Anarchy 83/Homeless in Wandsworth
The Chairman of the Welfare Committee (a strange name for a committee that sent such a letter) stated in the press that the letter was written after great thought as an attempt to discourage homelessness in anyone who might be thinking of becoming homeless as a way of obtaining a; to present those families who were already homeless with “an adventure and a challenge”; and that the Council believed that all the families were likely to be able to find other accommodation within the next nine months but that many of the men were unemployed, were in arrears with their rent and were thought not to be trying to help themselves.
Leaving this airy fairy-
Nightingale Square is hygienic and supervised. This means that you have to be in at 11 o’clock every night. If you have visitors, they are supposed to report first to the Supervisor. All letters are delivered to the office and are given out at the pleasure of the Supervisor. At 9 o’clock every morning all flats are inspected to see that beds have been made and swept under. At any time you may be visited by the Supervisor. There is no privacy and families would rather be in smelly Durham Buildings, where at least there is some privacy, they say. In Nightingale Square one is institutionalised, depersonalised and humiliated. A young man complained bitterly on behalf of his wife: “My wife has had two brain operations and the doctor said that she mustn’t live upstairs because of her dizzy spells. She’s just come out of the nerve hospital. I told the Welfare Officer this because we were put up on the second floor. The Welfare Officer said, ‘Nerves? Hundreds of people have nerves.’ She put us one floor down onto the first floor. I’ve tried to telephone the Medical Officer but I can’t ever get hold of him.” Nightingale Square is supposed to be just a reception place, but this family with two children had been there three months.
All the families are different and have become homeless for a variety of reasons—e.g. loss of employment, or sickness, so that they could not keep up with payments of rent. Some of the men have been in prison, some of the women are without husbands. The frightening thing is that homelessness is something which could easily happen to any ordinary person—a venture that fails, an eviction under the Rent Act. Few of the families have less than three children. Many have four, five or six. Several have eight or nine and one has eleven. All received the same tough-
The logical conclusion at the end of nine moths was that those families who had not found alternative accommodation (and most of them felt hopeless about that), would be evicted and that their children would then be taken into Ron Bailey of (fresh from victories at and ) has helped the families to form a Tenants’ Association which has held meetings and protest marches, and has tried to have the issue discussed at a Council meeting. It seems completely cowardly and shameful that the new policy of the Welfare Committee was not even mentioned in its report to the Council, and no Councillor, either Labour or , raised the subject. They had all had a letter from the Tenants’ Association asking them to do so. Presumably the Conservatives did not care to and the Labour members had been forbidden to by their .. The children and parents suffered six weeks of anxiety and apprehension about this before the Chairman of the Welfare Committee, in a television interview with me, was stung into a statement: “The Council has never said that it would take the children into care. It is not the policy of the Council to break up families.” This is as far as the Council will go, but most of the families are assuming that this policy applies to them and that the Council has pledged itself not to take the children away.
The Council is urging families to move out of London to the. There are a few young couples who say that they would like to, but that they have not been able to line up both work and a home in a new town, although they have been trying to for years. There are others who say, “We wouldn’t be welcome in a new town, coming from Durham Buildings,” or “We’ve only just managed to find stable employment here. Why should we now be made to move out?” They feel that the Council is seeking to solve its own problems by trying to deport them from the Borough. A new town does not allure very insecure and deprived families—familiarity is what they want. One wife said, “I feel that we who have lived here for 35 years are being made to move out of Wandsworth and the coloureds are moving in.” Meanwhile, every Sunday since the first protest march, have been sent by the Council to Durham Buildings and Nightingale Square to take the men out for the day to see a new town.
There is no doubt that the Councillors concerned are now quite frightened at the hornets’ nest which they have stirred up. Some of the men in Durham Buildings are very angry and are violent in their threats to individuals. To add to their sense of persecution, families who have had press publicity have received—“Stop making children. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
How could such a stupid, distressing situation arise. It is certain that there is a wide gap in knowledge and understanding between the families and the Councillors. Families are called grandly to the Town Hall for interviews, from time to time, and the Welfare has fat dossiers on them all, based in part on reports made by the Welfare Officers of the Buildings and the Supervisor of Nightingale Square. At one such interview a mother who was working part-
Recently the Wandsworth Borough Council spent over £10,000 putting showers into a sports’ club which is used once a week. Last year they sought £6,000 for new regalia for themselves. For far less than either of these sums they could have put downstairs public lavatories, a bathhouse and a drying room in the yard of Durham Buildings. It does not seem to occur to them that even as temporary housing such places are a national disgrace and are so awful that no one would live there by choice, that if you give people conditions as disgusting as Durham Buildings to live in, they sink to the level where they feel they cannot do anything and become hopeless and apathetic. The Council’s letter to these families was like threatening a man on a raft on the high seas that if he does not find an island soon you will take away his raft.
This contrasts strangely with the advice given to local authorities by the, the and the in a joint circular dated 26th September: “In many areas, although a family may have to spend a considerable time in interim accommodation, they are helped to find permanent accommodation of one kind or another, if they cannot make their own arrangements. Either the social service departments assist them in finding suitable private housing, or they are given a tenancy by the housing authority or department. Ministers commend this practice, and consider that once a family have been given temporary accommodation because they are homeless they should not, except for special reasons, be compelled to leave unless they have satisfactory alternative accommodation to go to.”
No doubt other local authorities are watching closely to see if Wandsworth will get away with it.
| There is no doubt that we have had a large degree of success. has stated publicly on that the Council do not intend to take any children into care. All tenants have been called to see Mr. North, the Welfare Officer, and told that they won’t be put into the streets. And perhaps best of all, we have received a letter from saying that the Council have assured him that they do not intend to put any families onto the streets.
Obviously much ground has been made. The nine-
However, this does not mean the campaign is over. Having gained some success we are now pushing for the following three points:
1. A public, official, written assurance to the homeless families that the eviction threat will not be carried out.
2. A reply to the question: “What happens to those families who have been unable to find accommodation in nine months?” We know they will not be evicted but will they go to “problem family units” as is rumoured, with 24-
3. The reletting of empty Council-
In furtherance of the first two points a letter was sent to every Councillor asking them to bring up the subject at the Council meeting on November 15. Not one Councillor saw fit to do so, but about 20 homeless people and supporters were in the public gallery, and we did. Theand Alderman Parker went berserk and we were ejected. But we had made our point, and we all enjoyed it immensely.
We thank those who have supported us.
The campaign continues.
—ron bailey in Freedom