Thursday, 12 March 2015

Two sides of a bad coin

I live with the Hackney Winter Night Shelter. As a result of this I am fed, clothed and well looked after.

When we are at a shelter that can't fit us all in (there are twenty five of us in all) nearly half of the men are taxied over to another church where they will sleep and have their breakfast. So one night last week some of us piled into two taxis and drove across Hackney to the church that would provide us all with a bed for the night and breakfast in the morning.

So we all filed in to a warm cup of tea and biscuits before we turned in. As we were going in at a rear door to the church we walked past  a young woman who was trying to get comfy for the night.

She was a bit bolshie at first when she found out who we were, Let's face it you would be resentful of people who were getting a better deal than you. "You don't look very homeless to me,"

So over the course of a couple or three cigarettes I got to know more of her story.
  • How she'd lived in Hackney her whole life.
  • How she had a full-time job around the corner in a cafe and was struggling to keep it given her current plight. You try doing a customer service job after next-to-no sleep and no access to a bathroom!
  • How she didn't have a phone.
  • How when she had gone to the Homeless Person's Unit they had said to her: "I could refer you to the Night Shelter but that's full of junkies and alcoholics and they would probably just rob you."
I immediately assured her that this wasn't the case and that in the time I had been there I hadn't even seen arguments over cigarettes.

So after our final cigarette together as I went in to my warm bed, I told her I would speak to the Hackney Winter Night Shelter people to see what they could do. I also said I would report her situation to the street rescue people; Streetlink. I assure you I asked this woman if all of this was OK with her and didn't just go blundering in, do-gooding!

So I phoned in to the street rescue people and told them of this woman's situation, who she was, where she was, what time she gets there, that kind of stuff.

I also emailed the Hackney Winter Night Shelter people who explained that the woman would need a referral from their various agencies before she could get in. I then dropped a note (in a sealed envelope) in to the woman's cafe to let her know what I had done with some contact numbers on it.

Where I left it with the street rescue people was that they would ring me if they made contact and got this woman housed. As yet I have heard nothing, I hope she is alright.

I'm alright, as I said I'm well looked after and I've got people speaking to Hackney council on my behalf and optimistic that something will get sorted out.

Update: I had an email this weekend from Streetlink; they have been out to look for this woman several times and drawn a blank. As I said, I do hope that she is alright

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Living Wage, Premiership football and the Church of England

So there has been a little bit of a hoo-ha lately about football clubs in the Premier league not paying the Living Wage. The Premier League has just secured its biggest TV deal in its history of £5.14 billion pounds. This represents a 70 per cent increase in their TV income.

The chief executive of  the Premier League in England, Richard Scudamore, who has been in the job since 1999, and who we can assume is paid rather better than the Living Wage, has come out with some rather memorable comments. One of his remarks was that it is not the clubs' responsibility to pay the living wage, is he implying that although the Premier League is awash with money they have no moral responsibility to their employees who are not on thousands and thousands of pounds a week? He has also gone on record as saying that "the Premier League is not a charity", you couldn't make this stuff up!

It should be noted here that Chelsea FC was the first Premier League club to pay the Living Wage, West Ham United followed suit in February this year. Luton Town became the first Football League club to adopt this, shortly after Chelsea took their step in December of last year.

What interests me more though is a report that came out yesterday from the Trades Union Congress (TUC). This report shows that one in five, (20%) of jobs overall in the UK pay less than the living wage! Monday 16 February until Sunday 1 March the TUC have named Fair Pay Fortnight. Currently the Living Wage is £9.15 for London and £7.85 for the rest of the UK

Among those who are not paying the Living Wage is the Church of England no less. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby admitted that this was an embarrassment. His own cathedral in Canterbury is guilty of this, currently advertising kiosk assistant jobs paying more than a pound an hour less than the National Minimum Wage. More than two and a half years ago the church's General Synod voted almost unanimously to pay its staff the Living Wage, maybe they got distracted by loftier matters? Clearly the Church of England are not the only culprits here as the TUC have indicated in their report, This was one of the things that Frances O'Grady (the General Secretary of the TUC) had to say:

 “Extending the living wage is a vital step towards tackling the growing problem of in-work poverty across Britain." Ms O'Grady goes further:

“Working families have experienced the biggest squeeze on their living standards since Victorian times, and these living wage figures show that women are disproportionately affected. Pay has been squeezed at all levels below the boardroom, and the government’s mantra about ‘making work pay’ is completely out of touch with reality."

This is what Rachel Reeves who is the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions had to say to the Huffington Post:  "It makes good business sense. Thanks to the efforts of campaigners, over a thousand companies now pay the living wage, including 21 FTSE 100 companies - big brands like Barclays, Aviva and ITV."

"By paying the living wage their staff are afforded the dignity that should come with a days' work." 

An update:

I read in last night's Evening Standard that nearly 100 000 social care workers are paid less than the Living Wage. This stems from a report conducted by the Resolution Foundation who are described as an independent think tank concerned with the living standards for low to middle income families. This study found that the typical wage for a care job paid £8.00 an hour during 2013 - 2014. The London living wage during that period went up from £8.55 to £8.80 and is now £9.15.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Upsides and downsides of living in the night shelter

Living in a night shelter is no picnic. You are probably not in the most robust place, mentally when you arrive. You have to immediately get used to mixing with twenty five strangers, eating your meals with them, at night you have to accustom yourself to sharing the room where you sleep with them. The numbers you share the room with at night varies, women are partitioned off from the men and depending on the numbers and space available some of the people are taxied off to sleep in other churches.

There are some huge upsides:

  • you are warm and dry and inside.
  • you have a hot meal in the evening.
  • you have a breakfast in the morning, cooked if you want it.
  • you have access to clean clothes should you be short of them.
So what are the drawbacks?

  • they kick you out at eight o'clock in the morning. This is so the church can get on with all the other things it usually does. (there are very few free places open at eight o'clock in the morning that are warm and dry) A cup of tea costs 80p in Hackney and the libraries don't open until nine. Some people just head for the nearest bookie.
  • There tends to be a lot of travelling about - to the different churches and to where you spend your day. Almost everyone walks everywhere. 
Please don't get me wrong, everyone I have spoken to is grateful for all the help and the shelter that they get. The service they get is excellent, well thought through, highly organised, caring and sympathetic. We all know that we are lucky and that there is a waiting list to get on the scheme.

One observation I do have is that it is the churches that provide this service, this need is met by churches; housing the needy and the poor, those who are down on their luck. This has been the case for hundreds of years.

David Cameron, when he came to power, banged on about the Big Society, it was one of his buzz phrases. Surely he must have known that it was there all along?

Thursday, 5 February 2015

My new found shabbiness

Three and a half weeks ago I lost my place to live in a hostel for the homeless in North East London. I was given an hour to gather what could, I left carrying three small bags and the clothes I stood up in.

I've had a lot of adjustments to make since then, I spent some time sofa surfing and now I'm part of the set up at Hackney Winter Night Shelter, This is where I have been for a little over two weeks. A whole new bunch of people to get to know/get used to. There are twenty five of us in total but the personnel change here and there as two or three have moved on. The big adjustment has been no peace and quiet, nowhere to sit and gawp out of the window for twenty minutes doing nothing at all.

Since then I have acquired one or two other bits and pieces; shoes, a coat, tee shirt. I still feel like a tramp. I seem to be dressed in an odd assortment of ill-fitting clothes all of the time, every day. Up until a few days ago I was shuffling around in a pair of boots that were two sizes too big. The jeans I'm currently wearing are baggy and the waist size is four inches bigger than I would ordinarily wear.

Not too much to complain about, it is just that I am not usually this scruffy!

Friday, 30 January 2015

What in my shoes did next

So on the Thursday before Christmas we had our staff party for the office, this was after a day of training in South London. I then returned to my hostel

Then these things happened:

  • I threatened another resident in my hostel. (he had been beating up on his girlfriend for months) What I did was stupid and criminal, it wasn't big, it wasn't clever, and I should have just rang the old bill and kept my big nose out of it.
  • On the Saturday I went to court and was represented by the duty solicitor. Prior to me being up before the magistrate the duty solicitor advised me that the magistrate could be a bit harsh. He actually used the C word when describing him.
  • I pleaded guilty immediately.
  • I was then remanded into custody for three weeks to a prison in South East London and told I would need to appear in court at the end of January for sentencing.
  • After my three weeks I went back to court and got bailed.
  • I returned to my hostel and was told I had an hour to gather my things as I couldn't possibly stay at the hostel. No alternatives were considered.
  • I then spent ten days sofa surfing and wearing out my welcome with people I had considered long standing friends.
  • After being on a waiting list for five days I was invited to join the Hackney Winter Night Shelter.
  • I have been staying with them for ten nights, they rotate around some of the churches in Hackney and we stay at a different church each night.
  • The winter night shelter is run like a military operation, the people are kind and polite and we are well looked after.
So not a very auspicious start to the New Year.

I shall talk at more length about these things in the near future, for the time being I thought an updte would suffice. Watch this space

Thursday, 27 November 2014

A very modern exodus - a local housing scandal

It took Hitler's Luftwaffe to provoke the last great exodus of people from London. First went the children, evacuated en masse to the care of strangers in the countryside, and then after the war whole families were relocated from the rubble of the Blitz to the post-modern New Towns of Britain's brave new world.

Fast-forward seventy years, and a new displacement is underway. But in 2014, people are being driven from their homes and communities not by bombs from the air but by the process of gentrification and the callous indifference of London's housing market.

Today's high-profile case is that of the New Era housing estate in Hoxton, which houses over 90 families at below-market rate rents. Earlier this year, the estate was bought by American property management company Westbrook Partners, who announced their intention to serve notice to the tenants, refurbish the flats and let them at market prices.

The Guardian contrasts the philanthropic spirit that conceived the New Era estate with the vulture capitalism that now threatens to tear it down:

Built by a charitable trust in the 1930s in order to offer working-class residents affordable private rented accommodation. Even when the blocks were sold this spring, residents say they were assured that the old tenets would apply. Within weeks, new owners told them that rents would rise to market values: spiralling from £600 a month for a two-bed flat to something closer to £2,400. That was meant to happen by summer 2016. After [Conservative MP Richard] Benyon’s firm pulled out of the deal last week, residents were told that Westbrook would accelerate the process.

But what seemed like a hopeless case of the little people versus corporate might has now started to attract attention, with a petition approaching 300,000 signatures in a matter of weeks, and Revolution author Russell Brand lending his support to the cause. Boris Johnson has also pledged to investigate, though it is difficult to see the Mayor of London making a significant intervention.

It must be acknowledged that the New Era residents have not always exerted themselves to enlist the support of the casual observer. Hyperbolic claims about being made "homeless by Christmas" ignore the alternative of moving out of the borough, and the suggestion that the Tower of London poppy display represented people who had given their lives for the sacred cause of socialised housing was opportunistic and crass. And in their indignation at the prospect of being forced to leave Hoxton, the campaigners also forget that there are many Britons who, by accident of birth, grew up outside London and never had the opportunity to enjoy subsidised housing in the heart of the world's greatest city in the first place.

But setting aside the human frailties exhibited in the New Era campaign, the remorseless and seemingly unstoppable process of gentrification and displacement raises difficult questions that now require urgent thought. Are we willing to accept the increasing homogenisation of inner London as a place for the one percent and the upper middle classes? How will we bear the social costs of an increasingly stratified city, where citizens are increasingly unlikely to work, rest, play - and so learn to empathise - with other people of differing financial circumstances? At what point is the marginal benefit of another luxury apartment building or soulless shopping precinct outweighed by the cost in human misery of uprooting entire communities from their homes?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. Some purists would argue that the market must be left to function unmolested, the fate of the working poor be damned. Others, such as Russell Brand, would wave a magic wand every time the "American corporations" or other bogeymen of the left try to move in, always siding with the local residents but harming London's competitiveness in the process. Neither stance is helpful. And in the absence of a national or city-wide conversation on this thorny issue, the residents groups and development corporations go to battle alone.

This would seem to put the New Era residents at a distinct disadvantage, playing David to Westbrook Partners' Goliath. But people power has already achieved one important victory, forcing Westbrook’s collaborator Benyon Estates to withdraw from their involvement in the estate due to negative publicity. Westbrook themselves will prove a more difficult nut to crack – based in America, they have little cause to fear reputational or political damage inflicted thousands of miles away. But the New Era campaigners are gearing up for a fight nonetheless, seeking international solidarity by pointing out that Westbrook’s principle shareholders are the pension funds of low-paid public sector workers in America.

In truth, we all have a stake in this fight, whether we are homeowners or renters, urban dwellers or country folk. Every day, we bear witness to the immovable forces of globalisation and capitalism which are dramatically reshaping our world, and which our leaders frequently seem impotent to control. These forces may not be coming for our homes, our jobs, our own livelihoods – yet. But when they do, who will fight for us tomorrow if we fail to stand up for those like the New Era residents, who need our support today?

Samuel Hooper is a freelance journalist. He blogs at and can be found on Twitter @SamHooper.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Starbucks are at it again

The European Commission, the Brussels bit, have accused the government of the Netherlands and everybody's favourite multinational, tax-avoiding coffee chain - Starbucks, of cooking up some  cosy deal so the coffee shop pays  a very low rate of tax! This apparently is called a sweetheart deal.

So the Commission has launched an official investigation into the tax affairs of Starbucks, Apple and the car people Fiat.

These huge corporations are utterly shameless - they devote so much energy to dreaming up schemes that allow them to pay the smallest amount of tax they can possibly get away with, without the accounts department landing up in jail.

And then  they are so blasé about the whole bloody thing, I suppose it's just a disgraceful mindset they all pick up at accountancy college.

Now no one likes paying tax  but we all do: income tax, VAT, National Insurance, fuel tax, council tax.

So imagine you rang up HMRC (the taxman) one day and said: "I'd like to renegotiate how much tax I pay, this PAYE system is a bit harsh."

What do you think they would say?

That is exactly what corporations do - they NEGOTIATE with governments all over Europe over how much tax they are willing to pay. The Oxford English Dictionary defines tax thus: n. 1 a compulsory contribution to state revenue, levied by the government on personal income and business profits  or added to the cost of some goods, services, and transactions. Now what's wrong with that? I think the key word there is compulsory.

There are other countries that the European Commission are interested in investigating; Cyprus, Ireland, Gibraltar, Luxembourg and Malta.