The reality of living in temporary accommodation

In the first of a two-part investigation looking into Enfield’s housing problems, Sabah Hussain talks to people living in temporary accommodation

A former office building, Brickfield House in Southbury is used by Enfield Council to house hundreds of people in temporary accommodation
A former office building, Brickfield House in Southbury is used by Enfield Council to house hundreds of people in temporary accommodation

Enfield’s most vulnerable residents have accused the council of neglect and mismanagement over many years.

The borough has the country’s second-highest number of homeless families living in temporary accommodation, and several residents have spoken to the Dispatch for this investigation to discuss how they feel let down by the council.

Michelle* and her two-year-old daughter escaped domestic violence in 2016 and, after approaching the council for emergency help, was offered a one-bed flat. But Michelle says it was mould-infested, damp, and unsafe for a vulnerable family.

The council subsequently moved Michelle* into a one-room studio in 2017. It was one of many at Brickfield House, a former office block in Southbury Road converted six years ago into 115 homes under ‘permitted development’ rules and now used for temporary accommodation by the council. As with many other converted office buildings, some homes there are smaller than the minimum size normally allowed for a single person.

Living in a nightmare

Michelle said Brickfield House felt like “living in a nightmare”. While her stay should have been short, Michelle lived in cramped accommodation for four years. During this time she witnessed a violent physical attack and saw blood on the walls, experienced bullying and verbal abuse from staff, and was told by neighbours about maggots, mice, leaking and flooding.

While Michelle and other residents made repeated complaints about the state of the block, she says the council took little action to make improvements. “I lived in a forgotten house,” Michelle said. “It feels like [the council] have no heart.”

Respondents to a survey conducted in 2019 by Housing Gateway Limited, the council-owned company managing Brickfield House, suggest living conditions there are “unacceptable”. In anonymous comments, many residents cite overcrowding, with many single-parent families having to live in a single room with one or more children.

One resident wrote about the “cramped conditions”, as well as “terrible” noise levels, cockroaches, and “nightmare neighbours”.

Treated as insignificant

Another resident wrote that “none of [their] needs are considered” and that they are “treated as insignificant”. And a tenant who lived in a small one-room studio unit at Brickfield House with their three children for three years claimed “nobody wanted to help”.

In response, a council spokesperson said: “We take the quality of our services and accommodation extremely seriously. Last year, following complaints about Brickfield House, we commissioned an independent report into the management of the building. This found that while the building was generally well managed, there were some specific improvements that we could make.

“We are implementing an action plan in response to the report. The key actions being addressed include new processes for managing complaints, increased staffing levels, and sensitive lettings to minimise disruption. To minimise overcrowding, Brickfield House residents are prioritised for ‘move on’.”

In common with many other councils across the country, Enfield Council has a ‘take it or leave it’ approach to housing offers. The council states on its website that people making homelessness applications “will not have a choice” of where they live if they are placed into temporary accommodation, adding: “We will only make one offer for temporary accommodation and, if you don’t accept this, then it’s likely you will need to find your own accommodation.”

‘I felt isolated’

In these circumstances, homeless and vulnerable Enfield residents feel forced to take whatever offer they get. Kelly Pummell is another of these. The 38-year-old has been living in emergency accommodation for six years. While she had always lived in Enfield, Kelly was moved to Tottenham when she first needed emergency housing, away from the friends and family she needed for support.

Kelly said she felt “isolated” and that the Tottenham flat was so small she didn’t have enough space for her daughter’s cot. She later moved into another flat, but problems with damp meant she had mould on her walls, clothes and daughter’s belongings. Kelly is now living in her third emergency housing property in six years and has been sleeping on a sofa bed for most of this time because there hasn’t been enough space for her own bed.

Welfare advocate Philip Courtney has worked on dozens of social housing cases and says the way his clients have been treated suggests there are high levels of “bullying” at the council. While the local authority has a duty to help its residents, Philip suggests the council has ignored the “suffering” of residents. A spokesperson said the authority “takes any accusations of verbal abuse or bullying by staff members, or of staff members, extremely seriously”.

‘Contradictory messaging

One of Philip’s clients, Helena*, was told by the council her rent would increase by over £50 a week. But she received contradictory messaging, as one council official told her there was no reason to increase her rent, while another “confirmed the rent would be increased”. A council spokesperson denied rent charges for temporary accommodation residents had been raised but said “there have been changes in service charges”.

Council officials also incorrectly reported Helena’s rent statements, suggesting she needed to pay more rent than she actually did, causing her undue stress. Helena was given less than 48 hours to accept a housing offer, with the risk the council would withdraw its help in finding her suitable accommodation if she didn’t respond within their allotted time period.

Councillor Dino Lemonides was a council cabinet member for housing in Enfield prior to leaving the Labour Party last year. Like many local councillors, he has spoken to disgruntled residents in his ward, Chase, who have complained about their living conditions – across various kinds of social housing. Issues raised include leaks in high-rise buildings and disabled residents being placed on higher floors, a problem exacerbated when the building’s lifts have broken down.

Cllr Lemonides said that Enfield’s housing problems stem from a “national shortage” in affordable housing, which is only worsened by Enfield’s “very old” housing stock, leading to poor conditions for residents.

An immense challenge

A council spokesperson said: “Enfield Council is committed to using all its resources to make the experience of homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring. We are determined to enable everyone to access a stable, secure and decent home.

“Enfield Council’s aim is to bring an end to the long-term use of temporary accommodation within the next five years. However, we face an immense challenge. In 2019, we were accommodating 3,414 households in emergency accommodation. This equates to more than 11,000 people, with over 4,000 of these being children.

“The current government has done little to address the funding or infrastructure needed to deliver the homes desperately needed and to solve [meet] the needs of thousands of families living in temporary accommodation in Enfield.

“In an effort to break the cycle of long-term temporary accommodation, Enfield Council is embarking on a programme of building safety and providing sustainable and affordable homes. We are investing £1billion to provide 3,500 new council-led homes over the next ten years.

“In addition, the private rented sector has an enormous role to play in reducing homelessness. The number of people living in private rented accommodation in Enfield has almost trebled since 2001. To protect tenants and prevent landlords from taking advantage of people’s desperate need for a home, Enfield Council has introduced private rented sector licensing schemes.”

This special investigation into housing problems in Enfield has been funded by Trust for London, in conjunction with The Centre for Investigative Journalism.

*Name changed to protect this person’s identity