Hackney Council tells pregnant mum in homeless shelter: Move 160 miles away or face eviction
- Credit: Archant
Jess is seven months pregnant and receiving prenatal care at a hospital in Hackney.
Both her children, a little baby and a seven-year-old, were delivered through caesarean section, so she is preparing to have her third the same way.
Jess is soon to turn 34, and the family has been living in a single room in council-run temporary accommodation since 2017.
Her eldest is enrolled in a school in the borough.
The survivor of an abusive relationship, she used to work 40 hours a week as a carer, and hopes to do so again once she has given birth.
However, in April, Jess was given just 24 hours to make a stark choice by Hackney Council's recently-established Move On Team - relocate to the other side of the country or be considered intentionally homeless and face eviction.
Jess said: "I told them I had no idea where the place in Staffordshire they'd offered me is. They said to me that I have to accept it, and if I don't I'm going to be homeless.
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"If they bring me all the way to the middle of nowhere with my three kids, when I'm in the hospital in labour, who's going to help take my seven-year-old to school? Who's going to help with my baby?
"No matter what you're going through in life, as long as you have people in your life you can speak to, that's the most important thing.
"I was crying throughout the week. Thank God my family were around me. They had to come over and pick me up with my kids. All the stress that they put on me - if I didn't have my family that week, I would have ended up in the hospital.
"All my family are in London. I've been living in London for years. It feels like they're killing my future that I've got planned for me and my kids, so I can go back to work and save some money."
According to the town hall, the Move-On Team seeks alternatives to keeping homeless residents in locally-run hostels for long periods, and tries to find them secure accommodation in the private sector.
With residents increasingly priced out of Hackney's overheated rental market, the Team can cast its net anywhere in the UK to rehouse a homeless family, depending on circumstances.
Move-On officers become involved in residents' cases either if they indicate they would like to explore being moved out of the borough, or if they have spent "a long time" in temporary accommodation, according to the Town Hall.
Unluckily for Jess, certain factors, such as no-one in her family facing critical exams this year, her not currently being in employment and having no religious commitments, mean she fits the profile for relocation over 160 miles away.
She was given a few days to view the Staffordshire property, with a final 24 hours to either accept the offer or be evicted.
Move-On team correspondence makes clear that residents have little choice but to accept offers when they are made, with one letter to Jess reading: "If the council is successful in finding suitable private sector accommodation for you, then we will offer that to you and you will be expected to accept the offer and the council will consider you to be re-housed in the same way as if it were to re-house you in social housing."
The town hall points out that discussions with the Move-On team take place over several months, with any decision taking into account any medical care a person may need.
A spokesperson said: "In the case of a late term pregnancy we would not move a mother who is very near her due date, and would take doctors recommendations into consideration when moving anyone that is pregnant to ensure their medical needs can be met to the same standard where they are placed."
However, Jess's correspondence with the Move-On Team acknowledges her late-term pregnancy with an accompanying letter of support from her GP, and still found that her grounds for refusing the distant property had "no merit".
According to solicitor Kevin Long, Hackney Community Law Centre, where he works, has been "inundated" with requests for aid from long-term homeless families facing "final offers" of private sector accommodation in far-flung parts of the country over the past year - ever since the establishment of the Move-On Team.
Mr Long said: "The Move-On Team enables the council to end a homeless case entirely, with rehousing in the private sector and out of the borough. The homeless duty ends when the offer is made, whether or not it is accepted.
"We have seen offers from various places in the North and in the Midlands. They are given usually a few days to view the property, and then 24-48 hours to accept.
"Families who have only ever grown up in Hackney are being asked to move to the other end of the country, virtually overnight."
He added: "The law states that if out-of-borough accommodation is to be used then it must be affordable, but it should still be as close as possible to where the household was previously living.
"Hackney appears to have taken the reverse approach to this and simply sourced cheap private sector options with no regard to location.
"Families with local education, employment and support commitments are still being made entirely unsuitable offers with unworkable travel arrangements.
"The properties are also often isolated and located on the outskirts of Northern towns, and we have dealt with cases where the accommodation has been in breach of local licensing regulations and so unlawful."
Families have faced moves to places such as Bradford, Leeds and Liverpoool since the Move-On Team began its work in 2017, with 298 households so far "assisted into settled accommodation", according to the council.
Mr Long points out that, by definition, those most at risk from the policy are single parents with younger children, usually mothers, who are less likely to be in work and less likely to have ties to local schools.
The Move-On Team's operation is explained in a document from 2018 on single homelessness and mental health in the borough, with the unaffordability of Hackney's housing market making relocation the "unpalatable but only realistic option".
The documents read: "The council is finding that many households, even single persons, are reluctant to move away from the local area with which they are familiar, but we are continuing to work on improving the offer, including facilitating access to support structures and agencies within the new locality.
"There is no legal restriction as such on who can be provided accommodation away from Hackney as long as the offer is reasonable, even if they have health issues."
Jess refused the Staffordshire property she was offered, on the grounds that her eldest child is in education in Hackney, that she is reliant on the support of her family, and that she is two-thirds of the way through her pregnancy with a C-section date booked.
She also made clear that the move would take her closer to the family of her abusive ex-partner.
Her Move-On Team correspondence fails to acknowledge this as a reason not to move her to the new property, despite Jess claiming she has made clear her fears to officers on multiple occasions.
A council spokesperson said: "If we are made aware of a reason why a particular place is unsuitable for someone to live in our discussions with the resident, this would always be taken into consideration. We would not move a survivor of domestic abuse near where their abuser lived, or put a resident in danger through a move."
Despite providing her GP's letter as well as her child's school supporting her request to remain in the borough, the Move-On Team told Jess that "the council is of the view that the grounds for your refusal has [sic] no merit", and that "as a result our duty to assist you with housing has ceased".
It told her in a letter: "The distance between the property and London Borough of Hackney has been considered in the assessment and we are satisfied that it does not amount to a reason to make it unsuitable. The property is located 161 miles from Hackney Central."
Jess's refusal to move with her two children to the other side of the country means she has lost her right to temporary accommodation, and the council will now remove her from the housing register, making her ineligible to bid for social housing.
She says Move-On Team officers went so far as to denigrate Hackney as a place to live in order to convince her to move to Staffordshire, which is anecdotally backed up by the Law Centre as an oft-employed persuasion tactic.
Jess said: "The lady even said to me that London is not a nice place to bring up kids, and even said that about Hackney, 'with all the crime going on at the moment'."
Confusingly, documents provided to Jess by the council as part of the Move-On pack describe her suggested new home as a "less desirable" place to live, "mainly due to the local crime and/or community infrastructure".
The author continues: "The area [...] suffers from a crime rate which is amongst the worst in the region."
Total crime for the area in Staffordshire where the council wants to house Jess and her children is listed as 215 per cent above the regional average, with burglaries and thefts 102 per cent above, antisocial behaviour 199 per cent above, and violent crime 375 per cent above.
The town hall did not explain why this made no difference to Jess's request not to be moved to the new area.
Following her refusal to take the offer, the council is now threatening her with eviction and potential legal costs of up to £355.
Jess is receiving aid from Hackney Community Law Centre, and Long is confident that he can help overturn the Move-On Team's "final offer", as such decisions have a "high success rate" in being challenged.
Long said: "Homeless reviews fall within the scope of legal aid, although working families might not financially qualify due to the very employment commitments that have been overlooked by the council.
"Our capacity to take on cases outside of legal aid has in turn been compromised by the council's decision to reduce our advice funding."
Jess hopes to remain in Hackney, close to her extended family, and looks forward to returning to her job as a carer.
She said: "Moving my whole life and giving me a week to decide whether to do it or not, it doesn't make any sense.
"I'm now appealing it, and I'm going to stay where I am while I appeal it. If the appeal doesn't go my way, I don't know what my options are.
"The carers' agency I was working with still contact me to see if I can go back to work. I tell them that I'm having another baby, but once I'm settled, I'm going to go back to work."
Speaking in March, housing needs chief Cllr Rebecca Rennison (Lab, King's Park): "We always prefer to provide families with a modern, stable council home but, with Hackney facing an unprecedented housing crisis and a continued lack of action from government, we are forced to look for other ways to support families to find a stable home.
"Some of our residents living in temporary accommodation, who may have family and connections outside of London, choose to explore relocating outside of the borough.
"The council - like many across London - supports these families through our housing needs service, to find suitable accommodation in the private rented sector in their chosen area.
"For some people, this is a positive solution, helping them to make a fresh start in long-term, affordable accommodation."
Cllr Rennison called on the government to increase funding for council housing.
A town hall spokesperson said: "Where the council has accepted a duty to a resident who has approached the council as homeless there is an obligation under the Housing Act 1996 for the Council to provide the applicant with suitable accommodation."
They added: "The Move-On Team was set up in 2017 to provide holistic dedicated support for residents that extends beyond housing including help finding school places, employment, identifying key local services.
"The team also pays for removal and travel fees, provide rent in advance and deposit payments where needed and provide tenancy training to help the tenant maintain a private sector tenancy.
The council did not respond to questioning on why Move-On officers talk down Hackney as a place to live, how properties are sourced and located, why people are given so little time to make their decisions, how residents are selected, or on the potentially gender-discriminatory nature of the criteria.
Some details have been changed to protect Jess's identity.