This morning, Sunday 23 January, Focus E15 campaigners and Carpenters Estate residents in Stratford, London were on the BBC Politics TV show, to bring further attention to the recent estate ballot process that took place on Carpenters Estate last month. Not only did Newham Council spend at least £350k to secure a ‘yes’ vote, but they tied temporary accommodation residents right to a secure tenancy to the ‘yes’ vote for demolition (of almost 60% of the estate!)
If the Mayor of Newham was really concerned with residents rights, then why move anyone into a council estate on a temporary contract? All the residents currently in temporary accommodation should be given secure council tenancies now! No demolition of the Carpenters Estate!
Focus E15 campaign will be back in Stratford this Saturday from 12pm-2pm on the Broadway outside Wilkos. If you support the campaign, please watch and share the video below.
Another family has been moved into the hostel Brimstone House in Victoria Street in Stratford during the last eight weeks. This means that Newham Labour council and Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz still think that rooms built for single young people are adequate to house families. This has to stop! People need to be housed in decent housing. Shame on the council and those in local government who sit by and let the housing crisis in Newham escalate whilst people suffer and homes remain empty.
This family is a father, a mother and a four month old baby. There is just about space for a double bed and a sofa. Currently the father sleeps on the sofa while the mother sleeps with the baby in the bed, which is against the advice from midwives, health visitors and GPs about safe sleeping for babies. It is just not appropriate for an adult to sleep all night on a sofa.
There is little or no ventilation, the room is quickly filled with cooking smells which can be overpowering, and the toilet flush does not work properly despite repeated requests for it to be fixed, it has not been repaired. The alarm continues to go off in the building and there is drilling early in the morning. It is no wonder that these parents are distressed, tearful and unwell. There is no space and nowhere to put their belongings. It is clear that Brimstone House is no place to raise a child and the housing is not suitable.
Meanwhile, the roomy council flats around the corner on Carpenters estate remain empty and there are trees growing out of them! What a waste. We want to save every single council flat on this estate because this housing offers the chance for long term stability, community and cheap rent. A chance for a decent life.
Please join us on Saturday 18 December 12-2pm on the Carpenters Estate where over 400 home have stood empty for over a decade, where currently a ballot is underway and where the council is spending hundreds of thousands of pounds to secure a yes vote to its regeneration scheme which will mean demolishing 60% of the estate.
We need more council homes, not fewer! We need families like the one above from Brimstone House, and the thousands of others on the housing waiting list and those in temporary and emergency accommodation, to be housed decently.
Join us on Saturday 18 December at 12 noon in the middle of Carpenters Estate in Stratford (near the shop) to fight for housing, to make a stand against capitalism, against racism in housing and to restore people’s dignity.
Thank you for the following thoughts by our guest blogger Toni Adscheid from Germany, who supported the campaign on the street stall and in meetings when he was in London, and who participated in our online meetings during lockdown. It is through back and forth conversations such as these that we are inspired to carry onwards and take up the fight for housing with greater clarity and awareness of the role campaigning plays in the tremendous struggle that lies ahead. Educate! Agitate! Organise!
The following text is based on a talk, given at a conference on “Decolonizing the curriculum” via zoom, to an audience of university lecturers, schoolteachers and students. The conclusions I draw, derive both from my experiences in teaching undergraduate geography students as well as my observations and interactions with members of Focus E-15 campaign during the weekly street stall in Newham, organisational meetings and personal conversations. I also want to clarify that I regard capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy as inherently intertwined structures of oppression.
Contemporary neoliberal university practices attempt to fix the generation of knowledge through curricula to the university, which is regarded as the only place for study. Moreover, in neoliberal universities, students come to see themselves either as problem, because they need to earn credit to graduate, or as professionals after they graduated. These attempts of fixing the generation of knowledge to the place of the university as well as fixations upon students as either problems or professionals, I argue, are two examples for colonizing knowledge in neoliberal universities around the globe. In this regard, colonization can be understood as the normalization of structures of oppression in which people are defined as problems and offered salvation through institutionalized settings, which supposedly hold the tools that people need to solve their problems. In the face of colonizing the generation of knowledge through attempts of fixing (of students) and fixations (on the university as place for knowledge generation), what would it mean to escape and thus refuse these attempts of fixing the generation of knowledge to the university and attempts to fix students? For me, this entails two things: To acknowledge that, outside of the university, people study all the time and that amateurism should be encouraged rather than sanctioned.
As scholars like Stefano Harney and Fred Moten remind us, when we think about study we ought to think as much about nurses in the smoking room as we are about the university (Harney & Moten 2013: 112). Their argument opens up knowledge generation beyond the walls of the university building as people constantly try to figure out ways to be with one another, despite attempts to keep them apart, either by promises to become better by themselves or by fixing them in place. This mode of study is what Focus E-15 engages in, and what authors like Paul Watt and Penny Bernstock continue to emphasize. If we are truly committed to challenge current ways of colonizing knowledge, we have to look no further than the street corners, the narrow alleys, the council housing estates. Here, in the outside of institutionalized knowledge generation, people constantly try to figure out why they ended up in their current situation but also think and practice how to live otherwise. This is what Focus E-15 continues to highlight. People who are not recognized to have a voice, especially young mothers in so called ‘temporary accommodation’, constantly figure out ways how to escape and thus refuse attempts of being fixed, both in place and as persons. They refuse because there is nothing wrong with them and nothing can hold them; they are already amazing. As Saidiya Hartman wrote in relation to the US:
‘The decades between 1890 and 1935 were decisive in determining the course of black futures. A revolution in a minor key unfolded in the city and young black women were the vehicle. This upheaval or transformation of black intimate life was the consequence of economic exclusion, material deprivation, racial enclosure, and social dispossession; yet it, too, was fueled by the vision of a future world that might be.’ (Hartman 2019: xv).
Young women, especially the young mothers of Focus E-15, are radical thinkers who never fail to imagine how the world might be otherwise; this is what the campaign can teach university students. This is what I convey in my teachings to my students in order to decolonize knowledge generation: You are not the only ones who study, learn to listen to the radical thinkers who continuously study around you. Initiating modes of mutual learning, between in and outside the university, then becomes an imminent task if knowledge is about to be truly decolonized.
My understanding of young mothers as radical thinkers then led me to the realisation that neoliberal institutions, such as universities, fear those who they consider amateurs. Amateurs who supposedly do not fully know what they are talking about, those who refuse to be creditors after graduation, who refuse to graduate because they are committed to study outside of the university. The university tries to get rid of that amateurism through us, people who are involved in teaching. Our task, so we are told, is to enable students to graduate by giving them credit. Hereby, those who do not receive credit are considered to have failed, as they refuse to earn credit. However, as Focus E-15 continues to show, the aim of study is not to become a professional (who supposedly knows everything) but about fostering a kind of collaborative amateurism. This kind of collaborative amateurism in which for example a German PhD-student studies housing issues in the UK, can create openings through which one can be affected by others, dispossessed and possessed by others. It allows students to be opened up to the vast array of knowledge continuously generated around them and to be affected by that knowledge; it helps them to realize that they can never be entirely ready, never fully become professionals.
Practicing amateurism then means to acknowledge that study happens with each other, in conversation with those who never fail to imagine how the world might be otherwise. For those of us who are committed to keep ‘studying as amateurs’ it is important to stay with the trouble; even though we might be in neoliberal universities, we are not of them.
Harney, S., & Moten, F. (2013). The undercommons: Fugitive planning & black study.
A mother living in a hostel is doing her best for her children by trying to keep up with her education. She wants to get ahead and move on with her life by studying, but the cramped living conditions make this difficult. She has to allow the children to play in one bit of the space and then is forced to learn and study in the tiny kitchen area by using the cooker as a work table. There is no other space available as she has two children – in a space that was originally designed for one single person. The hostel known as Brimstone House in 10 Victoria street in Stratford, Newham, is no place for a family to grow and learn.
Families have had to also endure months of living on top of each other throughout lockdown. It is claustrophobic. Why should she and her children be forced to live like this, in one of the richest countries in the world? Mothers have every right to be students and a decent society would ensure that everyone could access childcare and further education and fully contribute to society to the best of their abilities.
Watch and share the video below to understand how some are forced to live. We are demanding that Newham Council rehouse all the families in Brimstone house for the sake of the children’s future – they need to put down roots, to attend the same school, to become part of a neighborhood. Instead they are left at the mercy of the private rented sector, which often means short term tenancies, constant moving and overpriced accommodation. The families living in the hostel have had enough!
Come and help organise the campaign for decent housing in Newham by joining the regular street stall on Saturday’s from 12-2pm outside Wilko’s on the Broadway.
Newham council, give us a future! Give us a chance!
On Sunday 7 February, a mother of two in Brimstone House, 10 Victoria Street, E15, could take it no more and shared very personal photos of her home to illustrate the contempt that Newham council has for families crammed into the shoddy, overcrowded, damp rooms in this building.
For two years, she has put up with damp, with mould, with inadequate and expensive heating appliances, with a cramped situation whereby she has to share a bed with her children, with no bedroom for her children to sleep in, no room to study for the older one now of school age, no privacy for her.
Then came the rain and in it came. Now the children’s books were ruined, now the mattress was all wet and all their bedding affected. She packed up the room into boxes and bags to safeguard what was left and she asked a family also living in similar conditions in the building if they could take her children overnight, which they kindly did. The next night, she found space on the kitchen floor to put the children down to sleep.
Being an active part of Focus E15 campaign, this brave, resilient mother put out the message to others. Tweeting Newham council got a response, she was contacted and there was a promise of a visit to see and sort out the problems….
But this mother of two is clear, you can sort out the leak but you cannot fix the endemic problems of Brimstone House. The only way to reverse the negligence of extended stays in this appalling living situation, is to move people out to decent homes. Until then, the huge toll on adults’ and children’s mental and physical health will continue.
Focus E15 campaign knows that there are empty homes around Newham, and shockingly, has to repeat again and again and again what everyone, including Rokhsana Fiaz, Mayor of Newham, knows only too well – there are over 400 empty council homes on the Carpenters Estate, deliberately left empty for well over a decade, less than a mile from Brimstone House.
Residents of Brimstone House have voiced their issues loud and clear over and over again. In a recent exchange, mothers of young children expressed some of the issues they are struggling with in Brimstone House, in lockdown and with extreme difficulty getting replies from housing officers now that Bridge House and other housing offices are shut.
The constant merry-go-round of temporary and emergency housing:‘Moving again with my child….we have been living in a hotel, then a friend’s house and then various shared houses. It’s been a physically exhausting year living in London, we have been moved five times already.’
The lack of security: ‘It’s really hard to see a way out of this … and then the empty horrible threats that they will remove our children. All this is magnified by constant insecurity, knowing we’re at their mercy and they really can do what they want. If the council was someone’s partner, they would say it’s an abusive relationship.’
Being forced into tiny spaces in lockdown in a pandemic: ‘It’s so narrow and the ceiling is very low, I feel boxed in. You can see the end of my feet is where the TV is supposed to go, glued to our eyes!’
Knowing there are empty homes nearby:‘There is no way they can possibly justify not opening the Carpenters Estate and many others during this pandemic, I hope at some point we see someone held accountable for purposely keeping houses shut whilst knowing that we have been having a housing crisis for many many years.’
Being at the mercy of a system riven by division and discrimination:‘And they purposely trap us in the illusion of their ‘fair’ system. If we don’t have jobs, they call us lazy, when we do get a job or try to pursue our education, they make it nearly impossible…Unfortunately a lot of people are either dismissive or insensitive, they don’t actually see just how oppressing and soul destroying this system is.’
The women show their strength and resilience: ‘Persevering in adversity is one of the many life skills we are passing down to our kids simply by living the best we can in these situations…’
The conversation ends on a positive note:‘All they want is to distract us and make our lives not meaningful, they do not want us to achieve our goals because they know we are coming back to fight. All we need is NOT to keep quiet, we should continue to use our voice, and I believe with the support of Focus E15 campaign together we will win, they will hear our voice!’
As 2020 came to a close, Brimstone House residents and Focus E15 campaign showed that resistance to the callousness of the council has not gone away. We stood distanced and Covid-aware outside the hostel with banners explaining what is happening to families in the building. These are some of the issues that residents want you to be aware of:
the family in such a small room that the television takes up the only window space
the mother of two children told by the council to put her three-year-old on a sofa as no room for a bed
the young boy who asks why he has no space to do his homework
the threat of eviction on 21 December of a family with two young children, told they have made themselves intentionally homeless – under campaign pressure that date has been changed to 4 January – but then what?
This is not an acceptable way to treat anyone and the campaign is ongoing.
Focus E15 continues to campaign closely with residents of Brimstone House. Mostly mothers and children, courageous in speaking up about their situation, on behalf of many more than just themselves, to highlight the outrageous situation of families forced to live, and isolate, in tiny, badly-ventilated, often mouldy and damp, overcrowded rooms with children.
Newham has the highest number of children in the country living in poverty, the highest level of homelessness – one out of every 24 people, the worst level of air pollution in the whole of Britain, the worst overcrowding at 25% of homes, and the highest number in the country of households in temporary accommodation, currently 4,500. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Newham had the second worse Covid19 death rate in the country by June 2020.
Those raising the issues of Brimstone House, in temporary and emergency housing, are raising the issues of housing in the east London borough of Newham, and challenging the Labour council to start delivering rather than just promising. In this dire situation, there are still over 400 empty council homes on the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, These flats must be immediately refurbished and repopulated. We say to the council – stuff the constant consultation processes and get on with the work at hand and use those empty homes.
As we end 2020, Focus E15 campaign would like to thank all those who have taken part in campaigning for housing justice over this year and given time and energy to the campaign. This year has been very challenging, living through a pandemic, many people in the most difficult of situations, emotionally, practically and financially, struggling with inappropriate housing. Our thoughts go out to everyone, especially those grieving for friends and relatives who have died, and for Focus E15 campaign, we think of Ella and Chelsie, so central to our campaign and so missed.
The struggle must go on and Focus E15 campaign enters 2021 determined to continue to build a housing movement, challenge the Labour council, give solidarity to all those fighting for housing justice, and…. Educate! Agitate! Organise! so that we expose this ruthless capitalist system and begin to work in unity together for a better future for everyone.
Michael Romyn, London’s Aylesbury Estate: An Oral History of the Concrete Jungle (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) The estate was like a shiny new penny. It was lovely. It was really lovely. It’s hard for me to paint a picture for you but it was a beautiful place to live … The community side of it, you […]
A Newham resident who lives in Brimstone house has been working with the campaign and has this to say about her living situation:
I am a 20 year old woman with a young baby. I grew up in Newham and am now a registered carer for my older brother who has a disability and cannot live independently. We both lived with my mum who is in full time work. I shared a bedroom with my brother. When I got pregnant the arrangement was still manageable but once my baby was born it was not possible to share the bedroom anymore. I had to move out.
I approached Newham council and explained the situation. No one will believe what happened next, but it is true. They offered to send a mediator to speak to my brother and my mother to negotiate me and my baby saying in the same bedroom as him. My brother’s disability means that he would not be able to cope with being woken several times in the night. It was embarrassing that the council worker thought it appropriate to offer this. My mother clearly turned this down but they didn’t take no for an answer and sent someone round to the house to talk to my brother. It felt like they didn’t care about or try to understand our situation.
So they placed me and my baby in a hotel room as an emergency. I continued to care for my brother and, apart from my period of maternity leave, planned to resume my studies and my work. Then Newham offered me a place in Tilbury. I said no because I could not fulfil my caring duties with that distance to travel and a young baby.
I am probably lucky the council didn’t accuse me of intentional homelessness and discharge duty to house me, like they do to so many people. Just before the March 2020 lockdown they gave me and my baby a room in Brimstone House, Victoria Street in Stratford, at least I am in Newham. But it is now nearly ten months. It seems like I have the smallest room in the block, my television obscures the window, it is no place for a child. I can’t afford the private rents, when I bid I am lucky to come 500th in line, and the council waiting list is a joke with about 24,000 people in the queue before me.
How can there be a Labour Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz who promised so much three years ago and yet nothing seems to have changed (https://www.rokhsana.org/about/pledges/). It is shocking to think that over 400 two- and three-bedroom flats lie empty on the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, yet families with babies and young children are left to grow up in terrible housing situations just a short walk away from the empty blocks
Refurbish and repopulate all of the council flats on the Carpenters Estate NOW! There are over 200 families in Brimstone House. Let’s get together and organise to challenge this housing situation. Together we are stronger. There’s no time to lose.
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.
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.