council coincide: to provide the very best accommodation that is possible and support for our most vulnerable residents.

“The council spends £10 million every year on temporary accommodation provision for homeless households. We have the largest temporary accommodation hostel stock in London, and in the past five years we have worked in partnership to build 173 modern units and renovate a further 150 more for families. We also provide temporary accommodation for 1,400 households outside of the borough. 

“As part of our continued drive for improvement we are currently in the midst of a multi-million-pound hostel refurbishment project to provide bespoke, modern accommodation for single rough sleepers with the very highest needs, and with on-site 24-hour support to assist with their recovery journey. 

“We have a statutory duty to provide accommodation for all types of homeless people including those with multiple needs and prison-leavers: and our prime concern is providing safe and secure accommodation. 

“Staff work tirelessly to provide multi-layered help to our homeless residents, continually looking for ways to make change for the better, whether that be by making improvements to properties; providing access to ever-more tailored support; or introducing new ways of working that gives residents more say and agency over their situation. This work has intensified over the pandemic, despite the impact on our services of the cyberattack on the Council. 

“Examples of improvements we are making include: rolling out free wifi to all our hostels over the next year; installing laundry facilities where possible; working on improved crisis prevention; trialling the embedding of social workers in housing needs teams; and providing hostel residents with clear and accessible accommodation guides, which outline key contacts and highlight a range of services they can access. We also survey residents to get their feedback and will be running focus groups with them in the future to better understand their concerns.” 

To find out more about the campaign for change, contact Tyrone Scott, Shelter London’s Community Organiser, on tyrone_scott@shelter.org.uk or on 0344 515 22 22

You can find out more about Healthwatch Hackney at www.healthwatchhackney.co.uk

EDIT: This article was updated at 11:53 on 21/04/2021 to include a statement from Hackney Council.