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'Nightmare neighbours' may need support too - but how can a resolution be reached?

PUBLISHED: 14:53 24 May 2019 | UPDATED: 15:15 24 May 2019

This woman told the Gazette she is subjected to noise and anti-social behaviour every day in her home. Picture: Polly Hancock

This woman told the Gazette she is subjected to noise and anti-social behaviour every day in her home. Picture: Polly Hancock

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What happens when a person causing anti-social behaviour needs help themselves? And how do you help the victims of it? In response to an increasing number of calls on the issue, the Gazette found out there are no easy answers.

"Nightmare neighbours" - the term gets thrown around a lot.

There's the couple upstairs who treat everyone to drum'n'bass music at 11pm, the old bloke below who falls asleep watching '90s action films, and them next door who rack up more rubbish than you thought was possible and dump it next to the bins.

You report it, and the council asks you to create a log, detailing every noise nuisance or instance of anti-social behaviour (ASB).

It can be easy to assume our neighbours are simply inconsiderate. But sometimes it's not that simple.

The Gazette regularly receives calls from exhausted homeowners or tenants concerned their neighbours' ASB is a result of vulnerability, or a health need that isn't being met.

It's a problem whose seriousness was highlighted by the death last year of Kamil Seroka in Upper Clapton. The 20-year-old had killed himself after refusing help from social services and mental health workers who had been called 200 times in a year by neighbours over his behaviour.

In cases like this, the authorities are all meant to work together. Council ASB officers and social services, along with police and mental health professionals, will look for the best resolution. But the complexity of the situation means it can take a while to decide on the best course of action, and there are no guarantees it will work. In the meantime, everyone suffers.

One woman the Gazette spoke to has lived on a South Hackney estate for 13 years. In that time, a neighbour has been causing ASB that affects her almost daily. It has gotten so bad police have been called numerous times. She says she can't sell because no one would want to buy her home once they'd experienced it.

"He has a habit of sitting in his window and screaming and shouting at people in the street," said the woman, whose name we have chosen not to publish. "He bangs the metal pipes on the windows and tries to intimidate and aggravate people.

"It's got worse over the years. The council and police are aware - last year he was away for 10 months because he was sectioned.

"He came back this year and I said it would start again and it has. No one takes responsibility.

"He also has visitors coming at all times and I don't think they are coming round for a cup of tea. I think because he is vulnerable, people take advantage of him. It doesn't make me feel safe."

On one occasion, someone told him to keep the noise down, only for the man to go and stand outside the neighbour's house in response, staring.

The council has installed a noise machine in the block to monitor noise pollution. It will also survey neighbours. The man in question is being supported by social services and mental health workers from the NHS East London Foundation Trust (ELFT). But it clearly isn't enough.

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Hackney's community safety chief Cllr Caroline Selman said: "We take our duty of care to both vulnerable people who cause anti-social behaviour and people experiencing the effects of it extremely seriously.

"Where people who cause ASB are suffering from mental or other health issues, we ensure they are offered support. Enforcement action is considered where necessary, proportionate and within the context of broader support. It is always agreed in partnership. What we cannot do is take action when it would not be right or legal to do so - for example when people are not unwell enough to be compulsorily admitted for treatment, do not consent or engage with mental health support, or the legal criteria for enforcement action is not met. We commission supported housing specifically for people with complex mental health needs, and a floating support service for people in their own tenancies who need additional support to maintain their housing."

Anyone in Hackney who thinks a neighbour may have mental health issues causing ASB can contact the council or ELFT. The Mental Health Act allows a social worker and two doctors to assess someone with a mental health disorder and see if they need to be assessed further or treated in hospital, though supported accommodation is preferable.

There's also the "community trigger" - introduced in the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act in 2014. It can be used when a victim of ASB has reported it three times and feels the response was inadequate, and requires a cross-agency review. A court injunction can also be considered, or in severe cases possession of the home.

The town hall did not mention the community trigger when asked what resources were available to those concerned about ASB.

Jenny Herrera is CEO of charity ASB Help, and contributed to the Victims Commissioner's report that declared ASB was being ignored by the authorities.

She told the Gazette: "Just because there is a mental health aspect it doesn't mean it's OK to do nothing.

"There's no easy answer. Victims are often left in the dark now too because of GDPR [data protection laws], and may not be told mental health is to blame. That makes it even harder for them.

"Also it can often be left so long that there is no option for mediation. If two neighbours speak early on then the victim would have some sympathy. But no one tells them anything and the relationship is well and truly broken down by the time they do.

"I think people hope it will go away. But we always recommend if a victim is not getting anywhere they go down the community trigger route [see end of main story]. That's going to give the best chance of finding a way to manage the situation."

Krishna Maharaj is CEO of mental health charity Mind in the City, Hackney and Waltham Forest, which supports people facing housing problems because of their mental health.

He stressed such cases were rare, and often people with mental health issues are victims, trather than perpetrators, of anti-social behaviour - and when the opposite happens, it's a sign a person is not receiving the right support.

"It's all about treatment," he said. "When people don't get treated they usually decline and their behaviour goes downhill."

Krishna emphasised the progress made in mental health services compared with, say, 30 years ago.

"Now we have care in the community," he said. "Back then people were locked up in asylums and never came out, sometimes for minor things. Care in the community makes a huge difference. They never had any hope before.

"I know people who have been through the asylum system and [since care in the community was introduced] they live normal lives and have jobs.

"There will be instances where things don't work out, but mental health affects one in four people, so it is rare and can't be used to undermine the progress."

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