Suicide bids and breakdowns: How life in Hackney hostels is making mental health of homeless worse
PUBLISHED: 07:00 08 March 2018 | UPDATED: 09:58 15 March 2018
Vulnerable people with mental health problems are among the hundreds living in hostel rooms in Hackney - and their grim surroundings only make it worse. Emma Youle reports on a startling lack of support for those in crisis
Two years ago, as he battled depression in a dreary Hackney hostel room, Andrew decided he no longer wanted to live.
The freelance producer had a blossoming career in live and visual arts and had even been involved with a seminal performance work about human rights at the UN in Geneva.
But from 2014 he found himself caught in the grasp of a dark mental illness that had been present since childhood.
Unable to earn enough money to pay the rent, the 37-year-old – whose surname the Gazette has agreed to withhold – ended up homeless after long stints staying with friends.
Forced to seek help to stay off the streets, he was placed into emergency accommodation at the Brownswood Hostel in Finsbury Park, where his mental state quickly worsened.
“There was so much falling out the bottom of my world that I didn’t quite know where I was going,” he said. “I found being in a hostel really, really difficult to deal with, especially as a queer man.
“Instead of feeling like I was in safe, secure accommodation, I was dealing with insomnia from people with substance abuse issues above and below my head, other people having mental health crises, and staff who weren’t particularly welcoming, caring or interested in their roles.”
Andrew found the hostel intimidating and described it as a “constant pressure cooker” environment. As the months passed he regularly witnessed the chaos of others around him in mental crisis.
“Other people were in similar, fragile situations,” he explained. “There was one night when I arrived back and a guy was having a mental health breakdown on the stairs.
“He’d got the fire extinguisher and was being pinned to the floor by police. Obviously when you see someone in distress it distresses you.”
On another occasion, he witnessed an even more shocking incident.
“The neighbour across the corridor from me attempted suicide and it was actually two other neighbours that basically cut him down,” said Andrew.
“He did survive. I understand now that he’s unfortunately in the justice system, which feels like the system has failed him again.”
One bleak night, Andrew decided he could no longer tolerate the pain and he took an overdose.
He was rushed to hospital and admitted for a brief spell. But the nightmare continued when he was discharged from the Homerton, still wearing his hospital gown and slippers – and driven straight back to the same hostel.
“I found myself in the situation where basically I didn’t want to live,” he said. “But it was through that I was able to make the case to the council, through the review process, that actually the temporary accommodation had made my mental health even worse – and that happens to a lot of people.”
Landlords who run private hostels, including the firm behind the Brownswood, have told the Gazette they are not paid by the council to provide support and say hostels represent a cost effective housing option for many local authorities.
According to Hackney Council, 55 of the 803 housing support applicants found to be unintentionally homeless and in priority need in 2016-17 had a mental health illness or disability.
Yet people living in hostels say the scale of the crisis is far larger. Some allege almost everyone they meet in hostels has some form of mental health difficulty.
Krishna Fernandes Maharaj, chief exec of City and Hackney Mind, said: “There is a link between temporary accommodation, homelessness and mental health. The accommodation itself can create mental health problems.”
Public service providers also recognise the crucial role stable housing plays in good mental health.
Speaking at a public meeting about hostels held by Healthwatch Hackney in January, Dean Henderson, borough director for mental health services at East London NHS Foundation Trust, said: “A lot of people we work with have housing issues and a significant number we have in hospital at any one time are homeless.
“The whole issue of housing is central to good mental health.
“Getting somewhere they can call home – somewhere that meets their basic needs for safety and shelter – is crucial.”
Meanwhile, mental health charities say funding is being cut thin. City and Hackney Mind has been forced to shut down services.
“It’s the financial resources that are the biggest problem,” Mr Maharaj said. “Recently we’ve had to close our Recovery College [a centre to empower people with mental ill health to support themselves and others in recovery] and many of those clients have ended up on the street. You can see them in South Hackney deteriorating.”
Advocacy work by Mind was crucial in helping Andrew to access the support he needed, and his life has now turned a corner.
He is living in a flat on the newly developed King’s Crescent council estate opposite Clissold Park. The impact on his emotional wellbeing has been huge.
“This provides me with safety and security, which is something I really need,” he said.
“Certainly having resolved my housing situation means I feel like my recovery does have more of a long-term and stable chance for me to improve the quality of my life.”
Calling for action to end the placement of people with mental illnesses in hostels, Andrew added: “There’s something wrong with the way people are spending so much time in temporary accommodation without the services and support they need to survive.
“The system is broken. It’s systemically broken from central government down to local government.
“It is really difficult to plug into the social care structures that should be there to help you.”
Brownswood Hostel owners: ‘Council decides who is placed here’
The owners of Brownswood Hostel insist it provides “much needed temporary accommodation” for people in housing need in Hackney.
The hostel is operated by Smart Housing Group, which last year received £3.1million of Hackney Council cash to provide rooms for the homeless.
Jeff Collings, general operations manager at Smart Housing Group, said: “The suitability of the accommodation provided at the hostel for any household placed there is determined by the council, who should normally have full knowledge of any applicant’s housing or medical needs.”
He added: “Any general questions as to the suitability of such accommodation for clients with mental health issues should more properly be addressed to the council.”
But Hackney’s housing chief Cllr Rebecca Rennison said: “With Hackney facing an unprecedented housing crisis and a continued lack of action from government, hostel accommodation is often the only way of ensuring those in housing need can remain in Hackney.
“We work closely with all hostel providers to ensure they provide a safe and comfortable environment, and all hostels we use are inspected regularly and meet all statutory health and safety requirements.”
* If you are concerned about someone, or need help yourself, please contact the Samaritans on 116 123 for confidential emotional support. The number is free to call and open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.