Hostel’s problems highlight wider issue

Peter O’Kane, from East London Unite Community, on the recent eviction of homeless hostel residents

East London Unite Community

Campaigners from East London Unite Community outside Branches hostel in Forest Road

Across the political spectrum homelessness is now recognised as a growing problem.

The Centre for Social Justice, founded by Chingford MP Iain Duncan Smith who oversaw benefit cuts as a government minister, recently published a report calling for more low-cost housing and a ‘less-harsh’ housing benefit regime.

What the report calls the ‘devastating experience’ of homelessness is hitting more and more people. Court orders evicting private tenants in Waltham Forest, usually ‘no fault’ evictions without even a court hearing, have more than doubled over the last ten years.

Even with a good income, quickly finding over £1,000 (and it is often much more) to secure a new place can be a tall order. Without a decent income or large savings it can be impossible. Moreover, paying the weekly rent can be a big problem; for private tenants, the housing benefit limit for local unemployed or low-income workers is only £77 per week for a room or £182 per week for a one bedroom flat – below most current private rents.

At East London Unite Community, a local branch of Unite the Union, we’ve been supporting tenants of Branches, a 27-bed hostel in Walthamstow, who have been evicted at short notice. To house new residents, Branches needs vacancies, but the big problem is that the social housing supply is drying up. A ‘secure a private rented place or be evicted’ stance may help solve Branches’ problem, but it does so at the expense of existing residents.

One of the people we’ve been supporting is Osmond James, who was evicted earlier this year. He explained his situation: “After I lost my job, a spiral of precarious living brought me to the doors of Branches, a modern hostel in Forest Road. The first few months felt productive. My support worker helped me secure a job at a call centre and I started volunteering at the local Credit Union. I was assured that I was well on my way to being nominated by Branches for permanent housing.

“In 2015 things changed. Instead of ‘earning a nomination’ residents had to secure private rented places themselves. We were made acutely aware we could be evicted at a moment’s notice. Securing private rented housing was very difficult. Help was extremely limited.

“Myself and two others were told we had stayed too long and received notices to quit. I found a room, but Branches turned down my request for a bridging loan for a deposit and I lost it. So, on a cold February morning, we were unceremoniously evicted with nowhere to stay that night.”

Given most Branches’ residents have no job, or an insecure low-paid one, and with housing benefit limits so low, evicting people who can’t find private accommodation seems harsh. Residents are between the rock of unattainable housing options and the hard place of enforced eviction.

Branches get more than £500,000 of public money a year, including £100,000 from Waltham Forest Council. There seems to be a need for effective independent scrutiny of how this money is spent.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Branches said: “Branches supports people in Waltham Forest, toward independent living. During their stay, of between six months and two years, residents access individualised support. This gives them the opportunity to develop life skills and tackle any mental health problems or dependencies they may have.

“When residents are ready, we support them in searching for new accommodation. In the small number of cases where residents do not engage we ask them to move on with three months’ notice. During this period we continue to offer support to help find alternative accommodation.

“Sourcing good quality, affordable and secure move-on options for residents is a growing challenge in the Waltham Forest area, and a priority for Branches.”