Behind closed doors at Hackney homeless hostels: ‘It was violent and depressing...I felt safer on streets’
PUBLISHED: 09:45 25 January 2017 | UPDATED: 16:00 08 February 2017
In the second part of the Gazette’s Hidden Homeless spotlight, Emma Youle goes behind closed doors at two hostels to find out what Hackney’s temporary accommodation is like for those stuck living there
Today the Gazette goes behind the doors of homeless hostels in the borough to expose shocking conditions.
Our investigation has revealed a steep rise in people living in hostels and B&Bs in Hackney. As families fall victim to rising rents and tough benefit caps the number placed in hostels by Hackney Council has swollen to more than 700.
The Gazette has interviewed dozens of hostel tenants. They report vast variations between privately-run and charity sector premises in Hackney, with an alleged “culture of violence” in some private hostels.
* We have uncovered figures showing police attended one privately-run hostel, the Shuttleworth in Well Street, 1,384 times in five years – equivalent to once every 1.5 days.
* At the same hostel 69 people were arrested on suspicion of crimes including murder, rape, robbery, common assault and sexual offences from 2011 to 2016.
* The Shuttleworth insists it has a tough policy on violence and goes over and above its contractual obligations to offer support, including providing barbecues and karaoke nights for residents.
But MP Meg Hillier admitted some hostels in her Hackney South and Shoreditch constituency had become “a pin-up for everything that’s gone wrong” with London’s housing crisis, while Diane Abbott MP said private sector hostels were “ripping off the public purse”.
Self-employed craftsman Nigel Nicholson ended up at the Shuttleworth after being evicted from his flat of 13 years when he fell ill and was unable to work.
He slept rough in Highbury Fields until Islington Council found him a hostel bed in October 2015.
He says the police call-out figures shed light on what he perceived as a “culture of violence” at the Shuttleworth.
He claims there was a turf war between pimps and “Yardies”, a name for Jamaican drug dealers, in the hostel’s breakfast room and that he once witnessed two men beating each other with chairs and threatening to kill each other.
The 59-year-old says all his belongings, including notebooks with years’ worth of designs for his handmade crafts, were damaged after being removed by hostel staff in April last year, which had a severe effect on his mental health.
As his condition worsened he claimed he took two overdoses and eventually, after nine months, left the Shuttleworth in June – preferring to sleep on the streets.
“It might sound bizarre but my health improved by going back on the street because there just wasn’t the constant fear and tension,” he said.
“It’s hard to explain to people that it’s not just ‘the decor’s rather glum’ – it’s the depression of everybody there.
“A lot of people I spoke to talked about a brick wall of disbelief. We were not believed. I went to the council to complain because I’d been threatened with eviction and they assumed I was just making complaints to get somewhere better.” Islington Council said it had found Nigel a place in supported accommodation after he left the hostel.
The Shuttleworth’s area manager Peter Chan said there was no record of any complaint from Mr Nicholson and robustly defended the service provided by the hostel. “We are a company that goes above and beyond the statutory requirements,” he said. “We want to do more for the residents.
“Until December we had a person dedicated to helping residents in need. She would signpost them to agencies, write referral letters, help with housing benefits, fill out forms. That was at our cost and we do that because we want to help these poor souls.” He added the hostel has a strict behaviour policy and works closely with police.
“You raise the question of violence within the building. For me that’s not true,” he said. “There’s always a bit of ‘argy-bargy’; we’ve got 110 rooms for single people. If everything was quiet and peaceful it would be a miracle. But we as a business do not tolerate people who are violent or get aggressive.”
Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville said in his view the Shuttleworth was not a provider of first choice for the council, but the hostel and others like it provide vitally needed beds.
“Nobody wants to place people in accommodation like that,” he said. “There’s a reason, unfortunately, we have private hostels in the borough, and that is they’re meeting some of the housing need.
“I’d be very reluctant to say it’s about closing somewhere like the Shuttleworth. It’s about working with the owners to engage with them around quality of services.”
Not far away is another hostel run by the charity St Mungo’s with 70 beds. In stark contrast to privately-run hostels, which are only paid to provide rooms, it has a computer suite, an activities room, a fully equipped recording studio and a large team of staff on site.
It also provides activities such as art classes, coffee mornings and music lessons.
Kayleigh Keenan, 24, who has lived there since May, says it makes a difference.
She left council care at 21 and ended up in a women’s refuge after fleeing a violent relationship. She was then moved to St Mungo’s.
“The services are great and the accommodation is reasonable,” she said. “It could be better, as can any hostel – there’s not enough funding – but I do feel safe here. The art class is one I really like. We all get together and chat; there’s things to do.”
St Mungo’s regional head for east London, Simon Hughes, says these services are vital to get people back on their feet: “The idea is we help people rebuild their lives, connect them to the services they need and rebuild their confidence and living skills so they can move on to more independent accommodation,” he said. “We try to give people a bit more space and dignity.”
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OPINION MEG HILLIER MP: ‘Hostels are a perfect storm of everything that’s wrong in housing’
MP Meg Hillier says homelessness in Hackney is the worst she has known it in 11 years as an MP.
She believes privately-run hostels have become a “powder keg” of vulnerable people.
“It’s a perfect storm of everything that’s wrong with what’s currently going on in housing,” she said. “Places like the Shuttleworth are the pin-ups for everything that’s gone wrong.
“You’ve got people that are homeless and with other vulnerabilities shoved in somewhere that’s temporary, but not as temporary as it should be.
“Maybe they’re ex-offenders, maybe they’ve been victims of violence, maybe they have mental health problems, and you’ve got all of that in one place. It’s not at all ideal. It’s less than ideal. It’s not what I would want to see. But where else do people go? That is the problem.”
To stem the rising figures she said councils need to continue building new homes, that public land should be used to provide new affordable homes, and that government should “sit up and listen to the cumulative impact” of its housing policies in London.
OPINION DIANE ABBOTT MP: ‘Hostels that attract anti-social behaviour should be shut down’
MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington Diane Abbott, whose constituency contains a number of private hostels, called for those attracting high levels of anti-social behaviour to be closed down.
“Private sector hostels are ripping off the public purse, providing sub-standard accommodation at inflated prices,” she said.
“All councils, like Hackney, are obliged to pay these costs and that’s why we need a better inspection and enforcement regime, which tries to bear down on some of these rents.”
The veteran MP said she believes both Labour and Conservative governments have failed to address the homelessness crisis, which she described as worse now than at any point in her political career.
“The government hasn’t engaged with it because I think they think their voters aren’t homeless,” she said. “Also under the Blair government there was too much reliance on the private sector and housing associations and not enough emphasis on building affordable council houses.
“Council housing is an essential part of the mix, and councils should be given the freedom to build and the freedom to borrow. I think every Labour council leader in London would jump at the opportunity.”
This opinion piece is part of our Hidden Homeless campaign to shine a light on the issue of temporary accommodation in Hackney. Read more news, stats and opinion at our Hidden Homeless microsite – and find out how you can tell us your story or add your name to our manifesto.