By Kate Belgrave
Homeless women with children end up in impossible situations when dumped in temporary housing miles from their jobs.
In this story, homeless mother of two Alicia Phillips explains how the housing crisis and an expensive commute from Boundary House – an isolated temporary accommodation hostel in Welwyn Garden City – are destroying her work and training options.
Alicia says that Waltham Forest Council told her she’d have to give up her job as a nursery nurse in London if the commute from Boundary House was too expensive and difficult.
This is how single mothers are punished in austerity. They’re put in single rooms in isolated temporary housing that is miles from any realistic sort of opportunity. They’re actively relegated to a poverty trap. So much for Stephen Crabb’s fantasies about the government’s commitment to getting women out of that trap.
Alicia, who has a daughter aged two and a son aged one, approached Waltham Forest Council for help with housing when the contract on her privately-rented Walthamstow flat ended in 2013. In January 2014, the council placed her in Boundary House – an isolated hostel building that is a bus-ride or a half-hour walk from Welwyn Garden City rail station. Boundary House residents say that peak time train journeys to, from and in London cost between £300 and £400 a month.
The costly commute
Alicia, who worked as a nursery nurse near King’s Cross, found that she could barely afford the rail fares: “[It cost] like £400 a month [to commute] and it’s peak time. It is even more. I was earning like about £700. That chunk is just coming out of my wages and it was just ridiculous. I had to learn everything about benefits.”
She stuck it out for as long as she could. Waltham Forest Council told her that she’d only be in Boundary House for a couple of months. As her stay lengthened – it’s now been two years – Alicia says she begged Waltham Forest to find hostel accommodation for her in London so that she could continue to work. “I said at least put me at a hostel in London because I have to pay £400 a month to go work out of my wages. They said, ‘Oh, you’re just going to have to give up your job’. That’s what [the council officer] said to me.”
The commute was gruelling as well as costly. “I was travelling, pregnant with [my son] and with [my daughter] in the buggy all the way to London, back and forth, travelling alone, leave extra early, get to work, work, leave, travel back home with her.
“I spent no time with her when she was his age,” Alicia says. She must still make regular trips to London. Her one-year-old son had heart surgery as a baby and has regular hospital appointments in the capital.
Standards at Boundary House are bad enough for families and small children, even without the isolation. Crowding, problems with security, water leaks and an ongoing lack of hot water have caused real problems for residents. Getting to top-floor flats is a challenge, with no functioning lifts. People must leave groceries on the ground floor while they carry kids and buggies up stairs to flats.
I’ve met four different families who’ve complained about the conditions. Alicia and her children live in a tiny, single-room flat – beds, kitchen and couch all in one room, with a small bathroom tacked down one side.
“When [my son] come from his [heart] surgery, I had to buy bottled water and warm it, so that I could keep his dressings clean. That’s just mad,” says Alicia. Theori, the company that manages Boundary House for Waltham Forest Council, only fixed the hot water problem after residents complained publicly earlier this year.
Alicia says that building security is still a problem. A broken front-door intercom means that strangers wander into Boundary House from the street. Buggies are stolen regularly. Theori fixed the intercom earlier this year after pressure from residents, but Alicia says it has broken again. “Things have been stolen. People are still coming in from outside the premises. It’s not health and safety for the children. They’ve come and done a few handy jobs, but they’re not dealing with the main issue.”
The main issue, of course, is that outrageous private rental costs in London mean that families like Alicia’s are being placed out of London in temporary accommodation by councils for lengthy periods. Getting back is very difficult. Waltham Forest Council says it has 29 homeless families in Boundary House and that the average stay is ten months (earlier this year, the council told me that the median stay was two years and that the longest-running placement at that point had started in June 2013).
“They said I would be here for a couple of months. It has been two years now and counting,” Alicia says. “I don’t know whether to put my daughter into nursery. I don’t know what to do. I am not stable [housed in a stable way].”
Plenty of regrets
Asked about the council officer telling Alicia to choose between her job and accommodation, Waltham Forest Council says that it is “regrettable that a comment of this kind was made as it does not reflect our policy,” but that “regrettably, we cannot always place families in the areas where we would like to be able to locate them.”
Regrettable too are Alicia’s chances of finding a permanent place via Home Choice, the council’s housing waiting list. Waltham Forest Council said that Alicia had a relatively high priority in the Reasonable Preference band – but that there was “a very limited supply of permanent properties available for which she can bid.” Not much hope there, then.
The council did not appear to hold out much hope for a decent permanent place generally: “It is difficult to estimate when Ms Phillips might be offered permanent accommodation.” Alicia could request a review under the Housing Act, or contact the Lettings Waltham Forest team for help to find a private tenancy closer to London. That invitation will be followed up. Alicia says that she has approached the council numerous times about help to find a private tenancy closer to London with no result.
On it goes. This is motherhood in austerity when people run out of money. Boundary House residents are standing by waiting to hear how Stephen Crabb and any other self-declared champions of single mothers plan to address it.