Anarchy 83/Homeless in Wandsworth

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On 25th september, 1967, wandsworth borough council, a Labour Council, sent an astonishing letter to the home­less families living in its temporary ac­com­mo­da­tion (Durham Buildings and Nightingale Square). The letter demanded that the families vacate this ac­com­mo­da­tion as soon as possible and “certainly within the next nine months”. The finding of alternative ac­com­mo­da­tion, said the letter, was the responsi­bility entirely of the families themselves. They had already been told that the Council would not rehouse them, said the letter, and they were being informed officially that they would not be permitted to remain in the Council’s welfare ac­com­mo­da­tion for longer than nine months, that is, after June 1968.

  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 council flat; 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-ness on one side for the moment, let us look at the facts. Durham Buildings is typical of a number of similar buildings provided for home­less families as temporary ac­com­mo­da­tion. There is another equally grim and unhygienic place in Wandsworth itself—Battersea Bridge Buildings—and it is not clear why the families there were not similarly favoured with a letter placing a time limit on their stay. For the last few years these places have been run by the London Boroughs and before that they were run by the LCC. For generations they have been known as ghettoes: that’s where you go when you’re down and out, you can’t sink any lower than that. People in the locality know the Durham Buildings families, at school, in the play spaces, in the shops where no one is given H.P. if he lives in Durham Buildings. There is no bathroom for 90 families. Each flat has one cold tap, one electric power point and a lavatory which is reached by going through the flat and out onto a balcony overlooking the yard. The little children who play down in the yard pee on the stairs rather than climb perhaps four floors and there is a pervading smell of urine in the Buildings. Broken windows are not mended, on the stairs they are left gaping and in front door panels they are stuck over with paper and cardboard. Factories on both sides and behind the yard pour smoke, dust and steam into the Buildings. The heavy traffic on York Road, Battersea, pours petrol fumes. If a child leaves school and gets a job on reaching the age of 15, pressure is brought to bear by the Council to get the child to leave home and find lodgings outside the Buildings. Some of these teenagers sneak back in at night to be near their families. When families become home­less, they are not allowed to bring any of their own furniture with them and this means either selling it all or paying for storage indefinitely. In the words of one mother, “It definitely marks you and you begin to give up. It drags you down with it. There’s a woman here who drinks methylated spirits. She was normal once. She’s been here seven years and has had three children more since she came, making seven. One woman here has lost two babies with lung trouble in the first few months. Her doctor said she shouldn’t go on living here. I’ve been here ten months and I was beginning to break. I think I would have if it hadn’t been for my doctor. He’s an angel and he doesn’t seem ever to mind coming here to visit my baby.” The Council midwives, who are normally keen for home confinements, say that they will not undertake confinements in Durham Buildings because this Council ac­com­mo­da­tion is too sub­standard. In spite of all this, most families would prefer to live in the Buildings than to live in Nightingale Square.

  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-line letter from the Council. A mother of four children said, “I went to the office and signed for my letter as we were all told to do. When I got upstairs and opened it I could have fallen through the floor. How am I going to find somewhere to live with four children? I’m here through no fault of my own and I feel that a terrible injustice has been done against me. It’s just impossible for most of the families here to find anywhere else to live or they would have done so. The Council is asking us to do in nine months what they have failed to do in 35 years.” One mother took an overdose of sleeping pills in a suicide attempt. Another told me that her daughter had now become enuretic during the day as well as at night. … “They can’t help hearing us talk and none of us knows what’s going to happen to us all. Meanwhile I just can’t cope with the washing with one electric point, three children and a baby.”

  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 care. 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. Ron Bailey of Solidarity (fresh from victories at King Hill and Abridge) 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 Conservative, 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 Party Whips.

  The Council is urging families to move out of London to the new towns. 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, coaches 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 poison pen letters—“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-time was asked, “Why don’t you take a full-time job?”. Councillors do not seem often to find time to go and see the ac­com­mo­da­tion for which they are responsible or to talk to the people whose fates they hold in their hands. The families I spoke to did not know the names of any of the Councillors and said that no one had ever been near them since the day they moved in and that they had never seen anyone from the Council in the Buildings. A deputation of three of the husbands was received at the Town Hall after the sending of the letter of 25th September—only three were allowed—and they were received by fifteen Councillors armed with thick files on the families. One was asked, “Are you working? No? Unemployed? What are you talking for then?” He had been offered a job by the Council as a roadsweeper but had turned it down because he said it was bad enough living in Durham Buildings without sweeping the streets as well.

  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 Minister of Health, the Home Secretary and the Minister of Housing and Local Government 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. Ald. Parker has stated publicly on BBC TV 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 Kenneth Robinson 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-month threat is now a paper tiger and the tenants no longer feel threatened by it. This, of course, is the most important thing of all.

  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-hour supervision?

  3.  The reletting of empty Council-owned houses in Battersea, which were going to be left vacant for two-three years. Why should not the home­less be housed in them—with or without Council permission?

  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. The Mayor and 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