'It's torture': Homeless single mothers on fear of being 'shipped' out of Camden
- Credit: Polly Hancock
Single mothers being moved out of temporary accommodation they have lived in for years say they are being threatened with homelessness as they are pushed into ill-suited housing outside Camden.
Vulnerable families from England’s Lane Residence – the majority of them women who have suffered domestic violence – have lived in the council-run homeless hostel in Belsize Park since 2004.
Some have lived in the temporary accommodation for as long as 10 years, and with their children often schooled in the borough and their family nearby, many regard Camden as their home.
The cramped accommodation, originally designed for single student nurses, has often forced parents to sleep in the same bed as their children. The block has had problems with rodents, ants, cockroaches, mould and damp.
In March, the council’s lease on the building – which is owned by multinational property developer Akelius – will expire.
The town hall has sought to move out all families by the end of the year, but some remain deadlocked at the hostel, with housing yet to be agreed.
As of December 17 there were still 19 families at England’s Lane Residence, which originally held 160 households.
From data provided by Camden Council on families who have already moved, 48% have been rehoused in the borough, 44% elsewhere in London, and 8% in other parts of the country.
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In a minority of cases, the Ham&High understands residents were moved to, or offered accommodation as far as Luton, Southend-on-Sea, Wolverhampton, Yorkshire and Durham.
More than half of the families were placed in the private rental sector (57%), followed by social housing (19%) and further temporary accommodation (12%).
The council said it was “regrettably” unable to meet all residents’ “accommodation preference”, citing high demand for limited social housing, and unaffordable private rents in the borough.
This newspaper spoke to the women who remain at England’s Lane Residence to hear how they became homeless, and how they fear becoming homeless again – as they describe their deep sense of uncertainty this Christmas.
'We’re being told to rebuild our lives’
Vanessa King, 35, has lived at England’s Lane Residence (ELR) for three years with her five-year-old daughter. She is a daily carer for her sick father who lives in King’s Cross.
In 2018, she packed her child’s belongings in the middle of the night and got on a flight out of Macedonia to flee domestic abuse.
Now, having rebuilt her life, overcoming depression, anxiety and panic attacks, she wants to remain in Camden – where she was born and bred; where her family and friends live; and where her child is settled at school.
She has rejected the council’s offer of housing in Islington, telling the Ham&High: “I'm not prepared to take my child out of school because she's already had her life turned upside down once.
“I told the council I don't feel safe if I move away from my family. I've created a protective ring around myself for the last three years. I've started a new life afresh.
"We're being told we don't care what you've been through, you have to take this flat. We're all in the same boat – everyone's furious that we're being treated this way.
“We’re domestic violence survivors and we’re being told to rebuild our lives, new lives. We’re being told ‘forget that [the past], do it again.’”
Vanessa said the positive changes she had made to “turn a leaf” felt like they were “crashing down” under the “pressure” of moving out.
She called it “outrageous” that rather than supporting vulnerable families to remain within their own communities, they were being “shipped off” to other parts London or the country.
“I am determined to fight this [move] all the way,” Vanessa said.
“I was born here, this is my community and it's just not happening.”
'My support network is here’
Masuma Akter, 34, met Vanessa three years ago through their children’s nursery. She lived at ELR for two years with her two kids aged eight and five.
Masuma has spinal cord compression and she is awaiting an operation on her back, which has been delayed due to Covid.
She says her pain means she struggles to walk, and that she is only able to do two things in the day – drop off her kids at school, and collect them.
The mother of two has family in King’s Cross, and a relative in Romford who helps her do her weekly shopping.
She says she was offered housing in Hackney, but that it was unsuitable as she couldn’t climb the stairs to access the property, and there was no lift.
"It's horrible,” she said. “My family, my community, my support network is here. I can't go far from my family.
“I've been having panic attacks, it's a horrible time at the moment.”
Masuma said she was threatened with homelessness if she didn't take up the council’s previous offer of accommodation.
This newspaper has seen an email from the council to her which reads: “As you did not accept the offer by the 5pm deadline your Homeless Application will now be closed.”
It continues: “You are aware that England’s Lane will now close. I’m afraid that you will not be able to stay at the hostel as repair work will commence and services such as electric and gas are likely to be out of use.”
The email concludes: “I have just been told that the property has not yet been offered to another applicant so if you now wish to accept you can do so before 14:00 today.”
Masuma’s eight-year-old daughter has written a letter, signed and dated on lined A4 paper, to the council’s housing chief, Cllr Meric Apak.
“We won’t know where the shops are”, the letter says. “You broke me and my brother’s emotions.”
It goes on to say: “This is super unfair, we were born here so we lived here for our entire life but instead you say we should go somewhere else.”
The schoolgirl signed off the letter: “PS: Super important.”
‘The heating doesn’t work, the fridge is broken’
Aghdas, 54, is disabled and uses crutches. She has lived in ELR for two years with her son who is 13.
She said she was offered a one-bedroom property in Battersea.
"I asked them can they put two single beds inside, but the landlord doesn't accept it,” she said.
“The living room and kitchen is open, and the living room is really not a living room, it's like a corridor, because every side has a door.
"I went there today and the heating doesn't work. There wasn't any hot water, the fridge doesn't work, the water leaks from the fridge.
“I said nothing because when I got a key from the agency, I asked her 'is everything ok?', and the agency said 'yes, everything is ok'.”
'Mentally it’s just torture’
A woman who asked to referred to as Lilly, 39, has been rehoused in Islington.
She was a well-known designer, having worked for celebrities such as Paloma Faith and Rita Ora – until she had to move into ELR to flee abuse.
She was left unable to work, had to start claiming universal credit, and she lost direct contact with her two young children – which she described as her “lowest point in life”.
Before being rehoused, Lilly said she was “manipulated” to try to accept the council’s previous offer, or else she was told she would not see her children for Christmas.
"I'm really bad at the moment because I have pressure from the council, I'm in limbo,” she said.
“I still don't have my kids. I haven't seen my daughter for five months. Mentally it's just torture.
“I'm a mother and I haven't seen my girl for five months. It tears me apart.
"I spoke to the lady from the council, she said do you want to see your kids for Christmas? That is blackmail.
“It made me feel like I'm going to agree with anything and everything, just give me something for me to see my kids."
‘The most important thing is a safe space for my daughter’
Zainab (not her real name), 46, has lived in ELR for two and a half years with her five-year-old daughter.
She was the victim of domestic violence and suffers from a range of health problems.
"I'm not fighting for Camden, I'm happy to go wherever, maybe outside London,” she said.
"If they help me with English problems and everything, I think it will be ok for me. The most important thing is a safe place for me and my daughter.”
Zainab added: “Most of the families are already struggling with our health, mentally, because of Covid.
“And because of our domestic abuse problems we are already mentally feeling sick.
“Then they're [the council] talking to us forcefully, they're using this language – ‘stop the electricity, there's no water anymore’.
“This type of language, sending us emails and letters, so it's like harassing. I don't like how they're talking to us.”
'They closed my case straight away’
Alice, who asked for a pseudonym to be used, is 35. She moved to south London in January.
She lived in ELR for nearly three years after losing her home, and her job of 18 years. She has two children, aged one and two.
Alice left ELR when the health of a close family member deteriorated, so she moved into their home to provide daily care.
“As soon as I mentioned there was a possibility of moving in with my family they [the council] literally closed my case and withdrew their duty straight away,” she said.
“I’ve literally never seen people move so fast. I was like, ‘thanks.’”
‘Camden is my home’
Tahira Garabayli, 45, has lived in ELR for one year and a half. She has a 11-year-old son.
"I feel like Camden is my home and they're trying to move me somewhere unfamiliar. I’m worried the place won't have space for my son,” she said.
"When I came here from my country, Azerbaijan, I was feeling really bad, I was missing my country. Now I've got used to it and they're trying to move me.
"They're trying to move and pressurise people. Everyone in the hostel feels the same, like pressurised. It's really, really bad."
‘They’re not listening to our needs’
Alexandra (not her real name), 49, has a nine-year-old son. She has lived in ELR for two years after her relationship broke down, and she has since struggled with depression.
"I don't want to take my son out of school. It's not his fault that his parents split up,” she said.
“He's an only child so I want him to be with his friends. I don't want to just take him out of school and start afresh when all he's known, all his life, is Camden.
"They're (the council) fighting to move everyone far away and they're just not listening to our needs.”
'I have a lot of space now, like a normal human being’
In June, Wendy Burke, 39, moved to Islington from ELR after two years living in Belsize Park with her eight-year-old child.
She said the rehousing process was managed well by the council and that she and her son now have more space.
Ubah Ali, meanwhile, lived at ELR for nine years with her son, who is nine, and her grandmother.
She was rehoused in Camden and she praised the council for how they helped her family move into their new home.
"The process of moving out has gone very well in my opinion. You have to give credit where it's due.
"They gave a van for us to move out, so for me I had a good experience.
"The most important thing is that I have a lot of space now, like a normal human being will have a kitchen, a toilet, a living room, a room for a child to sleep.
“Me and my child used to sleep in the same bed for nine years, and he is nine years old, so it wasn't ideal to have him in my bed anymore.”
Ubah added: "I think Camden Council still needs to be questioned about their motives and why things have gone the way they've gone. It hasn't been easy for a lot of people."
'We can't accommodate everyone in Camden’
Camden Council did not respond to residents’ individual cases when approached by this newspaper.
Housing chief Cllr Meric Apak told the Ham&High: “Our first priority always is to prevent homelessness, and we continue to be leaders in this throughout London. When this is not possible, we provide suitable alternative accommodation.
“A year ago, there were 128 families accommodated temporarily in single rooms in England’s Lane hostel; today (December 17) there are just 19, with over 100 households having successfully moved to more sustainable accommodation.
“Each household has had a dedicated advisor since January 2020 to ensure the best possible outcome, given their individual circumstances.
“Despite their existing small living spaces, some families have told us that that they feel safe in England’s Lane and that they are concerned about moving into their own accommodation or that they may be unable to stay in Camden.
“We understand their concerns and our move on team have worked in partnership with many of Camden’s support and social care services to try to reduce these anxieties.”
The council said the ELR move-out will save it £1m and “free up resources” to make an investment of £16m into converting two other hostels, which it owns, in Chester Road and Camden Road.
It said each of the remaining families have previously received at least one offer of alternative housing deemed suitable, and that they have known since August that the council wanted to move everyone out by Christmas.
If accommodation was unavailable inside the borough, it said locations “as close as possible” were sought, taking into account healthcare, children’s educational needs, parent’s employment status, and other support requirements.
Cllr Apak continued: “We are at pains to listen and respond to any concerns of residents, but regrettably it has not been possible to meet everyone’s accommodation preference.
“The majority of families requested housing in Camden, but due to the extremely high demand for our limited supply of social housing, we were not able to guarantee all homeless households an offer under our allocations scheme.
“Compounding this, many of the families were affected by the government’s benefit cap and therefore were often more than £100 per week short of being able to afford Camden private rents.
“Families have been offered specialist assistance from Camden’s Job Hub to access employment in a bid to escape the benefit cap.
“Those that have been successful have found accommodation in Camden and the surrounding boroughs.
“All our meetings with families have aimed to ensure that any options being considered for new housing are right and affordable for them and we will continue to provide all available support, now and in the future.”
The council confirmed, following reporting by this newspaper and pressure from local councillors, that no new housing offers will be made to ELR residents between December 23-29.
However it said that if residents chose to leave during this period, the council would provide “all available support” to facilitate their move.