The scandal of housing benefits Apartheid

Discrimination keeps homeless families in sordid bed and breakfast accommodation. Yet all the while, suitable accommodation is available at less cost.

Ron Striebig exposes this scandal.

Three years ago I attended a Christmas party arranged by local churches for families living in temporary accommodation at the Gilroy Court Euro Hotels complex in Croydon, made notorious by the BBC’s Newsnight investigation in October 2012.

While the children were playing on the bouncy castles, I started listening to the stories of some of the parents. I felt impelled by my Christian faith to try and help. Since then, I have been working alongside local Council Housing Departments to try to find suitable accommodation for some of these of these families.

In the last five years, the number of families living in bed-and-breakfasts in the UK has increased by 300% to around 2600. “These families are largely invisible to mainstream society.” (Guardian in June 2015) The ones I have met were living in conditions quite unsuitable for many months of “temporary” accommodation that can last up to two years

The Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates are set by councils. In many they match market rates, so there is accommodation available in the private sector.

I have probably spoken to over a hundred different estate agents in the last 3 years, including several well-known high street names. However there are practically no estate agents in SE England that will rent to applicants in receipt of Housing Benefit. The reasons given include:

  • Insurance companies will not provide rental insurance to such applicants;
  • Such people are deemed to be profligate or criminal or just “scumbags” in the words of one agent I spoke to;
  • They won’t pay their rent, they are poor, they all damage property;
  • A stated dislike of people in receipt of benefits, and preference for people who have “done the right thing” and got on and made money and are successful.

These negative attitudes are based on prejudice, reflecting many myths about poor people, which are bolstered by the skewed picture given by such television programmes as Benefits Street.

These reasons are not substantiated by statistics and don’t reflect the real people I have spoken to. To take one example, The family of three where the husband , an IT specialist, lost his work due to cancer of the jaw involving several operations over a two year period.

Equally scandalous is that local councils often have to pay £1500 – £2400 every month for each family accommodated in Gilroy Court. In every case, families are also required to top up this sum by a further £100 – £250 each month out of their other benefits or part-time earnings. Up to two hundred families live in Gilroy Court complex at any one time. By contrast, a three-bed house in Croydon will rent for about £1300 a month.

Understandably, landlords may require references and evidence of ability to pay rent. This is no justification for blanket discrimination. This is similar to the now illegal declaration No Blacks or Irish.

It shows how Britain has revived the Victorian concept of the deserving and undeserving poor, with those in receipt of Housing Benefit being judged unworthy of a basic human need: a secure place to live.

Ron is a scientist with a Hons degree in Physics and a Masters in Mathematics. He is a practicing Christian and a volunteer coordinator for the charity, Croydon Churches Floating Shelter www.croydonfloatingshelter.org

This article is sponsored by The Radical Read Project.