On Saturday 5 September Brimstone House hostel residents threatened to camp out next to the empty towers blocks on Carpenters Estate as they walked out of their hostel accomodation in disgust at being left in overcrowded accommodation for months and years. They marched down the street to see the boarded up flats on the estate with the full support of Focus E15 campaign as they chanted “Repopulate Carpenters Estate” and “we need homes now”.
It was very moving to stand at the foot of almost-totally-empty tower block on the Carpenters Estate with residents from Brimstone House. The children loved playing in the playground, outrageously the one outside Brimstone House is still locked up (despite this campaign highlighting this almost two years ago). Women and children from Brimstone House spoke about the shoddy, cramped, overcrowded conditions they suffer, while we stood in the shadow of empty council homes on an estate with play facilities and green space.
No more anti working class excuses from this Labour council. Give residents grants to do up the flats and let residents build a beautiful community once again. There are 400 flats in the 3 empty tower blocks being purposely locked up by the council.
No deals to dodgy developers, no more phony consultations!
Shame on Newham Labour council! Refurbish and repopulate the Carpenters Estate now! We are sick of your lame excuses.
Imagine a local government tasked with the housing of vulnerable and homeless people but who has either rejected or systematically failed to provide adequate housing and assistance. Imagine a redress system that on the surface claims to have the best interests of the people at heart, but instead punishes them for daring to challenge poor policy decisions and labels the brave few as intentionally homeless. Now imagine a council that responds to a legal complaint one year late with many inaccuracies in their written reply. Welcome to Newham in Britain in 2020.
It was also in the middle of heatwave in 2019, when I chose to take up the offer from Focus E15 and the Public Interest Law Centre to raise a legal complaint against Newham Council. In the sweltering July heat myself and another 18 residents chose to outline our discontent with the living conditions of Brimstone House now, 10 Victoria Street, and listed demands for a change in Newham’s housing policy in general.
Myself and so many residents felt with the weight of the law now behind us and the public interest surrounding housing conditions, especially for society’s most vulnerable in light of the tragedy at Grenfell, Newham Council would at least make moves to be seen to be doing something to address such injustice. Yet I cannot say entirely that it comes as a surprise to me that they have only chosen to respond to the legal complaint almost a year late and with no signs of change on the horizon.
Our challenge highlighted the damp and mouldy conditions that many residents of Brimstone were living through. Their response was to send council elected environmental officers who to no one’s surprise declared the block was fit for human habitation, and that, in their eyes, concluded the matter.
We highlighted the insufficient provision of laundry facilities within the block. The Council’s response? To claim there was no space for more machines and that it was out of their hands as the service was contracted out to a third party. This is despite the addition of at least 10 more properties to the block and a fire that took place in the laundry room in January this year. If that alone was not enough to bring the service back into the Council’s hands I fail to see what would be.
A long running theme within Brimstone House was the anti-social and prison like environment the Council has actively fostered via the presence of a security detail, numerous CCTV cameras and the imposition of curfews. To counter this residents have long requested that the only unused space left in the block, the conservatory, be opened up for communal gatherings and socialising with neighbours. The Council has claimed in their response to the legal complaint, that it has been available for use since September 2019 and has held an 8-week English language course. Residents have pointed out that they have never been notified that the conservatory space was ever open to them and the course only ran for 4 weeks in January 2020.
Focus E15 campaign is not blind to the challenges that a decades worth of cuts and a government wholly opposed to the idea of a welfare state faces. We acknowledge that Newham faces its own unique set of challenges being a Borough with the highest proportion residents in temporary and emergency accommodation. Yet you cannot deny the fact for 63 years Newham has been a Labour run council. What challenges or even alternative to unpopular government policies did our councillors bring to the table to elevate the standing of their residents? I am essentially saying the situation Newham finds itself in right now is not the fault of external, emotionless government policies.
2018 promised to be a year of hope and change for its residents with the inception of Rokshana Fiaz as new mayor. We were promised ‘more transparency, accountability and [greater involvement from] residents in decision making’. With genuinely affordable housing and the ‘safety of our young people’ being the priority. Yet in 2020 Focus E15 is still receiving reports of unfair evictions, cramped and inadequate housing conditions, dismissive and threatening council officers and the adverse impact these conditions are having on the children of residents living through this nightmare.
Below are a two more testimonials from the residents of Brimstone house hostel who expect to see changes to their living situation.The living conditions in Brimstone House are difficult and the cause of physical illness and emotional distress. We have protected the identities as per their request.
Mother of two, referred to as R
This mother has been living in a small room in Brimstone House since September 2019. R was told she would be there 56 days maximum when she moved in but she is still there with no news, no contact from the council and no idea how long this nightmare situation will go on for. Her children are three years old and ten months old. She has had no contact with a housing officer since the day they moved in. It is hard to look for work and arrange childcare when the staff at the hostel question everyone who come in and out of the building. Her room is small, the heat is intense and due to difficulty with the washing machines she has been hand washing all their clothes but told she couldn’t hang them outside to dry.
Mother of two referred to as H
This mother has been in Brimstone House since November 2018. She has a seven year old and a 14 month old. She has no housing officer and has not been allowed to bid for council housing. Like many other residents in the building, H has confirmed that the conservatory is closed-another place that young children could have for recreation and play if the council kept to their word. John Gray, deputy Mayor and head of housing in Newham, promised to open the conservatory for children to use in Summer 2018. H has been coming to the street stall and has told us that: “it is not acceptable how we have to live, we can not take this anymore!” During the heatwave the safety windows could only open a tiny bit making it impossible to sleep at night. Now her kitchen light has gone, the council haven’t responded to her contact about this essential repair and she has bought a little lamp to have light in the evening so she can cook food for her family.
Many of our campaigners and followers will know Marsha, who caused a justifiable stir at the height of lockdown during an international day of action – May Day – highlighting the unreasonable aspects of the housing crisis. With a banner hung from her balcony in Brimstone House, pointing out the injustice of isolating with children in a tiny room while 400 homes on Carpenters Estate, ten minutes’ walk away lie empty, Marsha highlighted the dreadful reality of being forced to isolate in hostel accommodation. Where is the urgency from the council to solve these issues? Three months on from the May Day protest and Marsha is still languishing with her child in Brimstone House.
As more and more articles appear that make the link between COVID19 deaths and overcrowding, and diverse communities – you would think that Newham Labour Council and Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz would be rushing to solve some people’s situation as fast as possible. However, there are still over 400 council homes still lying empty on the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, Newham, London E15. Now into the fourteenth year of being empty, and with a timeline for doing something about them that extends beyond this Mayor’s tenure, it is becoming clear that the value of the land is more important than housing the people.
To top up the roller-coaster ride the mayor and the council have put residents at Brimstone House through, along will 28,000 people on the housing waiting list the council’s legal team has rejected campaigners from speaking as a deputation at a online council meeting stating that that this is because there is an ongoing legal complaint between Focus E15 campaign, Public Interest Law Center and the council. When you look on the council’s website the slogan ‘people at the heart of everything we do’ is plastered everywhere. Yet it seems when people power takes action the furious foot of autocracy is there to kick us to curb. Help us publicise the raging injustice of the council’s response to our legal complaint, the many stories behind the brave people fighting for housing justice and take action to make a change and demand that the Labour Council in Newham starts by refurbishing and repopulating the Carpenters Estate now. No more lengthy processes involving exhibitions and form filling. The answer is yes – those towers should be full of people now. A local forum even came up with their own plan for the estate but it was rejected by the council. Why?
Whilst the council gloss over the legal complaint submitted over a year ago by Public Interest Law Center, we say that the fight for decent living conditions for all those stuck at Brimstone House must go on. The more we stand together, the stronger we are. Together we can challenge Newham Council and demand immediate decent housing and reopening of Carpenters Estate for the people of Newham.
At the end of June and after lockdown restrictions eased, Focus E15 campaign went back out on the streets. At the weekly street stall we have met many people struggling with overcrowding living and poor quality housing – made much harder to sort out due to the pandemic and the closure of services. This stress has been compounded by the knowledge that Newham, a very diverse borough where over 70% of residents are Black, Asian and people of colour, is the borough with the second highest death rate in England from COVID19 . Many campaigners have been making the connection between poor housing, poor health and increased risk of illness.
The residents of Brimstone House are organising. Fed up of isolating with children in box rooms, with windows that don’t open in the sweltering heat wave and no answers from the council about what their housing future is, they are planning to take action. In addition to this one hostel block there are also thousands of other people in Newham struggling with housing in a borough where over 25% of people live in overcrowded situations. Try and explain to them why over 400 homes lie empty on the Carpenters Estate and have done for years and years and years.
We know that if we organise together we are stronger and we have a voice.
In order to illustrate this please take a look at Mary’s story below. She has been trying for over a decade to sort out her living conditions, one of thousands of people who feel abandoned by Newham and for whom, having a new Mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, for the last two years, has changed nothing.
Mary and her 21 year-old son and 18 year-old daughter are living in a two bedroom council home. For over ten years, Mary has been trying to ensure that there is enough space for the children growing up who need separate bedrooms as stated in all guidance and legislation on sex of children and overcrowding. She has been on the housing waiting list for over 12 years, it is in fact longer but the council lost her original application. She bids regularly, and she is on a council and private swap register.
Mary has been to see her local MP Lyn Brown, has been to see her councillor, has even been to Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz’s surgery. Everyone listens but does nothing. She has told these elected representatives very personal details of her family’s history that explain the urgency of her situation. But still no action, no replies, no follow up.
During lockdown in the pandemic, this stressful situation has been magnified and relationships have become very strained. Mary, who sleeps in the living room anyway and hasn’t had a proper bed for years, is now also working from home. Her son also returned from university due to lockdown and has been trying to study from home. Mary explained that the physical and mental health strains are ‘exacerbated by the lack of space for everyone’.
Thank you Mary for getting involved with Focus E15 campaign and sharing your story. The more we stand together, the stronger we are. Newham Labour Council must act to alleviate the housing injustice in the borough.
The East London Federation of Suffragettes were active 100 years ago in east London, but they remain totally relevant today. We echo their sentiments when we say that we need Deeds Not Words when we encounter the brick wall that Mary and others have come up against when dealing with the council. https://www.eastlondonsuffragettes.com/
Join us on the street outside Wilko’s every Saturday on the Broadway from 12-2pm and help educate, organise and mobilise for our right to long term housing that is safe and secure.
Following the Chain of Power demonstration from Brimstone House hotel to Carpenters Estate on 27 June 2020, more people have come forward to tell their story and speak out. Alone our voices are often lost, but together we are stronger, louder and we are heard.
Below is an example of someone who wants to remain anonymous but who knows that her story is not an isolated one.
A woman and her young child have been in Brimstone House hostel for over a year. She was placed there by Newham council as she was homeless. Very little support from her caseworker despite repeated attempts by her to get in touch. She kept bidding for secure housing with no success. A new caseworker was suddenly assigned, who was aggressive and demeaning, saying that she had not done enough to find accommodation in the private-rented sector. Threatening conversations: if you refuse what the council deems to be a suitable offer, this can result in being labelled intentionally homeless, no more help for housing and possible referral to social services. This led to great feelings of anxiety as it is also implied that if not enough evidence of searching for accommodation, then the council may give up its duty to house her and her child.
Legal advice was taken, it is illegal to threaten the end of housing duty on basis that the search for private accommodation is inadequate. During this time however this woman had many feelings of insecurity at the thought of being sent out of London, away from support networks, family and friends. Feelings of being undermined as a parent. Huge negative mental health implications. Effect on physical health.
This is just one example of the 1000s and 1000s of others and THIS HAS TO STOP.
Focus E15 campaign says to Newham Labour Council:
Stop the harassment!House people decently!No more excuses, no more time wasting – open up the empty council homes on the Carpenters Estate now!
Focus E15 campaign organised a physically distanced action on Saturday 27 June which linked the 1km from an overcrowded hostel in Newham (known as Brimstone House) to the 400 empty flats on a council estate (Carpenters Estate) and highlighted the fact that the 3 tower blocks on the estate have been deliberately abandoned by Newham Labour Council for over 13 years whilst people struggle to live in the cramped hostel.
The human solidarity ‘chain of power’ marked out the 1km distance by placing people on temporary markings along the way and by chanting political slogans up and down the line, urging everyone not to forget about the empty homes on Carpenters Estate which was originally built for the people of Newham as life long secure housing.
Egwolo, a former resident of Brimstone House who has recently been moved onto Carpenters Estate after protesting about the lack of space in Brimstone House hostel explained:
It is important to use our democratic right to safely protest against the clear injustice of having 28,000 people on a council housing waiting list, whilst leaving 400 plus Council homes empty. Families have been forced to isolate for months in one room. Refurbish these empty flats and open up the homes so people can have long term housing security and enough space to live safely.
Ayesha, a Focus E15 campaigner went on to say:
’Newham council has the worst record on homelessness in the country and one of the highest mortality rates for COVID 19 – how dare Newham Labour council leave homes empty during a pandemic. The tower blocks should be opened up as 100% council housing as that is what the people need’’.
Social media platforms shared our video of the action which you can watch below:
Let’s get organised!
Many who took part in the ‘chain of power’ event were chanting ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’. Newham’s deprivation and diversity makes it particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. More than half of children live in poverty, while the rate of households in temporary accommodation is one of the highest in England. Newham also has the most diverse population profile of any local authority in the country: 78% of residents are from minority ethnic communities and many live in inter-generational households. There are longstanding health inequalities across the borough.
Therefore there is no time to lose and our remaining council housing must be saved and put to good use. Refurbish the empty flats on Carpenters Estate and open up the homes, so people can have long term housing security and enough space to live safely.
Join Focus E15 campaign every Saturday outside Wilko’s on the Broadway in Stratford from 12-2pm, bring your mask, stay safe and stand up for housing justice for all. Together we are stronger. More pictures of the demonstration can be found in the slide show below.
”On the 1st of May I decided to make a resistance banner. This is my way to make stand about how I feel living in temporary accommodation/bedsit provided by Newham council. I feel it is the only way to get public attention and for people to understand about living in such conditions in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic.”
”People from deprived and over-populated areas such as Newham are more likely to catch the virus. My thoughts behind making the banner and hanging it up on the balcony of Brimstone House was to simply say I have had enough. I am angry and frustrated that for myself and many other families living in temporary accommodation, we have been disregarded by the Council.
With so many empty homes around Newham such as those on the Carpenters Estate, it is totally inhumane and unacceptable to have families living in one room with children.
We are scared for our lives and our children lives. There is not enough being done by Newham Council to protect us as residents with so many empty flats lying empty.
We may be locked down at the moment but groups and campaigns are turning their thoughts to the political situation this Mayday by putting out messages of anti capitalist resistance at home and on billboards and bus stops. Here are a selection of some messages both inspiring and angry. Check out lockdown banners on Facebook for loads more! Happy mayday comrades.
Following our online meeting with Moms 4 Housing, Focus E15 have decided to call for action on Friday 1st May, in the form of creating and displaying banners to demand that empty homes are opened because housing should be a human right.
Get creative and make your banner – walk down the street with it, hang it out a window, whatever you prefer. But make sure to take a picture and hashtag: #OpenEmptyHomes and #HousingIsAHumanRight
Our friends and comrades in the USA and around the world will also be doing action to highlight the same message. Follow Moms4Housing here: https://moms4housing.org/
On Sunday 19 April 2020 Focus E15 campaign in Britain and Moms4Housing in the USA organised an online webinar to discuss tactics during the Covid19 pandemic. Focus E15 campaign have edited the audio and are releasing it as a podcast which you can find below. During the meeting attention was turned towards ways to take action on May 1st to mark international workers day and to take our campaigns for decent long term secure housing onto the streets.
On Sunday 19th April at 6pm London / 10am California join us for this meeting co-hosted by Focus E15 Campaign in London, England and Moms 4 Housing in Oakland, California, USA https://moms4housing.org/
There are four times as many empty homes in Oakland as there are people without homes, and in the UK there are double the amount of empty homes as homeless people.
The Covid-19 crisis has escalated the need for action to allow everyone to be housed and live in dignity and safety.
This session will hear from grassroots organisations either side of the Atlantic who are taking action against this same problem. We are using this time of crisis to share experience, education and ideas for action.