“Homelessness doesn’t have a face,” says Janet Marsh, “it can happen to anyone, anywhere.” Marsh, 65, from east London, lost her privately rented home in her 50s after her marriage ended, then became ill with epilepsy and arthritis. “People think homelessness is something you’ve done to yourself, there’s stigma and misconception,” she says.
Though Marsh is now living in temporary accommodation in Newham, her housing situation could not contrast more with the popular image of a tenure defined by shoddy, unregulated properties and unscrupulous private landlords. Marsh is a tenant of Local Space, an innovative housing association that uses private finance to buy homes on the open market, refurbishes the properties and leases them back to the council as temporary accommodation. Read the rest of my piece on the Guardian’s housing network.
Some of us count the calories when it comes to food, but how many of us count the kilowatts too? Watch the quirky video above – there’s animation and a jolly opening piano melody too – and check out how Brighton-based Rob Smith, a resident of housing association Affinity Sutton, has developed a carbon calculator for the home.
For seven years, Smith has used an online programme to work out the carbon footprint of everything he uses in the home, so that he can find ways to keep reducing it. Beans on toast, he says, comes in at an energy efficient 95w to prepare, while oven-baked fish and chips come in at 200w. Watch Rob work out why the Champions League takes up less energy than the Europa, and how he’s developing his own, open-source programme, which anyone can use to help them make informed decisions about their carbon lifestyle.
Smith’s story will grace the big screen tomorrow evening at a special screening at the Shortwave Cinema, Bermondsey Square, London. He is among five finalists in a national competition run by Affinity Sutton to encourage residents to share their experiences of how they make a positive contribution to the environment.
The five finalists worked with a specialist social enterprise company to create the films which are being put to the public vote on Twitter and via the Affinity Sutton website. The winner will receive an all expenses paid trip to The Eden Project.
Smith adds: “Over the last few years I have been measuring my energy use and then trying to reduce it. But I found that the calculators online were mostly based on estimates. I wanted to develop one to measure absolutely everything you buy, eat and use. I think a lot of people will find it interesting because it provides a more accurate way of measuring your carbon footprint.”
Other green residents include Jeannie and Eddie, from East Grinstead. After approching their housing officer to see if they could plant some bulbs in some disused space, they launched the Salad Project. Over the last year the residents have planted potatoes, runner beans, French beans, and some herbs. An old dustbin was turned into a water butt by a resident, and there is now a composter for food waste.
Then there’s Phil, from Manchester, who uses a “smart plug” to monitor how much energy appliances are using and Tony, Steph and Brian, from Middlesbrough, who launched a recycling facility on their estate. Christine, Ian and Tom, from Stoke, meanwhile, turned a derelict piece of land into a community garden with wildlife area and community classroom facility.
Can you imagine being so desperate for affordable legal advice that you go on an eight-hour, 300-mile bus trip just to get help? I came across such a case seven years ago; a Welsh man facing eviction from his council-owned cottage when the area was being redeveloped found that the only housing legal aid lawyer willing to take on his case was in West London. So desperate was the man to stay in the cottage he had been born in and so great was his fear of homelessness, he made the trip.
Although this tale is from 2004, it highlights the vital safety net legal aid (when the state pays all or part of the legal costs for those who cannot afford them) provides to society’s most vulnerable. The number of solicitors who carry out legal aid work have been falling in recent years (hence the Welsh man’s 300-mile journey) thanks to uncompetitive pay rates, hours of unpaid work and red tape. But now, under government plans to cut the legal aid budget by £350m, the situation could get worse for those wanting to access affordable legal help. It is estimated that around 500,000 people could lose out on legal advice amid the planned cuts as the government wants to remove clinical negligence, family law, education, non-asylum immigration and housing cases from legal aid’s scope.
Today is Justice for All day, with marches and petitions planned by a coalition of 3,000 charities campaigning against the cuts and you can also oppose the cuts at social action campaign site 38 Degrees.
The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, has also launched Sound Off For Justice, a campaign for alternative reforms that it says will save more than the government’s own proposals and protect legal aid funding. The campaign encourages the public to demand the government reconsider its plans and look at the alternative measures which it says would save £384m in the next 12 months. You can record a voicemail for Justice Secretary Ken Clarke against the cuts here. The campaign is supported by, amongst others, housing charity Shelter, the Refugee Council, lone parent charity Gingerbread and housing association Eaves.
Here’s the campaign’s latest video:
There’s something rotten going on when an endless glut of super-injunctions protect the privacy, reputations and careers of the super-rich but a lone parent, for example, is denied basic access to his children because he simply can’t get the afford the advice.
Amid the vibrations of doom and whiff of ennui surrounding anything stamped with the politicised big society seal, a new campaign tagged in plain terms as a grassroots effort to improve a neighbourhood is a bit of an attention-grabber.
Shockingly, no one’s claiming it’s part of some shiny new renaissance in volunteering that will allow the state to retreat on the sly, but a tried and tested idea, backed by an organisation that’s been doing similar, citizen-led work for years.
Quick – Dave’s on the line – he wants his big society back!
Today’s launch of Shoreditch Citizens – part of well-established community organisers programme London Citizens – follows an audit of 200 organisations in the east London area, plus 500 meetings to identify local issues that matter and train community leaders.
The Shoreditch arm is the latest chapter for London Citizens, an alliance of 160 groups representing faith institutions universities and schools, trade unions and community groups; the founding member is The East London Communities Organisation (Telco), the UK’s largest independent community alliance launched in 1996.
Shoreditch Citizens has high hopes in aiming to join forces to impact on poverty, poor housing and gang crime – around 75% of the area’s children live below the poverty line and four in 10 adults are unemployed. The campaign, funded by the Mayor’s Fund for London and £270,000 over three years from the community investment arm of Barclays Capital, also wants an alternative to the education maintenance allowance (EMA) to encourage young people to stay in education. There is also a plan to make Shoreditch a “Living Wage” zone, where everyone who works in the area can be sure to earn a decent amount to live on. The Living Wage campaign was first launched by London Citizens in 2001, which says it has won over £40 million of Living Wages, lifting over 6,500 families out of working poverty.
By December 2012, the Shoreditch engagement programme aims to train 300 community leaders from 30 civil institutions and hopes to impact on up to 15,000 families. All this is nothing if not ambitious, but if you don’t have goals…
Self-help housing can help solve employment as well as housing problems – so here’s a belated nudge to a piece by Kate Murray, regular Social Issue blogger, which explores the below-the-radar world of community housing projects in Society Guardian.
Jane Forster is a realist. ‘Homeless people with chaotic lifestyles aren’t the most attractive tenants to private landlords,’ she says.
It’s a realism that sometimes seems to be lacking among the policy-makers planning a bigger role for the private rented sector in providing homes for those most in need. The government plans to allow councils to discharge their duty under homelessness legislation with the offer of a home in the private sector in its consultation on the reform of social housing – whether or not the applicants agree.
The move, ministers say, will prevent applicants insisting on being offered social housing and will mean would-be tenants spend far less time in temporary accommodation waiting for the offer of a home. But are we really ready for a big expansion in the use of the private sector to house homeless people?
Can tenants, who are often vulnerable, simply be placed in the private sector and left to go on with it?
The experience of people like Jane Forster suggests that we will need to see a concerted effort to make the homeless tenant/private sector match-up work.
Forster is income generation officer at Mansfield District Council. Mansfield has been running an impressive scheme which offers dedicated support to both tenants and private sector landlords and which has just been a finalist in the Guardian’s public services awards.
The Multi Agency Rented Solution scheme – or MARS – is, despite its name, a down-to-earth solution to the problem of tenancy breakdown. Applicants from the council’s waiting list are offered help in getting money from a credit union for advance rent payments and then given ongoing support to help them stay in their new home. Landlords too have access to liaison officers who help them
The results are impressive. Since it was launched, it has helped some 120 people into a new private sector home, brought 48 empty properties back into use and cut repeat homelessness by 63 per cent. The scheme has been such a success, it is now being rolled out as a social enterprise.
But it’s not an easy fix: making an initiative like this work demands commitment. As Forster puts it: ‘The X factor is tenancy support. That’s what makes it work, when people are vulnerable and don’t have all the skills to live their life, they need ongoing support.’ Mansfield is not the only housing provider doing valuable work in this area.
Look Ahead Housing and Care, for example, has been a strong advocate of the need to make good use of the private sector in housing the ex-residents of homelessness hostels in the capital. Its approach has involved preparing residents for a move into the private rented sector and offering ongoing support as they settle in.
Landlords benefit too, getting the reassurance of proper assessments of their new tenants plus ongoing help, like mediation should the landlord/tenant relationship start to break down.
When it launched its plans for councils to make greater use of the private sector to house those on their waiting lists, the government said only 7 per cent of homeless applicants currently accepted a home in the private sector, compared with 70 per cent of cases which ended with an offer of social housing. We could see a big shift in these proportions once the new rules come in.
The element of compulsion in the government’s proposals doesn’t appeal. But it’s true that with a dire shortage of social housing, the private sector can and should be seen as offering a viable option for many people who would otherwise struggle to get a home. But the approach needs to be backed by proper, ongoing support. Otherwise we risk pushing some of the most vulnerable in our society into homes they will struggle to sustain.
Sandi Hughes, 67, describes herself as “a nan with a kick” who not only DJs in her hometown of Liverpool, but is on a mission to get more older people online. Here she describes being what she calls a “digi-elder”:
I’m a digi-elder, I use the Internet and am open to new technology – but it doesn’t always go right, like the time I got ‘lost’ on YouTube.
I was in a friend’s kitchen, there were six of us chatting, and my friend told me to get on his computer and find some tunes for us to listen to. I opened YouTube and typed in ‘Missy Elliott’ and everyone made comments on how great the bass sounded and wanted more. When the song finished, I highlighted her next song, and then the next one, and on the next one she sounded a bit different. I clicked on the next one – and realised it wasn’t Missy Elliot singing the song, so I clicked on the next one and each time I clicked on a Missy Elliott song these different girls were singing and the words were getting changed and the visuals were getting more and more raunchy, and my friend said “why are you playing that type of music?” and “what are you listening to – GET IT OFF!” he shouted.
The more I tried to get another Missy Elliott song, the more unclothed the girls were getting and the melody and ambience sounded more like an adult film. My friend shouts “I DON’T WANT THAT FILTH ON MY COMPUTER”, and leans over and flicks the power switch off, creating a blank screen and bringing silence into the kitchen.
As tech-friendly as I think I am, why didn’t I think of doing that?
I first bought myself a Mac when I was 62, to invest in the skills I had learned while using analogue equipment for a video production course. I concentrated on iMovie and iPhoto software which were simple to follow and easy to use. I have yet to play games on my Mac though – my grandson who is 20 has given me his old Nintendo games console…it’s still in my cupboard!
I was DJing for a project called Giants in the Hood which a group of artists from Helsinki held during Liverpool’s 2010 Biennial. I loved it, and had so much fun mixing vinyl and CDs and choosing tunes that kept people dancing for almost two hours. I was aware of how surprised people were at me being able to do this at 67.
Using technology, remembering which button to press can be a problem but regular practice helps. You could say that our memories have always been in analogue, but now our memories have to become digital, so we can remember everything more accurately all the time, because of the way it is fed and kept into computers.
Elders need tailor-made courses on how to get involved and connected to the Internet, support to improve their skills and protection against things like scams, identity theft and fraud.
So many things are digital now; the gas man gets me writing my name with a piece of metal onto a metal box with a plastic screen on it. “It’s called a digital signature,” he tells me. There’s mobile phones, laptops, games, video and stills cameras, Facebook, digital television, online banking – you can pay bills on the internet now, without the need to handle money – you can do your shopping in most places on the net now.
We need to be able to stay connected to our younger generation, with social networking you can keep in touch with your kids, grandkids, mates on Facebook, Twitter, Skype.
With the Internet you can access and share the sense of wonder when you just push a button and enter a place instantly that could be the other side of the world. A lot of us have a passionate desire to always want to know more, and technology and the Internet does this for me. It fulfills my need to push my creative boundaries, offers easy access to information, education, creativity and is a platform for games. It’s hard to loose stuff in a computer.
N u learn nu kwik n e z spellings of sertan wrds specialy in mob fonz n fcbk.
Politicians should pay attention to digital inclusion issues among elders because of the potential that technology and the Internet has to improve life. They could make a real commitment to listening to, valuing and investing in the elders, socially disadvantaged families, and physically challenged people who can’t access it.
There’s a big gulf between those who are ready and have access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not. There are confident users of it and those who are not – but the gap will close when my generation dies, because newer generations will be born into it. Reminds me a bit of the confusion when money changed over to decimal currency in the sixties!
Internet access should be a human right. I’d like to see free broadband for pensioners, or at least a subsidised package. It’s the future – but not as we all know it, so you need to get to know it!
If you want a bite-sized glimpse of social housing setting out its stall ahead of the spending review, scroll down to the end of this post to see the Society Guardian pullout that I commissioned and which is published today. It echoes many of the issues being aired at the National Housing Federation annual conference that started in Birmingham today.
By a marvellous quirk of publishing fate, it can even be read by social housing’s alleged fat cats without fear of criticism as it had to go to press well before housing minister Grant Shapps officially put them in the austerity spotlight. Even more quaintly, not only is it a Shapps-free zone, but it’s also not yet online – hence the old school PDF format I’ve resorted to here.
Click on page 1 for a description by ex-Inside Housing editor Kate Murray of how the rising demand for homes, predicted budget, reduction in housebuilding and a plethora of other regime changes has left the aﬀordable housing sector facing an unprecedented challenges.
Check p2-3 for a feature by housing specialist Chloe Stothart on how social landlords are making it easier for their tenants to find employment. There are also features by Mark Gould and Anita Pati on how associations are working in partnership on training their tenants and how other organisations have launched neighbourhood contracts to improve their areas or schemes to boost the inclusion of marginalised tenants.
The last page is worth a read, given the announcement today of the expansion in personal budgets – the scheme that allows patients more control over their care. The feature focuses on the work of landlord Look Ahead on the personalisation agenda, boosting choice for vulnerable tenants so they’re regarded as “customers” with real choice.
So even if you’re rattled by the telephone number pay cheques of social housing’s highest earners, there’s still much to be admired in the sector, not least, as I’ve stated in the pullout’s intro, its far-reaching social and economic impact.