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Ariam come home

In the last part of his features mini-series GLYN ROBBINS reveals the story of one migrant woman who escaped domestic violence only to by made homeless by an uncaring system

Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach's 1966 television film about homelessness, shocked the nation. It shone a light on the bleak conditions, moral judgmentalism and stigma suffered by those falling through the net of the welfare state.

Behind the politics, policy analysis and statistics of our broken system are real people's lives blighted by a crisis that's taking us back to the 1960s and beyond.

Ariam came to England from war-ravaged Eritrea in 2009. She married a man she barely knew and quickly became the victim of an abusive and violent relationship.

In 2010, this culminated in a serious physical assault that led to Ariam fleeing her home.

She went to a women's refuge, then to Tower Hamlets Council where she registered as homeless.

As the mother of a one-year-old, Ariam was entitled to temporary accommodation - a two-bedroom flat in a former council block.

For the first month, Ariam and her baby had to sleep on the floor because there was no money for furniture. The rent was £330 a week.

The rent for a similar home in the council's stock is £130. Ariam lived in the flat for two years and was reliant on housing benefit, so the net cost to the public purse was £10,800.

In 2012, Ariam was offered a council flat, but on visiting the block she was scared. The area was unfamiliar, intimidating and removed from the small but vital network of support she'd established.

She has a medical condition that intensified these anxieties. With limited English and no-one to advise her, Ariam refused the offer.

It was, she says, the biggest mistake of her life. In perverse, Kafkaesque language, the state now regarded Ariam as "intentionally homeless."

Ariam tried to explain her predicament to the council, but it was't listening any more.

Nor did it offer a translator or take any account of the trauma Ariam had suffered, despite a high-profile campaign claiming to support victims of domestic violence. From the council's perspective - with 4,500 other families waiting for a two-bedroom flat - Ariam had created her own problem and was no longer its responsibility.

The brutal wheels of the system began to turn in July 2013 when Ariam was evicted by court bailiffs from her temporary accommodation. After a two-week stay in a grotty B&B she was placed in a hostel run by a religious charity on the outskirts of London.

The regime was austere and paternalistic, with a whiff of the Victorian values applied to "fallen women."

In December, Ariam was expelled for allegedly breaking the rules.

Ariam had no alternative but to return to Tower Hamlets Council which initially refused to help, but was eventually compelled to do so by child protection regulations.

For the last three months Ariam has been sharing a bed with her two children in a single room of a B&B costing £300 a week.

There are 22 rooms, all occupied by homeless families at a cost to the public of £6,600 a week, or £343,200 a year.

Ariam will be evicted again on April 2. She has nowhere to go, but is resigned to finding a private rented flat outside London, possibly in Coventry where she has a friend.

She can't afford to live in London where housing benefit doesn't cover the exorbitant rents and landlords demand up to £3,000 as a deposit. Ariam remains optimistic, but her children have never had a home of their own and she worries that the strain of constantly moving is taking its toll on them all.

Ariam's story is one of thousands. Shelter, the charity created in reaction to Cathy Come Home, says that 80,000 children are condemned to the limbo of temporary accommodation.

It is unlawful for families to be housed in this way for more than six weeks, but the practice has increased by 800 per cent since the Con-Dems were elected.

The financial and human costs are enormous, but the solution is simple. We need to build more council houses. Until we do, people like Ariam and her kids will continue to fall through the ever-widening gaps of the welfare state.

Ariam's story illustrates the issues covered in the last five weeks of this series. The Con-Dems are using the camouflage of "austerity" to finish the job of smashing public services and moving housing provision wholly into the private market.

Three decades of under-investment and denigration have seen council housing wither on the vine. People like Ariam are paying the immediate price, but we all pay in the end.

Increasing reliance on private renting is destabilising our communities, making housing ever more unaffordable and sub-standard. Property speculation is feeding on scarcity and state subsidies, while reflating the bubble that burst to disastrous effect in 2008.

Caught in the vice of benefit cuts and rising rents, poor people are being socially cleansed from parts of our cities. Far from causing the housing crisis, immigrants are far more likely to be its victims. We are witnessing a downward spiral that is fertile ground for racist scapegoating and blaming the poor for being poor. Between now and the next election, the Labour Party needs to decide. Does it care about people like Ariam or not?


Ariam's name has been changed to protect her identity.


This is the last in the current series, but you can follow Glyn's writing on his blog - Housing is Boring


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