Hackney Borough Council has a housing waiting list of more than 15,000. It also has more than 17,000 people in housing deemed to be unsuitable and around 2,000 people classed as homeless.
Hackney Housing Group campaigns for better social housing provision in the borough. On Friday 9 April they organised a day long fasting protest outside Hackney Town Hall.
According to housing charity Shelter, 43,487 people lived in temporary accommodation in the capital in 2009. Those were the lucky ones. Those who are refused a homeless person’s Interview and, therefore, temporary accommodation end up on the streets. Figures vary, but the Combined Homeless and Information Network (CHAIN) counted 3,500 people sleeping on the capital’s streets last year.
Eran Cohen, 22, is an activist with London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP), a campaign group which works on behalf of people with housing problems to force local councils to act compassionately and lawfully. LCAP have a team of about thirty caseworkers, along with volunteers like Eran who, twice weekly, distributes leaflets outside Homeless Persons’ Units (HPUs), informing people of their rights.
Sometimes people are refused a Homeless Persons’ Interview – which they’re legally entitled to. Others, claim campaigners, are misled, lied to or simply ignored. They call this “gatekeeping”. The practice is – according to LCAP – widespread amongst councils who attempt to manage demand for reduced housing stocks or massage their homelessness figures in order to meet government targets.
Eran claims that gatekeeping is endemic and believes the best way to combat it is through direct action. “The vast majority of the people that I speak to have had some experience of gatekeeping,” he says. “People are constantly being misled as to what they can expect from a HPU and this is completely unacceptable. We’ve staged occupations of Hackney HPU. Twenty of us go in and say ‘We’re not leaving until you help this person.’ It’s a very effective technique.”
Labour Mayor of Hackney, Jules Pipe, defends the council’s record on social housing provision and gatekeeping:
“We have one of the largest council house building programmes in London. There are about 16,000 or 17,000 on the waiting list but that includes absolutely everybody from homeless people in temporary accommodation or whether it’s people in the middle of the range who lack one bedroom all the way to people who are deemed to be adequately housed, because it’s a choice based system.
“Gatekeeping is used as a pejorative term but every council has to have criteria because if you just said, ‘OK, just pitch up, even if you have no connection with the borough and we’ll house you, well what does that say to the thousands of people who have lived here years and are overcrowded or those people who through no fault of their have been made homeless. It would be unfair if they were pushed to the bottom of the queue because we didn’t have proper criteria. So, no, the council can’t help everyone and it certainly can’t help young single people with no dependents who are in work, they would be expected to get themselves private accommodation.
“LCAP have a particular agenda and I always find it interesting that they attack Hackney when other boroughs like Westminster are exporting their homeless people to places like Hackney.”
“When you look at our record on affordable homes, our reputation in London is extraordinarily high. Some years we have one of the biggest affordable housing programmes.”
Jay, 24, a slight, softly spoken man, recently released from prison is waiting outside Hackney’s HPU. He misses his daughter: “I’m supposed to be able to see her, but because the council won’t recognize my situation as genuine I’m not able to. They refuse to grant me a Homeless Person’s Interview. At the moment I’m sleeping on friends’ settees.”
Wendy Pettifer is a local housing solicitor with over thirty years experience: “Quite a few of the people that we deal with at Hackney Law Centre have been victims of gatekeeping, although it seems that voluntary organizations help those people affected by it more than we do,” she says. “It’s hard to tell how many people are affected by gatekeeping because the vast majority are turned away and don’t tell anyone that it’s happened.
“The government has set targets. It subsidizes temporary accommodation but tells the local authorities that it won’t continue to do this unless they work to reduce the numbers that they accept as homeless. Obviously the local authorities want to continue receiving this money, so they find ways.”
A spokesperson for Shelter agreed that the scale of the problem was difficult to assess. She said: “Denying people Homeless Persons Interviews certainly does take place at some HPUs in an attempt to manipulate homelessness figures. Those people that are turned away don’t tend to realise that they’ve been victims of gatekeeping so it goes unreported. It’s hard for us to comment without looking at individual cases.”
Responding to LCAP’s Hungry for Housing protest a Hackney Council spokesperson told the Hackney Citizen newspaper:
“Housing Needs service applies criteria set out in legislation to assess if households are eligible, homeless and/or in priority need. During interviews, the nature of local housing situation is outlined, as well as the range of housing options available.
“Arrangements in place to carry out homelessness assessments on an emergency basis where necessary, are all in accordance with legislation and Homelessness Code of Guidance. This does not constitute a practice of denying anyone a homelessness interview.
“The Housing Needs service offers advice and options service to many customers who do not meet all of the statutory criteria for Housing assistance.
“We work closely with residents to help achieve positive resolutions to their housing problems. We have had 678 homelessness prevention outcomes this year, which indicates the success of the prevention, advice and options approach.
“We have worked hard to reduce numbers of residents in temporary accommodation and continue to work to improve the standards of all housing.”
By James Kingston and Neil Roberts