Z2K: Helping Westminster’s homeless get better help

Z2K: Helping Westminster’s homeless get better help

There’s nothing wrong with Brentford and, as far as I can tell, nothing wrong with its Holiday Inn. But how come a man called Miracle has been living there for nearly a year?

The answer to that question is long and complicated, and Miracle’s circumstances are unique. Yet his story also illustrates how easy it can be even for an experienced adult person with good qualifications to end up being one of the roughly 170,000 people – one in 50 of London’s population – living in temporary accommodation, and how difficult it can be to put that right.

Miracle (pictured in his room) is a big, tall man with a gentle manner who has overcome, in some cases survived, many difficulties in his life. Sitting on his bed in a room lined with bags of his unpacked belongings – unpacked, because there is nowhere for him to put them in a room designed for stays of a few nights at most – he tells me he got his name because his parents, having previously experienced the stillbirths of twins, and his mother having had a difficult pregnancy with him, couldn’t believe he had entered the world alive.

But there were complications – Miracle was born with reduced vision due to a condition called Nystagmus. He also suffers from epilepsy, developed as a result of childhood domestic violence and abuse. Born in Nigeria 36 years ago, he came to Britain with his mother at the age seven because a relative wanted him brought to live in the UK. He ended up staying in the capital with an uncle after his mother returned to Nigeria seven months later. We don’t dwell on his childhood years and its traumas, but he makes it clear that he had some bad experiences, including violence at the hands of an aunt during what was an unstable childhood.

Miracle began living on his own at the age of 19 after becoming homeless for the first time. His account of his years since then includes getting a first class degree in enterprise and entrepreneurship at Coventry University and doing “various mini-jobs here and there” including brand ambassador work, freelance sales and promotions, some film acting and being a photo model for a big name corporate website. He gave a motivational speech at a conference about disability and employment held in 2013, appearing on stage with the then government minster and London MP Vince Cable.

A secure, paying, graduate job evaded him, however. Returning to London, he embarked on a masters at King’s College, moving in to student accommodation in Stratford. It was after finishing his course that his current housing problems began. A long, disheartening search for somewhere to rent, conducted during the Covid lockdown, ended when he found a flat in Southwark, but it was only available to him for a short time.

Once more in urgent need, he found a room in a Westminster hostel. The deposit was low and there was no onerous contract. But Miracle says the bedsit, as he calls it, left much to be desired. Particles of dust and fluff circulated in his confined space, seemingly seeping from heating or air conditioning pipes. This affected his health, but he couldn’t get the problem fixed. This issue and others led to Miracle being told he must go.

That was in the spring of 2023. He turned to Westminster Council for help and was initially placed in a branch of Premier Inn in Tower Bridge Road. After a week, he packed his bags for Brentford and has been there, in the same room, ever since.

The only legal limit on the length of temporary accommodation tenure is six weeks for families with children in bed and breakfast establishments. For everyone else, included Miracle, their stay can go on and on.

My reason for visiting Miracle was to hear his account of his dealings with Westminster and how it has carried out its statutory duties to him as someone who has declared himself homeless.

He is one of five people with experience of temporary housing working on a project run by the anti-poverty charity Z2K – the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust – with the aim of equipping the relevant council staff for making a better job of helping Westminster residents who find they have nowhere to live.

Miracle will, starting soon, be listening to the stories of other homeless individuals or households for whom Westminster is or has been responsible. The thinking is that this peer researcher approach, as it is called, will encourage interviewees to tell their stories more fully and freely.

Those stories will inform a report to be compiled by Z2K aimed at improving how Westminster discharges its responsibilities. The hope is that the council’s first ever Labour administration, elected in May 2022, will be receptive. The council isn’t formally involved in the project, but it and Z2K are in contact about it.

Miracle’s own dealings with Westminster don’t sound great. He says he was unable to find out for how long he’d been staying at the hotel near Tower Bridge and that he was transferred to different caseworkers without being informed. His move to Brentford, much further away, was because at the time nowhere else could be found that could accommodate him for the longer term.

He says he was told by Westminster that he wouldn’t be left feeling abandoned, but that things haven’t turned out that way. He describes communication as continuing to be unsatisfactory – promised phone calls that don’t come, emails that go unanswered – and says Holiday Inn staff have sometimes been better sources of information about his future tenure than his contacts at the far-off local authority.

And all the while he was in dispute with Westminster, which was not, until very recently, satisfied that he hadn’t made himself intentionally homeless. Miracle says he’d have liked council staff he dealt with to have shown “a bit of empathy, a bit of understanding” for his situation.

Another of Z2K’s peer researchers is Isaac – not his real name – who, with the rest of his family, has lately found somewhere more permanent in Westminster to live. Before that, the household moved so frequently that Isaac, who is in his early twenties, is losing count. He thinks maybe eight times within Westminster since he was aged 14 and in a number of other boroughs from the age of five or six.

Speaking to me at Z2K’s office in Petty France, his observations about interactions with council staff are similar to those of Miracle, drawn in part from his own story and in part from those of others. This seems particularly so of individual situations not being fully understood.

But Isaac is not without sympathy for caseworkers, explaining that homeless people in bad situations often can’t describe their circumstances well – something which, in many cases, will have contributed to their being in difficulty in the first place. “It’s not that caseworkers are necessarily doing a bad job, but it would be better for individuals and the organisation if staff were better trained,” he says. “It’s mainly just getting a more nuanced understanding of people’s circumstances.”

He’d like more to be done to avoid housing people temporarily far from familiar home neighbourhoods where they might benefit from having family and friends close by: “The allocation of temporary accommodation, I personally believe, should be coupled with community cohesion.”

Isaac recognises that that can be difficult, given the constraints local authorities face, and that, in the end, there’s no getting away from the need for more homes to be built for rent or sale at prices people can afford. But in the meantime he thinks Westminster residents needing temporary accommodation should be given the best possible help, including by ensuring the housing provided meets basic quality standards.

Asked about the impact being housed in temporary accommodation has had on their lives, Isaac and Miracle give very similar answers.

Isaac says he and his family have been glad of the good help they have had from various local authorities and others down the years. He adds that not all temporary accommodation is poor or unsuitable. But the sheer uncertainty of not knowing for how long you will be living in a particular dwelling, or even a particular location, is, to say the least, a disadvantage.

He says it takes away “momentum and stability” – you can’t truly settle and when you start making progress with your life, you fear that another move will send you back to square one.

Miracle reflects on “the nomadic existence I’ve had”, with its recurring disruptions and setbacks. “I’m one of those people with a lot of ambition,” he says. “I believe in hard work, as an individual, as a person. I believe in striving for things, you know?”

Having accumulated skills and qualifications, he would like to make full use of them, pursuing his passions for new business ventures, drawing on personal experience to improve quality of life for disabled people – especially those experiencing homelessness – and maybe doing some more acting.

But though “incredibly grateful to have a roof over my head,” being holed up in his Brentford hotel room, far from his London friends and social networks, with no cooking facilities and visits to a local launderette and shops often his only trips out, the life he’d like to have a chance of leading feels a long way off.

He just wants somewhere to live “where you can hang all your clothes up, get yourself in decent shape – somewhere that gives me a springboard, so I can advance”.

It doesn’t seem a lot to ask. But, of course, in the capital city, it can be. Helping a central London council to make a better job of helping people like him, can only be a good thing all round.

This article is the second in a series of five to be published by On London in the run-up to the election for Mayor on 2 May. They are kindly supported by Trust For London, which provides  funding for each of the five projects to be covered. On London’s policy on supported content can be read here.

Categories: Analysis

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