Single mums in London's Olympic neighbourhood don't wanna move to Hastings.
"£9 billion on the Olympics and they're telling us and our babies we have to go live in Hastings," lamented Adora Chilaisha, 19, as the hokey cokey proceeded in the background. Adora was born and raised in East Ham, just a few miles from the Olympic Stadium, and is one of 29 young single mums and mums-to-be facing eviction from the Focus E15 "foyer" nearby – a temporary social housing block with skills and childcare provision on hand. They had arrived at the offices of the East Thames housing association who served their eviction notices to stage a protest – a kids' party – in one of their (considerably nicer) show homes. It was a confusing kind of protest; cake, nursery rhymes and party poppers for the toddlers, while their mothers argued the role East Thames were playing in the social cleansing of their area.
With the housing crisis in London plumbing new depths, private rents continue to skyrocket, and the lack of social housing in the capital has become even more stark. The Olympic Borough of Newham has, like all local councils, a legal responsibility to house those tenants in need. So, the offer they are making to these mums, many of them teenagers, is jarring, if predictable: Have you considered leaving the city? Leaving your city?
Maybe this approach fits with the letter of the council’s legal responsibilities to house people, but the spirit? Not so much. And so, Adora explained, Newham Council are fulfilling the final stage of the Olympics-as-gentrification project. We can't find any social housing for you in Newham, council employees told her, so why don't we move you somewhere where property isn't so expensive? We can move you to Hastings, or Birmingham? “There's no way I'm going anywhere.” Adora explained. “My boy Desean is one, and I don't want him to grow up away from his family, from his home. I don't know anyone in Hastings.”
If the mums turn down homes in Hastings, or Birmingham, or Manchester, or other faraway places where they don't know anyone, they can be declared “intentionally homeless” and forgotten altogether. All this before she has even turned 20, born in one of the richest cities in the world, in an area plastered with the Olympic slogan “Inspire A Generation”.
Babies strike back against injustice (photo via)
“They spent £9 billion on a stadium that isn't even being used,” Adora complained. After much wrangling, the Olympic Stadium has been bought by West Ham United, who already have a stadium down the road in Upton Park. “It's so stupid, they're trying to change everywhere to make it look like the West End, like a pretty tourist district so tourists come back and spend money.” The result is transient visitor spending in the huge Westfield shopping centre – conjoined to Stratford train station – with very little of the money filtering out into the local economy. “They just come in and out, they're not helping anyone in East London,” says Adora. “No one I know's got a job in Westfield, to get a job in Westfield is hard – I know because I've tried.
“£9 billion for people to run around in circles – you can do that in the park! Now that whole area's just empty, and no one uses it. And the village, the village that's supposed to house people – why not put local people who need those houses into them?” The former athletes' accommodation in the Olympic Village will provide 675 social rented flats for people on the housing register. However, the majority – 1,500 of them – are for private rent, starting at £310 per week minimum.
Eventually Chris Woodhead, Assistant Director of Care and Support for East Thames, turned up to quell the protest, wearing jeans and Converse, issuing the same “I'm on your side” management-speak line over and over again. “We all agree, don't we?” Woodhead kept saying to the mums and their supporters. “There's no argument here.” There very much was. “Our children are suffering because we haven't got anywhere to go,” said Jasmin Stone, wondering why East Thames had such nice new flats on offer to outsiders who could afford to buy them. The mums have been shrugged from pillar to post – with East Thames determined to blame Newham Council, and the council determined to make them someone else's problem. The eviction notices did come from East Thames, but follow the council's cut of £41,000 from the Supporting People fund that pays for the young parent units in Focus E15.
Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham, had met the mums before. However, they didn't get on very well – Wales had been “dismissive and rude” as he explained to them that “you just can't afford to live in London”. There are 24,000 people on the waiting list for social housing in Newham and Wales' priority seems to be ex-servicemen and women, followed by people in work and full-time carers. Late in 2012, the mayor announced “pioneering plans” to ensure these people received their housing as a matter of relative urgency, explaining that he was seeking to reward "those who contribute to society".
The Focus E15 mums haven't made enough of a contribution, it seems. Wales continued, “These changes will help to drive aspiration and form a stable community where people choose to live, work and stay.” This, presumably, was behind Newham Council's pre-Olympic presentation of what they billed an Arc Of Opportunity for foreign investors: “a major new urban intervention into East London”. It brings to mind Jonathan Meades' sardonic questioning in his BBC series On The Brandwagon – I'm regenerating, are you?
Are the Focus E15 Mums regenerating? They're certainly reproducing. But this isn't, apparently, the kind of new life that the gentrification industry is interested in.
As the protest-party continued, East Thames security guards stood back, looking nervous about the fact they might have to evict these teenage mums and their babes-in-arms from a show home. The mums sat with each other’s daughters on their laps, talking to supporters and journalists about their hopes and their children and the future. “I feel depressed and stressed and I'm not normally like that,” explained Tresha Elliott, barely in her twenties. “But we're just going to keep going, and keep annoying them.” It often takes a village to raise a child – not an Olympic Village, but a village of people, and this is their village; single mums supporting each other, but with family, friends and familiar faces nearby. The music was turned up for a round of Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, for the ones just old enough to toddle. The music skipped onto Jessie J's mega-hit "Price Tag", and with a sad smile they raised their voices to sing along with some new lyrics:
“It's all about the money, money, money, we don't care about the money, money, money – we just want to stay in Loooon-don, we just want to stay in Loooon-don.”
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