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‘Cockroaches, bed bugs, drug deals and prostitution’: Now watchdog slams council over squalor at Hackney homeless hostels

PUBLISHED: 07:00 16 May 2018 | UPDATED: 11:28 16 May 2018

Jon Williams, director of Heathwatch Hackney on Mare Street with homeless people's tents on the pavement. Picture: Polly Hancock

Jon Williams, director of Heathwatch Hackney on Mare Street with homeless people's tents on the pavement. Picture: Polly Hancock

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Psychotic residents banging on doors in the middle of the night, drug dealing, prostitution and excrement in the corridor. Now a health watchdog has slammed dire conditions in Hackney homeless hostels. Emma Youle reports

A dead rat at a hostel in Hackney. The squalid conditions at some hostels are highlighted in a new report A dead rat at a hostel in Hackney. The squalid conditions at some hostels are highlighted in a new report

Calls have been made for the council to set up a rigorous inspection regime at homeless hostels – as evidence of “sexual exploitation, drug dealing and prostitution” are revealed in a new report.

Bed bug infestations, excrement in a corridor, cockroaches and a dead rat are just some of the squalid hostel conditions uncovered by watchdog group Healthwatch Hackney.

It found the “pressure cooker” conditions in hostels are increasing mental health problems for those who live there.

The council’s homelessness application process also comes under fire as “opaque, confusing and fraught with delays,” with advocates describing the system as “in gridlock”.

Healthwatch Hackney and City & Hackney Mind have published the damning report after interviewing single homeless people and mental health advocates across the borough.

Jon Williams, executive director of Healthwatch Hackney, said the findings were extremely worrying and should spur action from the council and health services.

Heathwatch Hackney published the report after interviewing homeless people and mental health advocates across the borough. Picture: Polly Hancock Heathwatch Hackney published the report after interviewing homeless people and mental health advocates across the borough. Picture: Polly Hancock

“We were shocked at the stories people shared,” he said. “It is unacceptable so many homeless people we spoke to had experienced a decline in their mental health in part because of having to live in unsafe and unsuitable accommodation.”

The research was carried out to highlight the experiences of single homeless people and comes after similar campaigning work by the Gazette in our Hidden Homeless investigation.

During interviews, Healthwatch was told “drug and prostitution businesses” were reputedly operating at one unnamed hostel in Hackney.

The report quotes a resident as saying: “You have shootings – murders. The police are on the doorstep. There are crack houses and neighbours are intimidated.”

Another said there are bed bugs and cockroaches, and that a dead rat lay outside a window for weeks, adding: “You are scared to tell management because you fear being chucked out.”

The report says people in other hostels who complained “were threatened with being sent to this particular hostel,” adding it had a reputation even among other establishments.

Tent city: Homeless tents on the pavement on Mare Street. Picture: Polly Hancock Tent city: Homeless tents on the pavement on Mare Street. Picture: Polly Hancock

At another hostel, one resident filmed psychotic people banging on bedroom doors in the middle of the night and excrement in the corridor, the report says.

Healthwatch has called for the council to urgently set up a more rigorous inspection regime to monitor conditions at hostels.

It also says a “safe space” is needed to report complaints as many are too scared to speak out.

The council’s housing application process comes in for criticism, too.

Advocates felt the council used delays “as a form of queue management” to control the waiting list, with some applications delayed for six to nine months.

Some people told Healthwatch they “felt judged” at meetings with housing officers.

In one case, a man said staff implied “he was just a gay man who couldn’t hold a relationship together” even though he was a victim of domestic abuse.

Advocates said it was common for the council to refuse to accept clients as homeless because they took anti-psychotic medication, and those with depression were told they were ineligible as they were “not psychotic”.

The report found the “bureaucratic burden” of proving homelessness was too much for some mental health patients, who instead ended up on the streets.

Healthwatch Hackney has acknowledged the wider political and financial pressures faced by the council, but calls for more joined-up working between housing and health services to improve conditions.

Hackney Council said it would respond in due course.

A spokesman said: “Despite government cuts to housing benefit and rising rents, we will continue to invest in and develop our temporary accommodation provision in Hackney, including improving facilities and support for residents, and consulting on their priorities.”

The number of homeless people in Hackney continues to rise steeply.

A 2017 report by the charity Shelter ranked Hackney 10th in a list of 50 areas in the country with the highest levels of homelessness.

It found one in 44 Hackney residents were either sleeping rough or in temporary accommodation.

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Psychiatric patients classed ‘intentionally homeless’ while in hospital ward

Patients on psychiatric wards are being labelled “intentionally homeless” due rent arrears or eviction caused by their mental health crisis.

This is another damning finding of the report published by Healthwatch Hackney and City and Hackney Mind after its work interviewing homeless people and advocates in the borough.

Patients on psychiatric wards find it hard to make homeless applications, making release from hospital “fraught with difficulty,” it says.

Some are discharged into unsuitable housing, increasing the chance of relapse and readmission to hospital.

Others are not able to leave hospital at all as they have nowhere to live.

This can cause bed blocking on psychiatric wards, the report says.

It calls for a specialist housing officer working with mental health inpatients to be reinstated after the job was axed due to council cuts.

The council and health commissioners said they are considering the report.

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If you want to make a confidential complaint about conditions in homeless hostels, join the Gazettes’ Hackney Hostels Hotline group on Facebook.

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The Gazette’s Hidden Homeless campaign is calling for urgent action to tackle the housing crisis. Sign our pledge page and help us gather 1,000 signatures.

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