So, how did artist Charlie Devus come to call a 40-foot metal shipping container home? “In this place, we’re all God’s polyps. All of us flow according to the tides,” he explains, as he gives me a guided tour of his new abode. The process began when Brighton Housing Trust, a local housing charity, found him a flat that had been flipped straight out of an Irvine Welsh novel.
“I couldn’t stay there. There was this giant hole just pouring water down through the ceiling. It was just insane – and I had to leave, quickly,” he shudders. So, a few months later, while construction was still being carried out on a new flagship housing project, Brighton Housing Trust suggested he move in and try it out.
Along with its stony beach and gigantic seagulls, Brighton has another defining factor: It’s home to one of the biggest homeless populations on the South Coast.
On the 9th of December 2013, work was completed on a new scheme by Brighton Housing Trust, providing "moving on" accommodation for Brighton’s homeless. It came in the form of 36 shipping containers, stacked-into a five-storey housing estate. Richardson’s Yard, as it's known, now sits on the site of a former pub and scrap-metal yard forecourt close to Brighton’s London Road area.
Shortly before the project’s completion, Brighton Housing Trust’s chief, Andy Winter, remarked that, “There is an acute shortage of affordable accommodation in Brighton and Hove, and – in a landlord's market – particularly for those with a history of homelessness.”
Brighton’s Homelessness figures tend to jump about, with Brighton Housing Trust estimating the amount of rough sleepers at around 70 to 100. But I’d previously contacted local charity Antifreeze, who informed me that they’d worked with 788 rough sleepers in 2013, and 776 by May 2014 at their drop-in centre – no small number when you consider that Brighton is only a 25-minute walk, end-to-end.
Brighton Housing Trust have been swamped with media requests and are denying all journalists access until June, when it will likely receive a ton of media coverage. But I sneaked in and managed to spend the night down there with the estate's residents.
I walked into Charlie’s container expecting the worst – something thin, bare and sinister, like the containment cell before a water-boarding scene in a Jason Statham movie. At first glance, the place felt spacious enough: magnolia walls, office-blue carpets, predictably bland but with some potential for personality. A giant window at each end and a broad view over the rooftops out into the distance. A corner-kitchen and a shower-only bathroom that reminded me vividly of an EasyJet plane.
The containers were purchased at a discounted rate from Dutch company TempoHousing, where they were originally used as a housing initiative in Amsterdam until the project’s funding fell through. Now, the containers and the land are being leased to Brighton Housing Trust for five years by a company called QED Property Developers.
“It’s a bold scheme and I applaud it,” says Charlie. “But it’s severely flawed. These ceramic heaters are useless. The place got so fantastically cold this winter I couldn’t stay here. It was just too cold to sleep. Plus, the whole place had started to rust within two weeks of moving in. Look at the wood panelling outside, it’s all rotten – it should’ve been condemned. I get the impression that while QED have done their best to look eco-friendly, what they’ve actually done is just recycle otherwise unsalable products." (QED admitted that, "there’s a couple of places we can’t physically access where the wooden fillets have rotted slightly" and insist that the containers are designed to rust, and that repairs are going to be carried out "imminently".)
Entering Richardson’s Yard, the thick blackout curtains over everyone’s doors tend to make the whole place feel permanently deserted. Gradually, I steer our conversation onto my other interest in the project: security.
“My fear is that this place is a Daily Mail article waiting to happen," says Charlie. "There’s a lot of drugs here. There’s been violence. And there’s been no real attempt by Brighton Housing Trust to address it.
“What you’ve got here is a ready-made ghetto," he continues. "And if it’s not policed, it has the potential to explode. Many people have complained about the drugs, and the need for security. One of the major objectives was to vet out drugs and dealers at the very start, but that hasn’t happened at all. My neighbours are both working. And the danger is that they’re at risk of getting priced out by crackheads with subsidised rent."
“Priced out?” I ask, puzzled. “I thought this was a council initiative to help rough sleepers? I didn’t realise working people lived here, too?”
“It costs £650 a month to live here. My rent's subsidised, but for a lot of people, it’s no different from renting privately.” Now £650 month is fairly expensive for Brighton, and even more expensive to a homeless person living in Brighton. It was a surprise to me that people here were paying rent at all, let alone so much to live in a glorified sardine can with no on-site security. Later, I wandered downstairs to talk to a few more people about living here, stopping a middle-aged woman on the stairs, who asked not to be named.
“They told us the rent was only going to be £400 a month," she told me, adding that, "a lot of people got upset about that", which isn't all that surprising given it would amount to a 62.5 percent rent hike. "It’s too expensive and we’re ignored on some issues – like the portable heaters we were promised. It’s costing people £5 a day to heat the place and they’re doing nothing to help. The lack of security’s pretty scary and I know people who’re genuinely afraid to come out of their houses.
“I’ve been on the council housing list for 15 years and my application was repeatedly mislaid or ignored," she continued. "I tell you, the more you understand the system, the more disgusted you get with it.”
After knocking on several doors, I found another resident who was willing to chat to me: a guy named Merzak Maarli, 54, who lives on the third floor.
“It’s not bad, I guess, but someone’s making an absolute fortune here,” he shrugs. “To be honest, they gave us the wrong picture before we moved in. They really up-sold it. It hadn’t been built yet, so all we saw were the architect’s designs. It looked lovely, but it was a completely different picture when we moved in.”
Merzak is bright-eyed, personable, well dressed. When I ask what brought him here, it sounds strikingly similar to other stories I’ve heard.
“I was referred here by Elm Grove mental health clinic. I was technically homeless – you know, staying at people’s houses and stuff. At the moment I work one day a week to help get me back into employment.”
Interestingly, Charlie, Merzak and another of the block’s residents I spoke to, Kweku, were offered a container at Richardson’s Yard after being “technically homeless”. The type of homelessness that comes with a short, sharp shift of circumstances. The type of homelessness that still has access to a warm shower, clean clothes and is firmly entrenched in the governmental paper trail of housing benefits and back-to-work schemes. Not the type of homelessness that you’ll find shivering in a rain-soaked sleeping bag beneath the awning of a Tesco cashpoint.
What I came to learn here is that there is a world of difference between someone who is homeless and a rough sleeper. And, this is not a housing project with a focus on the latter. Especially as, earlier on in the week, I’d quizzed several Big Issue sellers around town about it, and they all seemed clueless as to how to get a container at Richardson’s Yard. I doubt they'd be able to raise the £650 pcm rent anyhow.
As Merzak and I chatted, something caught my eye. It was a letter from QED notifying residents of a new development due to begin on the little scrap of land to the left of the yard – an office space designed to cater for Brighton’s “young creative industries”.
“We were under the impression that it was going to be made into a garden,” Merzak tells me, seeming a little confused.
Shortly before I came to Richardson’s Yard, I’d discovered a Brighton & Hove Council document, proposing a series of planning objectives. Titled The London Road Central Masterplan, on page 14, it lays bare what seems like the site's true destiny. The aim is to harness it for, “employment uses [...] including business floorspace and affordable workspace for creative industries”. There's also a part that reads, “residential may be allowed as enabling development”. It occurred to me that Richardson's Yard might not be so much a solution to Brighton's homelessness problem as it is a lucrative stop-gap while the regeneration industry pauses for breath.
In fact, on their website, the director of QED, Chris Gilbert almost says as much. “If successful, this formula could be a very effective way of helping to alleviate the housing crisis in Brighton, by providing ‘transition housing’ on a site that would otherwise be underutilised until a major development came forward." Gilbert admits that this is "not likely to happen for a number of years, given the current economic climate" and so it's easy to see why, for now, this might be a good way for the site to keep some money coming in, while providing everyone involved with some decent PR.
You see, the beauty of shipping containers is that, when needed, they can be moved quickly. According to a recent article by Inside Housing, QED plan to move the containers after Brighton Housing Trust's five-year lease expires, potentially waking up the area as prime real estate for office blocks and expensive flats. QED have already sunk £900,000 of capital into the scheme, suggesting there’s a plan way beyond wanting to provide homes to the “basically homeless” at £650 a month for five years. That said, adding a few numbers together, I worked out that QED could have netted some £1,404,000 in rent out of the yard’s 36 shipping containers by the time the lease is up. Which isn't too bad at all.
Eventually I went to bed, sleeping soundly as a guest in one of the containers. The night passed without incident. What I imagined might seem like crashing out in a seaside City of God, was actually quite peaceful.
Back home the following day, I called Andy Winter, the CEO of Brighton Housing Trust, and put some of the criticisms I had heard about Richardson's Yard to him. He told me that he was "fully aware" that incidents of anti-social behaviour had occurred, adding, "It’s generally visitors of two residents who’ve been responsible [...] We’re also fully aware of the tenants whom they are visiting, and we have taken robust management action against them.“
He added that they'd also been "consulting residents on getting a lock for the front gate" and assured me that the residents had been thoroughly vetted and most were already known to Brighton Housing Trust. "What we couldn’t vet is friends coming onto the property. On the whole, we’ve known of persons coming onto the property and trying to sell drugs. I take a hard line on drug dealing, and my first port of call when dealing with drugs is always to involve the police."
Richardson’s Yard may appear to be a creative solution to what, in homelessness, is a very real and growing problem. But the impression I got is that it's less about rehabilitating long-term rough sleepers and more a get-rich-quick scheme providing a further shoe-in for urban redevelopment. Another formula for wealth extraction in the form of 36 metal cans with a five-year shelf life, unjustifiable rents, high utility bills and security problems.
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