By Saara Jaffery-Roberts
- Lambeth tenants in rent arrears offered housing in Lincoln
- Council under fire for failing to support hardest hit
- Public speak of ‘thousands of pounds’ of rent arrears
- One woman tells meeting she has only £5 per week left for food
- Brixton Foodbank feeding 200 people per week
Hundreds of Lambeth residents packed into Lambeth Town Hall last week to discuss the painful impact of benefits cuts on the poorest people in the borough.
The highly-charged public meeting, organised by Brixton Blog, heard from residents who were “terrified” by the rent arrears they had already built up since the introduction of the so-called Bedroom Tax last year.
Lambeth council also came under fire by speaker after speaker for failing to do enough to help those worst hit, and refusing to rule out the eviction of tenants who fail to keep up with their rent because of the cuts.
The panel included Cllr Pete Robbins, cabinet member for housing, alongside Unite Community organiser Pilgrim Tucker, Ron Hollis of Lambeth Tenant’s Council and Elizabeth Maytom, representing the Brixton and Norwood Foodbank,
The meeting comes in the wake of the dramatic government enforced Welfare Reform Act, which has seen changes to a range of public services, noticeably the introduction of the bedroom tax and the new benefit cap, among others. Lambeth has the highest number of jobseekers in London and the second highest number of Housing Benefit claimants. It has been estimated that one in six residents in the borough will lose income due to the cuts. With these benefit reforms in full force, residents are now feeling the bitter blow.
The main areas of discussion were the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, housing, evictions and disability. Community solutions, such as the Brixton and Norwood Foodbank were then brought to light as avenues through which residents might support each other, and as ways that people can move forward.
The talk began with residents voicing their accounts of how the cuts have affected them, and it quickly became apparent that the situation is critical. One Lambeth resident explained how she has lived in her home for 27 years. After the bedroom tax and bills, she is left with £5.65 for food and other expenses a week.
Another resident who lives in the Loughborough Estate expressed how she was hit with the bedroom tax after her mother passed away. With all her money now going on the tax, she is left with practically nothing and is relying on food banks for food. She said that she is “terrified” by her situation and feels helpless.
Residents strongly expressed that the wave of welfare reforms are working acutely to their disadvantage. The combination of the bedroom tax and the benefit cap are making life extremely difficult for many people. The bedroom tax, which is anticipated to affect 4,000 households in the borough alone, means that hundreds of people are expected to downsize their property. However, a lack of suitable smaller accommodation in Lambeth leaves many people with mounting rent arrears. This means that some residents are forced to relocate out of the borough. For example, one resident who has lived here for 30 years, has a debilitating illness and over £1000 in rent arrears, has been told that she has to leave London altogether and move as far away as Lincoln.
The effects felt by residents with a disability were also a topic of major concern. One resident described how “it is like being squeezed between a rock and a hard place” and that there are currently a plethora of horror stories in Lambeth due to the bedroom tax and introduction of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), replacing the Disability Living Allowance (DLA).
However, central to this meeting was to discuss what constructive and productive measures can and are being taken at this time of crisis.
Acknowledging how difficult the system can be, Cllr Pete Robbins urged people to come to the council for practical support, and said that they can generally help with bedroom tax advice and services. He said that the help is there if people engage with the council.
Practical solutions, such as the Brixton and Norwood Foodbanks were discussed. Representative of the foodbanks Elizabeth Maytom explained that the work they are doing is “vital” to help people in crisis. The foodbanks, which opened two years ago, operate by giving clients a voucher which is redeemable for three day emergency food.
Since the centres opened, they have seen a sharp increase in the number of vulnerable people using the service: over the last 6 months alone, the centre has been assisting 200 people per week. When you compare this to the ten to twelve people being fed when it opened, the severity of the situation becomes clear. When asked about their work, she said: “The need is now, tomorrow and next week. It is an immediate service for the people that are starving now. It is really important that people know about these foodbanks, because we not only feed people, we have an open door policy with advisors to provide help, advice and support about other issues, such as evictions and bedroom tax”.
“Some people, understandably, put their head in the sand, or are unable to access our service. But we are here. If you know anybody that needs us, get in touch.
Ron Hollis of Lambeth Tenants Council praised the foodbanks, and explained that people are often too frightened to go to the council. He did however voice support of individuals doing “their best” within Lambeth.
Community organizer Pilgrim Tucker from Unite similarly put forward that the union is providing advice, support, training and resources to people in need. She also stated that Lambeth residents should use the recent victory of Lewisham hospital as inspiration that, despite the odds, things can change.
Other residents showed their support for the “positive and strategic” alternate forms of support and resistance that are active in the borough, which, many concurred, have a real reach to the people most affected by the benefit reforms. Furthermore, the recent collaboration between the council and the community to call off the eviction of Charmain Lodge should be looked upon as a victory.
In a situation where many feel isolated and vulnerable, the meeting provided a space where people could voice their difficulties and fears together. Simultaneously, it shone a light on what is being done on practical, creative and innovative levels to offer support and solutions by a wide range of actors in the borough.
Follow Saara Jaffery-Roberts on Twitter @Saarajr