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The Sad and Shocking Truth About London's Poverty Exiles

A growing underclass are being forced to leave their homes and live in temporary accommodation miles away; their kids flea-bitten, their debts piling up.

The New Era estate might have won their battle, but thousands of other families across London are facing a grim future in "poverty exile". Photo by Philip Kleinfeld

Last week, the government published their quarterly homelessness data for July-September 2014. It wasn't pretty.

At the end of September, 60,940 British households were living in temporary accommodation – usually a grim, out-of-the-way hostel or B&B – after being declared homeless. This is an increase of 6 percent in a year. Dig deeper into the numbers and you realise there's a new trend establishing itself in post-Olympic London: poverty exile.

All local councils have a legal obligation to house their homeless somewhere, but in the perfect shitstorm created by the government's housing benefit cap, soaring rents, stagnating wages and widespread turbo-gentrification, increasingly, London councils are sending homeless families to other areas; often distant suburbs on the other side of the metropolis.

It is a London problem. Of the 15,260 households placed in temporary accommodation outside their home borough, 14,220 (93 percent) came from London boroughs. That's 14,220 London families exiled to unfamiliar, often unsuitable temporary accommodation miles from their jobs, schools and GPs. 14,220 London families shunted beyond their local communities, friends, families and support networks – childminders, shoulders to cry on, friendly faces, sources of comfort, assistance and joy. Cameron's government has spent four years stretching out the holes in the welfare safety net, and now, to make matters worse for the capital's poorest, the social safety net is disintegrating beneath them, too.

It's easy to drown in the stats, but these are the critical ones regarding poverty exile: 14,220 homeless households placed outside their London borough is an increase of 29 percent on the same point in 2013. Go back another two years, to 2011, and you're looking at an increase of 123 percent.

"No council should be sending tenants en masse to a different part of the country," a government spokesman said when the figures came out last week, clarifying that this should be a rare exception to policy, not the policy. But the last resort has become a quick-fix in boroughs like Westminster, a flagship Conservative council that has actually blamed Cameron's welfare reforms for their homelessness crisis. (To get a sense of how well Westminster Council care for their most vulnerable families, last year they were ordered to pay £100,000 in compensation to 40 families left languishing in B&Bs for over six weeks – against government regulations.)

On a Wednesday morning earlier this autumn, I joined a West London anti-poverty charity called Zacchaeus 2000, who have been helping advise Westminster residents affected by the miserable zeitgeist cocktail of homelessness, poverty, debt, benefits caps and bureaucracy. A plaque bearing the legend CHURCH ARMY on a grand old Victorian building alerted me that I was in the right place; there, down in a damp basement room, a range of local charities and voluntary groups had gathered for one of their twice-weekly group advice surgeries. These are the field hospitals in Britain's ongoing war on its poor.

A Salvation Army building Z2K use for their Advice Plus sessions. Image by the author

Inside, it really felt like a scene from the Victorian era, as if modern Britain and the welfare state were just an interregnum before we returned to type: stackable grey tables and chairs, a well-trodden grey carpet and brick walls painted white. Damp, the lingering smell of cleaning fluid and tea cup stains that probably carbon date back to the 1980s. It was a grim day outside and the "clients" wore winter coats and grave expressions: a sad, soft-spoken succession of 30-odd adults furrowing their brows, and a few desperately bored kids kicking their chair legs. There were mums carrying babes-in-arms and busy-looking charity workers with biros and folders. Someone searched in vain for an Arabic translator.

Zacchaeus 2000's Joanne Phillips and her junior colleague sat down at one of the tables marked "Z2K" in the corner and were immediately approached with familiar people with familiar problems. A middle-aged woman in a headscarf stopped by with a quick question. She'd been placed by Westminster in a B&B in East Ham and was wondering if she could get out yet. After she left, Joanne turned to me: "Last week, that same lady brought in a whole jar full of bugs she had collected – to show us what the temporary accommodation is like. Her son has bites all over his arm from them."

The air was stale with tiredness. Trying to understand your options is exhausting and exasperating, especially when it's accompanied by this much bureaucracy – even more so when a translator is needed; a lot of clients do not speak English as their first language. One of the first, Sara, was a woman in her late thirties, shunted to temporary accommodation first in Mile End and then in Kensington and Chelsea. It took about 15 minutes of sifting through caches of papers on Westminster Council and NHS letterheads, comparing case notes and addresses, rifling through bags, checking deadlines and databases, just to ascertain Sara's status with the various withered arms of the British state.

In red block capitals the phrase "YOUR RENT – YOUR RESPONSIBILITY" stood out – stamped on one of the warning letters from the council. She was divorced and shifted from pillar to post as her life fell apart. But the council won't help her because she's been declared "intentionally homeless" – because she said no to an offer of a flat at some point. It wasn't clear why.

Joanne slowly and seriously asked the translator to explain the gravity of the situation. "Can you tell her that no council in the country will house her now?" There was a delay. The translator took her glasses off to explain the bad news in Arabic and Sara grasped her face and protested – more in desperation than anger.

"But what about her ear illness?" asked the translator. Perhaps this loophole could help her claim? "It would've had to have been tackled in July – it's too late now." Her case was referred on to another Z2K advisor.

The next client, Maria, exemplified the pain of poverty exile. She had three children, was pregnant with a fourth and had been placed in temporary accommodation in Haringey by Westminster, since being evicted in 2013. One of her children had acquired asthma since they arrived in their current hostel – it's a common complaint borne of the often damp, cramped and unsuitable temporary accommodation, along with stress and other mental health risks. In addition to the physical challenges of pregnancy, Maria had severe back pain – it was a disc problem.

The individual problems are complex and numerous, but the over-arching one is simple: the family has been sent to Haringey in north-east London, and everything they know is in Westminster in inner-west London. Maria was determined the children would not face any more disruption, and so has kept them in the same school – they need a tiny modicum of stability in their lives. But it takes three buses to get Maria and her young children from the hostel to the school, from Haringey to Westminster, and back again. It's a daily commute of one and a half to two hours, each way, every day. Up to four hours on six buses, five days a week."

Last week, that same lady brought in a whole jar full of bugs she had collected – to show us what the temporary accommodation is like. Her son has bites all over his arm from them.

"It's not even worth going home after I drop off the kids," she said. By the time she would get back to the hostel, it would be almost time to return and collect them. So what do you do all day? "I stay in Westfield. All day, during the day." She can't afford to buy anything but at least the shopping centre is warm. It's so cold in the hostel her daughter has been sleeping in her school uniform.

Maria has a job, too, as a salesperson in a rug shop on Edgware Road – she likes it, and likes her boss, and she knows she's fortunate to have been given maternity leave. The one time she smiles is when she says her boss has promised to make her full-time after she's had the baby.

"I don't want to stay at home." Until then, there is just exhaustion and daytime clock-watching in Westfield. Getting the little one in the pushchair on the bus is impossible sometimes, she says, and her back is in so much pain, and the kids are getting sick in the B&B – and she's so, so tired. "We need support from your GP if we're going to prove your accommodation is unsuitable," says Joanne. Maria leaves us for the hospital. "Every day, another appointment," she says as she leaves.

Westminster's own guidelines now decree that it is acceptable to place homeless families in temporary accommodation anywhere up to two hours travel away from the borough. "The emphasis is different now," Joanne explained. "If you can't afford the accommodation [in Westminster], you've got to move." The old received wisdom – that for children's (and adults) wellbeing, health, their social and educational development, as much stability as possible is key – has been buried in the dust of the affordable housing crisis. "What they say to people now is, 'You'll just have to move school.'"

Some clients were more angry than tragic. Harry was evicted because his landlord didn't want tenants on housing benefit and he can afford to do without them – fewer and fewer London landlords will take housing benefit-supplemented renters now. He couldn't believe how unfair it was – the landlord gets the same money every month but now he's homeless. Joanne did a lot of nodding. More often than not, she ended up delivering the government's bad news to people who whispered about their physical and mental health problems, about deaths, divorces and breakdowns, the extraordinary upsets to their previously stable status quo. "It's a big country," Joanne explained to one 50-something mother of two fighting eviction after years in Westminster, "and if you can't afford the rent any more, you might have to look elsewhere, somewhere cheaper".

The next client, Mike, was white, in his late sixties, and wearing a stained blue puffer jacket. He'd been living in a council flat with his wife, daughter and mother, until his mother passed away – she'd been there 50 years. The council are saying they're under-occupying and are trying to turf him, his wife and daughter out. To make matters worse, there are other bills coming in after his mum's death that he just can't afford, and he doesn't think he should have to pay anyway. The pension people had overpaid his mum's rent, and want the money back. "All debts stop at the point of your death," explained Joanne. "They can't charge for it after her death." Mike looked reassured. "I don't want something for nothing," he objected, to no one in particular. There's a lot of emotion in the room.

In a small room with at least ten advice sessions going on simultaneously, I caught snippets of exasperation and sadness everywhere. At one point, in a gap between clients, a Z2K adviser at another table, a middle-aged man with a big frame pressed into a blue shirt, announced with a mixture of anger and weariness: "This country has got nasty. I don't know what's happening, I really don't."

@danhancox

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