Saturday, 12 March 2011

"Where is the Justice?"

Justice by  Raphael Sanzio
A couple (let's call them 'Sarah' and 'John') who I know have been evicted from a squat onto the street. Currently, I believe they are staying in a youth hostel. I'll relate to you what I remember of what I have been told so far.

The couple were made homeless a year ago following rent problems in a flat nearby the squat. The case of the couple was not helped by a misunderstanding in which their housing association was complicit. The result was still their eviction.

They discovered an empty property (one of many in Brighton) and moved in. The place was a dive, having been empty for over 11 years. Rat faeces were everywhere, bins of rubbish were everywhere, it was filthy. Rotting food ran out of the refrigerator. They cleaned it up to make it tenable. Though not paying rent, as squatters, they paid Council Tax on the property. They bought and installed a boiler. I assume they paid for heating and electricity. I know that squatting is an illegal activity, but having been made homeless they were desperate. They made the flat their home. The couple are not 'trouble-makers' and neither are they on drink or drugs. They didn't cause disturbance, just found shelter there. Unfortunately, that wasn't quite how other residents saw it.

One resident took a particular dislike to the couple because they were squatters. John was beaten up outside the flat by one of the other residents, kicked in the ribs and face. The police arrived and handcuffed him. Towards the end of their tenure they had a brick through the window. As it turned out, after the 11-12 years of the place being formally unoccupied, someone finally came forward to claim that flat as their own, the whole building having been left to him in a will. The couple bear no grudges against the owner since it is his property. Perhaps he will sell it or live there himself, it is unknown, but for the time being it will be boarded up once more, a court order having been secured and bailiffs notified to have the couple evicted.

Brighton and Hove City Council's 'Diversity' logo
So far, so predictable. What John and certainly Sarah were not expecting was what happened next. On going along together to the Housing department of Brighton and Hove City Council, they waited, as most do for five hours to be seen by someone. Having already been brushed off by one advisor Sarah was finally seen by a Council official.

The official told Sarah that because they were not formally a couple that they would be treated individually. This, too, Sarah more or less expected. What she didn't expect was for the Council official to tell her that the Council was under no legal obligation to house Sarah by means of either temporary accommodation or a hostel.  She was told that there are no hostels for women in Brighton, which is true, but there are mixed hostels. Sarah has no problem with a 'local connection' because she has children living in Brighton. So, why is the Council under no 'legal obligation' to house her? Simply because as a woman with no substance misuse problems, she is not a 'vulnerable person'.

"So, do I have to have a smack habit to get housed?" Sarah is left thinking. "Don't get me wrong," she says, "I don't judge the alcoholics and drug addicts in Brighton. I just can't understand why, as a woman, sleeping rough, with no accommodation, when a rapist is roaming around Brighton, if John got housed and I didn't, how am I not a vulnerable person? Where is the justice? I know we've been squatting the past year, but I've contributed quite a lot to the economy when I was working as a Probation Officer. I pay Council Tax. Where are the Council when you finally actually need them? It's an insult. They told me to sleep out rough and allow the 'rough sleepers' team to find me. It is still really cold out there at night!"

These are, I think you will agree, valid questions. Why is a woman on the streets not classed as a 'vulnerable person' who the Council decide can just leave on the streets and claim they have no duty to provide her with shelter or assistance? Why should she be at the bottom of the pile for housing and so many others be seen as a priority need in her place? Should she turn up for her next appointment with the Housing department with needle tracks in her arm and a can of Special Brew? Would it help if they were, and I hate to say this, immigrants? Would it help their cause if John turned up in drag and said he was waiting for a sex change or Sarah said she was a lesbian? Will the Council help pay housing benefit for a bed in a youth hostel, even though its five pound less than for your average hostel? All I'm saying is the answer to the last question is probably no.

For his part, John was advised to go to St Patrick's Night Shelter in Brighton. The couple have enough money to stay in a youth hostel for a week, but already John is trying to access a 'crisis loan' from the DWP to try and raise money for the next week. I know its not like having your home swept away in a tsunami and miraculously surviving only to find out that the local nuclear power plant has blown up, but still, it isn't nice losing your shelter and being told not that you in the queue behind immigrants and drug addicts, but that you aren't in the queue at all and that even though you are from Brighton, you belong on the streets.