The cliff edge of despair: our Oulton estate is a homelessness crisis in waiting

One of today’s top stories is a black mark against our country: nearly 600 homeless people died last year, and there has been a 24% rise in the deaths of homeless people since 2013. Shocking statistics and entirely preventable tragedies. The people behind the numbers are not just rough sleepers, but also people staying in emergency night shelters and hostels. The Office of National Statistics has reported that more than half of these deaths have been caused by the “diseases of despair”: suicide, drink problems or drug abuse.

If we take into account the wider definition of homelessness – i.e. people living in temporary bed and breakfasts or sleeping on friends’ sofas – the number is likely to be much, much higher. After all, mental health problems and the “diseases of despair” do not go away just because you have a friend’s sofa to sleep on rather than a hostel bed or park bench. As of March 2018, the UK had 79,880 families living in temporary accommodation– a 64% increase since 2010. 

And what about those on the cusp of homelessness? What about those, such as the families in our Oulton estate, who are in a position of protracted housing insecurity with eviction looming on the horizon? I say this not as a means to jump on the bandwagon of a serious and sobering news story, but to join the dots of where we have got to as a society when it comes to housing and mental health.

On the cusp of homelessness

Last week Pemberstone sent around a letter of apparent reassurance to tenants – timed, as always, at the 11thhour (i.e. just before the Planning Committee meet to judge the application in January). It offers little in the way of detail, just a few italicised quotations from their May newsletter

For residents who have the oxymoronically-labelled “Assured Shorthold Tenancy” agreements it offered just one new titbit: if planning permission is given, Pemberstone will give a two-month window for tenants to extend their leases for two more years. A whole two years! No mention of rent rates during that period, no buffer against eviction in the end. 

What does that mean in practice? Three things spring immediately to mind:

1. The only power this gives tenants is to sign up to extending their own insecurity.There are no guarantees that families will be able to stay near their social and economic safety nets (family, friends, jobs, schools) beyond the two years. 

2. The truth about (un)“natural turnover”. Pemberstone have proposed a “phased” development model, which requires vacant homes at each stage of the process. Pemberstone’s exclamations that they expect “natural turnover” to free up these houses is disingenuous. By putting in this planning proposal in the first place (with its inevitable evictions), Pemberstone are creating an environment of acute insecurity, which pushes many people out – some long before demolition day. This is not “natural” turnover no matter how you repackage it.

3. Current residents may be able to get the new “affordable homes” – if they can wait until 2034. Pemberstone have also outlined that redevelopment may take up to 15 years, with no guarantee about which houses will be built first. Even if we take Pemberstone’s proposals at face value that *some* current residents *might* have preferential access to the “affordable houses” on the estate through a housing association, there is no indication when they will be built over that 15-year period. If it is left until the end, then there is no chance that the existing tenants will have a chance to claim them, because that means up to 15 years of families surviving on sofas, in temporary accommodation, or maybe being moved elsewhere by the council. In the end it all means that the community is well and truly broken. Will there be legal recourse to protest any delay once planning permission is given? I doubt it. As long as the development is underway, the landlord will at least be meeting their “affordable housing” obligation on paper.

The cliff edge of despair

Reactions to this letter within the community have been mixed, with some grateful for a small bit of breathing space (pushing off homelessness worries from 2019 to 2021). Others are furious that this disingenuous letter has come just before the Leeds City Council Planning Committee meet to decide residents’ fates, as if to pretend that there is some security for residents on the horizon. Overall, community responses can be characterised as ones of “despair”, which leads us back to the headlines.

Today’s story of the shocking rates of death among homeless people in Britain is part of a bigger story about the protracted housing insecurity and situations of despair that people face long before having to sleep on a park bench or in an emergency hostel. It’s not a giant logical leap to see the mental health and substance abuse impacts our eviction threat is already having on our community turn into the range of homelessness tragedies that dominant the news cycle this week.

As we keep saying on this website and elsewhere on social media, Leeds City Council have the chance to break this cycle of structural violence – which is not just enabled by Pemberstone’s actions, but also by years of the government’s social housing inertia. Turn all of our homes into protected social housing, and prevent dozens more families falling off the cliff edge of despair.

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