Revealed: How Hackney homeless hostels are a ‘dumping ground’ for the mentally ill

Azijul Islam has condemned conditions at a homeless hostel where he lived as a 17-year-old. Picture:

Azijul Islam has condemned conditions at a homeless hostel where he lived as a 17-year-old. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

In the third of the Gazette’s Hidden Homeless series, EMMA YOULE learns how Hackney hostels have become a ‘dumping ground’ for some of the capital’s most vulnerable people – and how they receive little or no support

Life is now better for Az who hopes to begin a career in events management. Picture: Polly Hancock

Life is now better for Az who hopes to begin a career in events management. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

For anyone who has experienced the trauma of domestic violence, mental illness or being taken into care, a stable home is a crucial step in the pathway to recovery.

Yet the Gazette can today reveal hostels in Hackney are being used as “dumping grounds” to house vulnerable people and those with mental health needs. 

We have also found evidence of other London boroughs placing people with high needs into hostels here, swelling the already acute pressure on local services.

Former fashion stylist Manuela, who became homeless after fleeing a violent relationship, said: “It’s disgraceful there are people making millions because the government puts people into the madness of these hostels. I think they should close them down and open new places where there are professional people working to offer support.”

Manuela, who asked the Gazette not to print her surname, believes almost every person at her former hostel had mental health problems, some with conditions as severe as schizophrenia.

Another former hostel dweller Azijul Islam, 21, who was sent to live in a single room aged 17 while under council care, says they are unsuitable places for young adults in his situation.

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He was placed at the Shuttleworth hostel in Well Street by Tower Hamlets Council in 2013.

Manuela's single room at the Shuttleworth hostel in Hackney

Manuela's single room at the Shuttleworth hostel in Hackney - Credit: Archant

He had been taken into care at 15 after telling his Muslim Bangladeshi family he was gay. It was no longer considered safe for him to stay in his local community.

For a time Az lived with foster families but struggled to settle and ended up at the hostel.

“Even though I was a high-risk person I wasn’t the only one there,” he said. “I heard it all – the night screams from the mentally distressed neighbour living across the hall; the violence which makes you double-lock your door. I hope no other child goes through what I went through.”

After two troubled months Az was moved to a supported hostel for young people and then on to a flat.

Life is now better for him – he has recently completed an apprenticeship and hopes to begin a career in events management.

“When they moved me I actually felt like a kid again, I felt safe,” he said. “I think people under 18 should only be placed in hostels where there are key workers available 24/7.”

Tower Hamlets Council did not comment other than to confirm Az was placed in emergency temporary accommodation and later moved into supported housing.

Another former resident Alan Zeligson has supported hostel owners

Another former resident Alan Zeligson has supported hostel owners - Credit: Archant

Manuela also believes her background of suffering domestic abuse meant a mixed hostel, where she had to share shower facilities with men and felt constantly unsafe, was a totally unsuitable place to live.

The Gazette covered Manuela’s story in July when she was living in a tiny single room at the Shuttleworth, again placed by Tower Hamlets.

“I was mixing with very violent men who had come out of prison,” she said. “People there knew I came from a background of domestic violence and they would say: ‘You deserved what you got.’

“When you live such a horrible experience you are burned inside. You have to learn to cope and part of you is burned.”

Manuela was a successful fashion stylist in her native Milan earning 2,000 Euros a week before moving to London in 2009.

But her life spiralled out of control in a violent relationship with a man who beat her, which she escaped in 2012.

She spent a short time homeless before moving into a women’s hostel and then the Shuttleworth.

Hackney Gazette The Hidden Homeless campaign logo

Hackney Gazette The Hidden Homeless campaign logo - Credit: Archant

“Hostels are places that can destroy normal people,” she said. “So if someone has schizophrenia, for example, how can it be fixed in a place like that?”

After the Gazette ran her story, Manuela was moved to a housing association flat. She now works part-time at the Hackney Empire while studying to teach English to Italians.

The Shuttleworth, like many privately run hostels, is only contracted by councils to provide unsupported temporary accommodation and is not funded to offer support services.

But Krishna Fernandes Maharaj, chief executive of mental health charity Mind in Hackney, said more support was crucial.

“Hostels are definitely not suitable accommodation for people with mental health needs,” he said. “Any hostel that accepts homeless people or people with mental health needs should have support available.”

He said vital services have been axed in recent years, which has fuelled rising homelessness.

“I used to work in hostels and maybe 60 to 70 per cent of the population have mental health problems,” he said. “That’s often a factor in them becoming homeless, because it’s more difficult for them to cope with housing issues.

“Partly because of the benefit caps and failing mental health services, a lot more people are becoming homeless.

“Previously there was more social care and support and they were able to prevent homelessness by intervening early.”

Plumber Alan Zeligson, 54, left, who lived at the Shuttleworth in 1988, echoed Mr Maharaj.

He said the hostel then was run under a strict “seaman’s mission” regime – but believes this is no longer possible because of cuts.

“All the day-stay units were closed, the places where people could receive support,” he said. “Now it’s bringing in all the vulnerable people. I feel sorry for the owners – they can’t do the old rules and regulations.”

* The Gazette’s Hidden Homeless campaign is calling for urgent action to tackle the housing crisis in Hackney. Please pledge your support by siging our online form – it only takes a second.

* In next week’s Gazette: What radical new ideas are necessary to tackle the housing crisis in Hackney?



Why are more people becoming homeless?

Welfare reforms, the renewed benefit cap, and a lack of action to regulate rising rents in the private sector are all contributing to the housing crisis in Hackney – that’s the view of mayor and former housing boss Philip Glanville.

What is the Housing and Planning Act 2016?

It’s a controversial piece of government legislation that will allow the sale of “higher value” council houses as they become vacant. On current estimates this will lead to the loss of 700 council properties in Hackney. Mandatory fixed-term tenancies of between two and 10 years will also be introduced for some council tenants, alongside other measures to promote home ownership.

Will the Homelessness Reduction Bill help tackle the problem?

The bill will place a new duty on councils to step in and help people threatened within losing their home within 56 days. But London Councils, the body representing local authorities in the capital, says it has not been properly costed to adequately fund London’s 33 councils to meet the new responsibilities.

Has there been a rise in homelessness in Hackney?

Yes, the number of people living in temporary accommodation is at a 12-year high in Hackney.

How much does this cost the council?

The council pays an average weekly rate for rooms of £206 for a single, £243 for a double, £270 for a triple, and £254 for a quad. In total Hackney paid £35million to house people in temporary accommodation last year.

Who is profiting?

Critics accuse private landlords of “profiting from the misery” of the housing crisis. A recent Hackney scrutiny review said there was “no incentive to provide quality properties when landlords receive payment regardless of the quality,” adding: “If residents complain they are evicted.” But others say hostel accommodation meets guidelines laid down by government and is needed.

Has there been any protest locally about cuts to services?

Last year the feminist group Sisters Uncut squatted an empty council flat in Hackney to protest against cuts to domestic abuse programmes. They transformed the flat into a community centre and later met Mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville to discuss their demands for reform.

This story 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.