My first post – longer than most but after a weekend of helping my ‘homeless’ friends I got to do a bit of thinking.
Friday was the moving day. I assumed it was all going well until I got a call. J was 'feeling sick' - a typical reference of his to feeling acutely stressed. I got there and quickly J came out to tell me how suitably embarrassed R was feeling about having sold a flat without buying a house at the same time...an easy error to make, especially if up a Guatemalan mountain on a very expensive mobile phone call - J is so understanding in a way that I am not! J went back in, R came out to tell me about 'the wardrobe' - which I think had been part of the 'feeling sick' so I was interested. R couldn't say just then...later I was told that the removal men had been convinced by R that the heavy & bulky hand-built wardrobe had been brought into the house through the front door...and R was not lying...but had not told the whole truth...R had forgotten that when the wardrobe had been delivered they had backed the item into the neighbour's flat before easing through the front door of their flat. The result of R's poor memory was the farcical sight of three strapping removal men trapped in a small lobby of the house and no prospect of the item being moved. Anyway you'll be pleased to know that taking the door off the flat gave enough room to allow the men to get the furniture out. I picked up the computer and some plants and got away. I was beginning to 'feel sick'.
J & R arrive at about 5 o'clock...I could go on about what we did, who was there, what we ate, what we drank...but I won't.
We've known J&R for sometime now...even been away with them...stayed over at each other's in the past...but this was a bit different. They had no home to go to...instead a wedge of cash in the bank and a mortgage offer ready to buy the new place. We ate together, drank together, they did the washing up, paid for dinner, we provided fresh bed linen, clean towels, and tried to make them feel at home. I suggested that if the house purchase fell through they could buy half of our house and we could all be debt-free...we could see it made sense in one way...but had its drawbacks.They have left now...gone to a hotel for a few days...hopefully things will speed up during the week and they'll be able to move into their own place very soon. They're planning to stay with family next weekend, and may come back next week.
However the story of J&R has got me thinking...obviously 'homelessness' for J&R should be a very temporary affair. More unsettling than anything else. I hope they enjoyed their time with us (I'll find out from J over a pint or two). Yet it was obvious that J in particular felt uncomfortable about the situation.
As a local councillor, when a resident asks for help with 'housing' or 'homelessness' it is frequently accompanied by a distressing story and more often than not compounded by bureaucratic bungling - that's usally why the resident has come to see me. There are many reasons why the 'official view' of a resident's case is different to the reality. Highlighting errors in the 'official' account can help move things forward.
However, dealing with the issues of homelessness on a case by case basis is not really good enough. As a Councillor I need to be sure that the issue is also addressed at a political level. I recently received some figures whereby the numbers classed as 'homeless' in Lewisham jumped in August 2006. This jump was not due to an influx of rough sleepers in Lewisham but due to work undertaken by the Council to address a backlog of cases. In other words these were people who had approached the Council for help but whose 'cases' (personal tragedies) had not been 'processed'. Being 'processed' is of course the first step to having a 'home'.
Ultimately it comes down to 'resources'. Not just having the staff in place to 'process' cases but also the actual homes to offer people. A dwindling stock of available homes and a limited ability to provide additonal affordable housing either through the planning process or other means continues to ensure that homelessness will continue to be a problem in Lewisham for some time to come. However it is outrageous that Lewisham adds to these problems by failing to handle 'voids' properly. 'Voids' or empty properties are precisely the homes offered to the Council's homeless. A recent independent report by the Audit Commission said this about the managing of void properties in Lewisham:
"This is an area where weaknesses significantly outweigh strengths. The Council is not meeting its turnaround target and performance is marginally worse than last year, the agreed lettable standard is not being applied effectively and there is poor performance management of the service with variable approaches being taken in different management areas. Standards of 'lettable' properties we inspected were poor and the Council's own survey results confirm this."
So in other words - Lewisham is failing in this area and actually knows about it too. Little has changed then over the past four years when I was personally involved in assisting a young homeless mother find a home through Lewisham. The flat offered was in an appalling state:
These pictures were taken by me early in 2003 in a Lewisham Home in Perry Vale. They were sent to the Mayor. At the time I was horrifed that Lewisham offered this flat as being suitable for rent. My guess is that flats like this are the ones referred to in some detail in the Audit Commission Report. It's not good, it's not right and needs to be addressed.
The Audit Commission report itself was discussed at a Council meeting recently - Lib Dems calling for Cllr Susan Wise to resign, Greens calling for the Mayor to place the housing portfolio with another cabinet member. In the event Labour closed ranks with the Conservatives and Cllr Susan Wise retains the housing portfolio.
I brought the report up for discussion at the Housing Board - a borough wide committee looking at issues of strategic concern for Lewisham's housing as a whole. Apparently it was not suitable for discussion at this meeting. What next? Cllr Susan Wise explains that to discuss the report would be to 'take work away from the ALMO' - given that the political leadership in the ALMO is three Labour Councillors appointed by the Mayor and ever keen to suppress legitimate criticism of her time in office, I'd be more than happy for this.
So the cabinet appears unwilling to permit an open and honest discussion of the problems highlighted in the report by elected Councillors. Yet it is essential that Mayor and Cabinet show themselves to be always acting as a 'responsible government'. Personal attacks on Cllr Susan Wise’s ability to manage the whole of her portfolio by the Liberal Democrats were unfounded, and I hope they have learnt from that. I am hopeful that at the forthcoming meeting of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee, opposition & Labour councillors can agree to a sensible remit for a sub-committee to look at housing services in some detail in Lewisham...and through that review Greens can continue to play their role in 'responsible opposition'.