FELICITY COLLIER describes how a mother of two was kicked out of her home due to her council’s incompetence
CLAVIA CHAMBERS felt like a proud mum when she got a job in 2013 and was no longer signing on. She came to realise, however, that her new job’s insecure hours ended by leaving her worse off and even contributed to her becoming homeless.
When I met her at Lambeth council housing office last Monday, she told me she would “fight to the death” to end her long-running battle to get rehoused, which sees her currently sleeping on the floors of relatives’ homes as she awaits a council decision into rental arrears.
Following a court case in May, she was evicted when the council decided that she had made herself “intentionally homeless.”
The council claims that Chambers owes £5,000 in rental arrears but she believes the figure is much lower and says there have been numerous errors, including her two-year-old son Meshach not even being on the council’s system. These are arrears that Chambers disputes.
A review into her case will take the standard 56 days, and the council will not budge on its decision.
Lambeth Housing Activists is campaigning for the mother of two young children to be rehoused — temporarily or otherwise — immediately.
In court, she had no legal representation and her requests for a detailed breakdown explaining the arrears have still not been met. She is left struggling to understand her situation.
As a result of seasonal retail work, she says the council was regularly “recalculating” her welfare entitlement, even if the change was just one hour. Suddenly, she felt she was left financially “worse off.”
“I’ve come to learn that trying to be a better you for the sake of your family will leave you worse off in 2017.”
She has been making regular, monthly direct debit payments towards the arrears but at the council’s housing office I witnessed the manager telling her to check her bank statements to make sure the money had been going in.
Chambers said at the time: “I feel like I am being pushed on my face. They should be doing something to help us.”
She says that she had originally turned to the council because she needed extra help, due to being a lone mum. All she wants is to be given some keys so she can “have a sleep and a nice bath.”
All of her possessions remain in the flat she has lived in since 2012.
There was only one radiator in the whole place, despite there being two bedrooms, and Meshach has serious health problems including pneumonia.
The council was made aware when she submitted letters from health visitors and doctors.
Campaign group Lambeth Housing Activists say that Chambers’s situation represents a “fight against the gig economy” and social cleansing.
Long-term Lambeth resident and campaigner Diane had been in a similar situation and told me that in her case she could “see mistakes” in council paperwork including overpayments on both sides. She said: “As long as the figures are jumbled, the council can get away with it. The bottom line is: people suffer.”
Although, in her case, she got the chance to take it to court where the judge dismissed the case.
She adds: “The whole of Lambeth is being pulled down due to gentrification. Six [social housing] estates are being pulled down.”
She says that residents are moved to housing which is much reduced in size and which also ends up being more costly.
While at the housing office, Chambers is speechless when the management informs her that she has just been sent an email in response to her case.
She asks aloud why they cannot speak to her in person here and now. She has been here since 8am and it is nearly lunchtime.
She has also been bounced from one council service to another. Her toddler visibly picks up on his mother’s distress and sobs his heart out at one point.
Chambers says: “Why are they bullying me to pay this? I don’t know if this is a simple error. I will die fighting this £5,000.”
While Chambers was waiting to speak to the manager, I learnt that another woman in a similar situation had turned up the same morning with a suitcase and baby, along with a letter of eviction. She later returned home to barricade herself in against bailiffs.
Chambers is aghast. She never knew she could resist an eviction.
“If I’d have known, I would have put my backside against the door.”
All she was offered that night was a hostel, where she felt “unsafe,” and which only came after two protests, leaving her bouncing between the homes of relatives.
On Friday, activists rallied round her as she went back to her old flat to pick up belongings, and they put up a notice to declare that they were holding an occupation.
But their efforts were thwarted two hours later when a locksmith arrived to remove the notice, and a car and police van came onto the scene.
Diane said police were shouting: “There’s eight of us here and we’ll break the door down!”
The police accused them of “breaking in” and squatting and threatened to arrest everybody, she said.
Last Friday marked the seventh day of her wait for a review outcome.
Following two protests at the housing office, she said social services had offered her £1,500 to help her find temporary accommodation — but was told it was only “half” of what she will need to stay within the borough.
It was all they could offer. Her solicitor has told her that he has still not received paperwork that would shed light on arrears.
Chambers said: “It makes me suspicious. If I’m guilty of arrears — prove it. My solicitor said he doesn’t think [the council] will be giving it to us in a rush and that it is refusing to hand it over.”
All she wants is to be housed back in the flat she had been living in for the last five years, which would otherwise remain empty if it were not full of her belongings.
Meanwhile Chambers’s son’s health is worsening and she is struggling between taking care of him indoors and thinking about “hitting the road” to find housing.
Her eight-year-old daughter Avia has been spending time at friends’ houses and play schemes to “give her a break” from the family’s ordeal.
Campaigners protested once again at Lambeth housing office, where Chambers was informed that keys to longer-term accommodation had been waiting for her since Tuesday.
She was in a state of disbelief. “Lambeth [Council] is pushing me. Is someone being deliberate? Is this out of spite?” she wondered, overwhelmed.
“It claims there’s a property for me — but I’ve had no communication whatsoever.”
Diane branded Lambeth council’s deputy leader Paul McGlone “useless.”
“Council officials are not listening to people — and it’s going on all over England. People are not doing their jobs properly.”
Lambeth council could not be reached for comment at this time.