Thursday, 7 November 2013

BHT's Sea Containers to Open Amid Turmoil At Olympus House

Brighton's hostels system: A veritable 'merry go-round'
There has been much hype concerning the shipping containers that now adorn the New England Quarter of Brighton. The project has won media attention in both local and national outlets and much positive publicity has been generated for Brighton Housing Trust (BHT), but is there more to this story than at first meets the eye?

Upheaval and relocation for residents of Olympus House

Brighton Housing Trust (BHT) claim responsibility for Olympus House, on 80-81 Marine Parade. This accommodation is set to close, only to re-open again as a hostel specifically for mental health patients under the care of the local authority. According to the receptionist working at Olympus House, the hostel will still be run by BHT, but it will become a ‘half-way house’ for those leaving mental health hospitals in the region.



Quite what this means in the long-term for current residents we have no idea, but the short term outlook for some residents of Olympus House has been placed into utter confusion. A significant number are to be placed in the new 'shipping containers' or 'sea containers' placed in the New England quarter of Brighton. Some are being promised accommodation in Eastbourne, some in Brighton and one couple, nothing, leaving a proportion of tenants confused.

The current residents of Olympus House have received notification to quit by January 2014. Some have been told where they will be re-housed, but one couple have not. They were told this only a month or two ago but for how long BHT and the Council has known of its refurbishment and morphing into a 'half-way house' for those leaving mental health facilities is as yet unknown.

Olympus House, Brighton
Olympus House tenant expresses anxiety over re-housing

The Eye of a Needle spoke with residents at Olympus House in order to find out more about the plans to shut and re-open under a new remit, with new tenants, along with a planned refurbishment of their not particularly pleasant interior, in order to house those leaving mental care facilities as a 'half-way house' before they are moved to more permanent residences.

'We've been living here for over two years,' said one resident. 'They've told us that we have to leave in January, but they won't tell us where we will be placed. I've got mental health problems. Not knowing where I will live is doing my head in. Wouldn't it do your head in?'

The Eye of a Needle can tell you in truth that this woman, ironically, does indeed suffer mental health conditions and that the wait in learning where she will be living after Christmas is having a severely negative impact on her mental health.

The individual has a history of suicide attempts and overdoses as well as the bi-polar mental health condition. This wait in hearing where she will reside after Christmas is not helping her mental health situation. Unfortunately, the Council claim to have dropped their 'duty of care' for her, so she remains in 'limbo', waiting for news to arrive. The couple fear being placed back in Percival Terrace or 17-19 Grand Parade.

Coincidence: BHT is advertising for new tenants for the 'sea containers' in Olympus House

Meanwhile, having made a visit to the premises, I can confirm that there is an advertisement - a poster in the hallway of Olympus House for those residents who wish to apply to live in a shipping container on the site where 'The Cobblers Thumb' pub used to stand.This is unusual, given that the narrative being given the general public in Brighton is that BHT have acquired shipping containers in an effort to ease the homelessness problems in Brighton. Through both local and national media, the charity have acquired a great deal of publicity for their initiative to house the homeless.

BHT's new shipping containers arrive 'co-incidentally' in time for the closure and re-opening of Olympus House
This picture above belongs to Brighton Housing Trust. The BBC confirms that BHT are the organisers of the shipping containers idea and, indeed, so do BHT themselves. So the organisation makes no secret of their involvement in the project. And yet, to this day, news that Olympus House is to close and current residents are to be evicted from the building in January has yet to hit Brighton's streets despite it being announced to residents over two months ago. Why?

Why has the closure of Olympus House and its re-opening not been announced by BHT?

If Brighton’s good people knew that BHT had generated so much publicity over the ‘sea containers’ while withholding the vital information that they knew they were to close and re-open their own accommodation, then perhaps that recent ‘great publicity’ for 'great publicity' for BHT and QED have been quite so favourable since it may raise suspicions as to the motives for the sea containers in the first place, motives which may well be pure in a set of unrelated coinciding events.


Andy Winters: 'Imaginative' solutions' needed for homelessness
Still, credit where it is due. BHT deserve some good publicity. At least, for example, BHT did not throw the poor of Olympus House onto the streets to the elements of winter and have confirmed that they will be housing a number of these tenants in the 'sea containers' .

Co-incidence, perhaps, is all it is yet, I must confess I find it an incredibly strange co-incidence, given that the closure of Olympus House and its re-opening should coincide nearly perfectly with the arrival of the shipping containers.

To my mind, it raised suspicions that the sea containers could be a temporary solution to a problem in part created by BHT themselves, who have agreed to continue to manage Olympus House as a 'half-way house' in order to accommodate Brighton's mental health patients. Andy Winters of BHT, however, maintains this is coincidental.

Concerning the new shipping containers housing scheme, BHT maintain on their site that...

'This is an exciting moment in this project. We have identified 21 of the first 36 residents and they are being prepared to move into their new homes. The residents will have completed one of BHT’s programme for change and will free up space in other services that will be able to take in men and women who are currently on the streets. There is an acute shortage of affordable accommodation in Brighton and Hove and, in a landlords’ market, particularly for those with a history of homelessness.'

The message makes it sound as if BHT are fulfilling a need, which certainly exists in Brighton, for temporary housing, or 'imaginative' housing options for the homeless of Brighton and those in need of 'affordable accommodation'. Yet, neither BHT, nor any report I have seen so far, has announced the closure of BHT's very own Olympus House. This is strange because it appears the opening of the sea containers is welcome news for BHT, but the closure and re-opening of Olympus House, with its attending evictions, appears not to be considered by BHT or the local press to be news at all. And it is this that is bound to raise suspicions in some quarters.

BHT are, in part, fulfilling a need created by their own decisions in terms of the closure and re-opening of Olympus House in Marine Parade but have not mentioned it to the general public. If Olympus House was not closing to take in new clients under a new remit in mental health care, would the organisation have decided to order sea containers for the homeless? Andy Winters assures us that there is no link between the two events.


A strange turn: BHT advertise the 'sea containers' in Olympus House
According to their own blog on November 8th, 'BHT have identified 33 of the first 36' residents who are to be moved into their 'new homes' (that's shipping containers). How and from where were these 21 residents identified? What proportion of them have come from Olympus House?

An eerie coincidence...

As yet we do not know for certain, yet it seems a strange co-incidence, does it not?

The story that BHT and the Council are putting about is a narrative that suggests they are proactively tackling homelessness and a shortage of accommodation in Brighton for those on a low income or benefits.

When the sea containers open, I will be happy to talk to all the residents to discover where they lived prior to their move to the sea containers.

How much will it cost to live in a shipping container?

£165 per week. That's the truth and it is advertised as such in Olympus House. Yes, Olympus House is advertising the sea containers to those awaiting re-housing by the local authority. This, I think you will agree, is a strange co-incidence.

Like many hostels in Brighton and 'temporary emergency accommodation' solutions in Brighton, Olympus House has been charging Brighton and Hove City Council a similar amount per week in order to house Brighton's vulnerable homeless, those with mental health problems, alcoholism and drug addiction. On top of this, they have been charging residents on average around £10 a week 'top up' fee which they have to pay out of their meagre benefits allowances. Residents are always expressing confusion in relation to exactly what this 'top up fee' is for.

Nevertheless, just because perhaps most residents will be leaving the security of a room in a hostel to live in a shipping container on New England Road, does not mean BHT will not be charging a similar amount in order to live in their 'affordable accommodation'. No, heaven forbid!

Indeed, a poster at BHT's Olympus House tells residents living there who are desperate for just about any accommodation and who do not have the luxury of choice that is open to Brighton's rich exactly how much it will cost to live in a shipping container. Even by Brighton's inflated rental prices, it is a princely sum, I think you will agree.

Would you pay £165 per week to live in one of these?
Of course, your average person would not (and perhaps could not) pay nearly £165.00 a week to live in a shipping container, but then, like so many 'charities' and  temporary emergency accommodation companies, 'the average person' is not what this particular sector seems to be interested in. The truth is that to fall into Brighton's hostels system you have to be on your knees. You have to depend on the mercy of others.

The Homelessness Business

BHT, like so many of Brighton's hostels and 'temporary emergency accommodation' dives are beneficiaries of the public money that comes with housing the homeless, destitute and poor in a town in which affordable accommodation is scarce and in which landlords who accept DSS are so rare as to be virtually non-existent. The fact is that most, if not all of the poor of Brighton are locked out of Brighton's housing market because even if they have enough for a deposit, they cannot offer landlord's a guarantor because they do not have the job and income to do so and don't have rich friends and/or family to back them up.

Sea container 'utopia' as illustrated by an artist: Otherwise known as a slum
Yet, the Council will act as guarantor to those on benefits and some landlords are happy to accept this, but seemingly only in exchange for charging exhorbitant rent to the local authority and, by extension, accept the money of both local and national taxpayers while objectively fleecing both taxpayers and the poor simultaneously. None of this is specific to BHT, and this magazine does not address them in particular. Its just 'the business' it seems, in housing the homeless.

Andy Winters: Questions and Answers

Indeed, BHT have made much PR mileage out of this 'shipping containers' story, especially in publications such as The Daily Mail, in which Andy Winters purrs about the scheme, neglecting to mention that his own organisation is, perhaps, a contributory factor in its sudden urgent requirement.

The Daily Mail article reads thus:

'Andy Winter, chief executive of Brighton Housing Trust, said 'imaginative solutions' were needed to deal with the 'desperate' housing situation in the city.

Andy Winters delights in the good news of the shipping containers for the Brighton homeless community:

'I have to admit that when it was first suggested to me that shipping containers be used for housing I was a bit sceptical. 'However, having seen what can be achieved, I was quickly won over. The WC and shower unit is exactly the same as my daughter had in her student accommodation and she much preferred it to having to share bathrooms and toilets with other students. Who wouldn’t? 'What really excites me about this opportunity is that land that might otherwise lie idle for five years will be brought back into life and used to provide much-needed temporary accommodation for 36 men and women in Brighton and Hove.' 

Yet no public mention of Olympus House's closure then and still not now. Why is that? Had the deal for Olympus House to be turned over to become a 'half-way house' for mental patients not yet been brokered in November 2012, when these quotes were given?

'Mr Winter added: 'This appears to me to be very attractive from a sustainability perspective.' 
'Sustainability perspective', Mr Winters? They are shipping containers for Heaven's sake!

On the 7th November, Mr Winters posted on his BHT blog the following:

'The residents who will be moving in are known to BHT and have a track record of paying the rent, service charge and other bills. We cannot take the risk of having tenants who do not pay their rent.'

Yet why no mention that at least a proportion of the incoming tenants to the shipping containers are known to BHT themselves as residents of BHT's very own Olympus House? A statement from Andy Winters of BHT on his personal blog says:


'The timing of the closure of the Olympus House Project and the opening of Richardson’s Yard are co-incidental.
The Olympus House project is closing for refurbishment works and will reopen in February providing accommodation for 24 men and women with high support needs. The timing of this transition is dictated by a contract awarded to BHT to provide this accommodation.

The opening of Richardson’s Yard was originally planned for the late summer but, because of the demolition of the Cobbler’s Thumb pub (not a consequence of or linked to the Richardson’s Yard development), delayed the arrival of the containers.

I am pleased that some residents of Olympus House will be moving to Richardson’s Yard where they will get self-contained accommodation and of an improved standard.'

Further questions for Mr Winters arise. For example: When was the contract for Olympus House to take in those leaving mental health institutions brokered? And when were was the contract for Richardson's Yard brokered? Exactly what proportion of the new tenants of the sea containers will be coming from Olympus House itself?

On 8th November, Mr Winters, again on his personal blog says of the 33 new residents:

63% are in accommodation proving support, either by BHT or one of our partner organisations. 9% are in emergency accommodation, and 24% are sofa-surfing with family or friends. One is a rough sleeper.

91% are either in paid work (36%), voluntary work (27%), training or education (18%), or in work but currently signed off sick (9%).

In just over two weeks, 100% will have their own front door, their own kitchen, their own bathroom, their own home. 
 
In other words, according to BHT, 63% of those moving in are in accommodation 'either by BHT or one of our partner organisations' and 63% of these tenants are on benefits. Well, Mr Winters, to my mind that 36% should be in paid work (therefore not on benefits?) is surprising, because, as a cafe assistant, I don't think I could afford to live in a shipping container for £165 a week! Some of these homeless must be big earners!

Still, one couple, among 17 other residents of Olympus House are yet to be housed after their promised eviction from Olympus House. Pray for them all. It is a terrible thing to be at the mercy of Brighton and Hove City Council.