To whom it may concern;
My name is Simon Mason, I have been a resident of Hackney since November 1999, a period of over 14 years, during which I have witnessed many changes in the borough, many very positive, sadly also many which seem to reflect a similar, ‘cultural’ integration/polarization, right across the country.
In his book, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, Iain Sinclair, author and long time resident of Stoke Newington describes the place I have attempted to make my home, thus,
“In Hackney, perhaps more than anywhere else in Britain, or even Europe, the messy, unruly inner city has become a desirable commodity. Artists and bankers, squatters and politicians, punks and estate agents, in the last five decades all have moved to Hackney in large numbers, in search of excitement, kindred spirits, affordable property. London’s centre of gravity has shifted accordingly. When I first moved to Hackney 15 years ago, to Stoke Newington, by then a relatively well-known and gentrified bit of the borough, most people I knew in richer parts of London had still never heard of my area. Now most of them live there.”
I find myself nodding my head sagely in agreement with this, concise but fundamentally accurate assessment; indeed, I can say that since I moved here, I have met and befriended people who fit perfectly into the demographic described above. It is one of the reasons I find living in here, such a positive experience. I have a 5 year old daughter called Tabitha and feel her daily existence here in N16, is in itself an education. She was born in April 2008 in Homerton hospital, where both mother and baby received wonderful care throughout 36 hours of labour and eventual caesarean birth. The maternity department, while clearly, well-versed in their daily duties, were all extraordinarily wonderful, patient, professional and reassuring, not just toward ‘mum’ but also for this first-time, nervous wreck, of a father as he paced up and down feeling, at times, as inadequate as is humanly possible.
A good friend of mine and fellow long term Stoke-Newington resident, The reverend Niall Weir of St Pauls West Hackney, once pointed out to me over a lunch ‘date’ that, in his opinion,
“Of course you’re not really a parent until you’ve been to A/E with your child at three in the morning are you?”
He was of course, attempting to be humorous, yet his words resonated, reminding me of the adage
‘Many a true word spoke in jest’.
I told him to not give up the day job, yet laughed aloud because on some level, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with him. Tabitha and I had indeed, recently been rushed into the hospital of her birth after a particularly distressing incident at her home, when her 6 month old paws had pulled the contents of a bubbling gravy boat onto her lap.
Any parent reading this can surely imagine the ensuing sense of horror as my baby girl started screaming in pain as I dialled 999 while holding her tiny body under the cold tap and trying to remember my address as the operator attempted to calm me down and extract the required information for the ambulance crew. They arrived within minutes to deliver us to Homerton, where yet again, the care was outstanding and primarily due to their expertise, I am happy to report there was no lasting harm to Tabitha. ‘Gravy-gate’ as I now refer to it, possibly had a more pronounced affect on her mummy and daddy than it did her!
So far, so ‘normal’, such is the experience of parenting, no matter where we chose to call home, it’s what we pay our taxes for right? Right indeed, except that it is beginning to now look like I will be unable to call Hackney my home for much longer.
Sadly, Tabitha’s mother and I, split up shortly before we celebrated our daughters 2nd birthday. We had been together for over ten years at that point, but we did, despite the many, still simmering, unresolved ‘issues’ that occur, post-breakup, ensure that both of us were present and perhaps, more importantly, friendly towards each other at that birthday party and indeed, the 3 subsequent ones she’s enjoyed since.
(It goes without saying that I wish her mother and I had been able to resolve our differences, sadly, this was not to be and I walked out of the family home after an argument that clearly distressed our daughter, more than it did us. Tabitha has not had to witness her parents shouting at each other since ok, once or twice, maybe, but we are human!).
Her 6th birthday in April, will be no different aside from the fact it will require a bit more planning as she and the many friends she will no doubt invite, are all “big girls now daddy”, ‘big’ Hackney girls to boot and Hackney girls, no matter what age, want to have fun! As her parents, we will of course do our best despite currently experiencing the same serious financial difficulties, many other low-income parents also currently are.
So my daughter has a beautiful and affordable home to grow up in, it goes without saying (or does it?) that when my marriage ended, I signed the tenancy over to her mother, what kind of man would kick his kid out onto the the street and thus into the ‘care’ of the local authority in order to avoid…?
The first half of this letter, seeks only to illustrate the understandable devotion I feel to my daughter and my affection for the area I have made home for 14 years. It’s where I have made long term and dearly held, friendships, it’s where Tabitha goes to school; it’s where we play and sometimes where we have cried. And if you care to find out a little bit more about me, you will see, it is where I came so close to dying.
Yet I find myself now just about clinging onto the outskirts of N16, (Stamford Hill to be precise) but whenever possible, trying to help others extract themselves from the nightmare I have described if you follow the above link. This is my community, where once, I was, at best an annoyance, nowadays, I’d like to think I ‘contribute’, rather than contaminate, or at least, try my best to do so!
The remainder of this ‘letter’ details what happened to this particular father and I think illustrates perfectly the lack of support available. I do not seek to engender pity, nor do I wish to point an accusatory finger at the ‘system’. However, after receiving a phone call from the ‘system’ yesterday, I feel I have no choice but to speak out.
By leaving the family home, it transpires I made myself, in the words of ALL local authorities
In other words, they have no obligation to provide accommodation unless one is considered to be ‘vulnerable’.
What constitutes ‘vulnerable’ is, of course open to debate, suffice to say and I should point out at the same time, I’m (sort of) happy to say, I did not fall into the category of ‘vulnerable’, at least not in the same way, I once did. In short, 20 years of chronic drug and alcohol abuse, ended in 2006, a day at a time since then, I have managed to remain clean and sober.
So, I leave the family home, I am in full time employment, surely you just go and rent somewhere else right? Problem was/is, I didn’t have the thick end of £2000 rattling about in my pockets, didn’t then, certainly don’t now!
So, like many people in these circumstances, the next move was actually a friend’s sofa, then another friend’s spare room, then other friends flat while they were away for a few months. Then another spare room, then another and another, then a privately rented flat until the rent was raised by 40% because,
“This area is very sought after now, the property developers have told us to get as much as we can from all 150 of the places they own” (I’ll leave you to your own thoughts on that last quote.)
So it’s back to yet another spare room in a friends place until I can get a deposit together to rent somewhere of my own. But sadly, like many people, I still don’t have £2000 to spare.
I’d like to point out, that throughout this period of 2 years or so, as I was since I got clean, I am in full time (badly paid) employment and making sure I never miss a single monthly payment to Tabitha’s mum. More importantly, to Tabitha and I at least, I continue to have her 2/3 nights per weeks, no matter where I’m staying. It’s not easy and after a couple of years she’s beginning to think daddy’s job is professional flat-sitter, but we manage, I’m still working so we can survive. Of course I cannot save a single penny, or indeed make any headway into reducing the overdraft at the bank. Again, I am far from alone in this situation, not that Mr Cameron and chums give a f**k of course, it’s not something they have any experience of is it? Besides, they’ve seemingly decided to come after the less fortunate rather than turn their attention to the corporations who prop up their political systems..*gets off soapbox*
In essence, just like most of ‘us’ in times of austerity, I keep on keeping on, 2013 arrives, I don’t know about you, but I wish it hadn’t. By now, I’ve notched up 12 different addresses in just over 3 years.
2013, decided it’s not going to be very nice, by July of that year three of my closest friends die within the space of six weeks, my physical and mental health deteriorates rapidly, I then, in quick succession, lose my job, my girlfriend and my home.
I have plenty of offers of sofas to sleep on etc, it is only my ridiculous sense of ‘pride’ that see’s me sleeping in my car before I finally have a nervous breakdown of some kind, collapse onto the floor and remember nothing of the next two days, until find myself sitting in my GP’s surgery, while he and one of my best mates decide whether or not I should be sectioned, as they fear I am at risk of doing something ‘serious’.
I go to Hackney Council for help, I don’t know about you, but I’d say that sadly, I have, at this point. once again, fallen into the category of being ‘vulnerable’.
Sadly, Hackney disagree, despite being presented with supporting letters from My GP, Tabitha’s mothers GP, her school headmistress, a concerned worker at a homeless persons unit I am attending and my old friend the Reverend Weir. They all clearly state a concern for my wellbeing while at the same time, stating that they are witness to my shared parenting and associated needs to allow this to continue.
I am sitting in the reception area at Hackney town hall, waiting to be ‘seen’. I present myself and my letters to the obviously utterly uninterested man who’s called my number. He looks at the documents as if they were discarded betting slips, that is, until he sees the letter from Rev Weir, embossed as it is with the name and address of the church and parish he oversees. What happens next, surprises me, to say the least.
“Is this your church? Do you have Jesus Christ in your life Mr Mason?”
I should point out that I most definitely do not have JC, or indeed any other formal religious ‘god’ in my life and that my friendship with Niall is entirely based on the relationship we have formed as both of us have endeavoured to help members of our community in our own particular fashion, over the past 7 years or so, I’ll leave it at that.
I look up at my god-bothering ‘friend’
“Do you have Jesus Christ in your life? He will help us”
He repeats himself and suddenly I am a convert.
“Umm, yeah, yeah, as a matter of fact, I do, big-time, why?”
He leans across the table,
“Then I will help, you, I will get you in to see the duty manager, he is a man of god too, he will ‘try’ to help you.”
I sit there in stunned silence trying to comprehend what I think has just transpired until a couple of hours later, I am sitting in front of the duty manager, who also seems very impressed that I am on speaking terms with Jesus.
He casts an eye over my paperwork, then glances up at me,
“I think we might be able to help, but can you help us, we are all being cared for by Jesus Christ.”
Now, call me cynical, maybe even deluded and let’s not forget that this scenario is taking place less than two weeks after my GP was considering having me sectioned under the mental health act, but I’m getting the strong impression that the duty manager of Hackney Housing is perhaps suggesting he is open to a ‘bribe’, strictly in the name of Jesus Christ of course.
This would certainly not be an unprecedented situation; Hackney council workers have a long history of corruption, particularly the housing section, as exposed by the following investigation from a few years ago into claims of
- property issues, including selling-off of public buildings, demolition of heritage properties and misuse of land;
- abuse of grants to develop controlled parking zones and other parking restrictions;
- waste of publicly-funded computer equipment;
- bribery, corruption and election fraud;
- cashing of cheques from foot ware companies for use of the Council logo and subsequent denial that any such deal was struck;
- unauthorised disposal of public assets;
- use of manipulated CVs disguising nationality, age, previous criminal records and undesirable employments;
- acting as political advisors elsewhere, while off sick;
- financial abuse of the Borough’s residents;
- abusing their positions to benefit family and friends;
- contract irregularities and breaches of standing orders associated with new tower block developments;
- financial regulations breaches in grant funding the Criminal Assistance Bank (CAB) and other local organisations;
- Falsely claiming to benefit the electors of Hackney.
Just as I am about to consider my response while at the same time wishing I had some sort of hidden camera/recording device about my person, his phone rings.
That’ll be his personal phone, not his ‘work’ phone which is sitting on the desk in front of us.
He mutters, as he quickly checks to see if I am observing, I pretend to be interested in an out of date poster on the wall.
“Yes, yes, this is he, yes, come, come, just come straight through, I can see you now.”
He again looks up at me with a quizzical smile,
I just stare at him and shrug my shoulders as the people he was clearly on the phone to, enter pushing a baby in it’s buggy, into the room, they are obviously of the same nationality and ‘god fearing’ persuasion as the duty manager, they have their ‘symbols’ proudly displayed around their necks. They are ‘clients’ of Hackney Housing as I am, yet appear to have the duty managers personal phone number. It’s taken me a nervous breakdown and nearly five hours waiting in the town hall to get this far, they’ve apparently got him on bloody speed dial!
“I’m afraid I can’t help you Mr Mason, you have the right to appeal of course, and if you want to wait outside I will get someone to see you who will explain that process to you, goodbye”
I leave them to ‘action’ whatever it is Jesus has given the heavenly nod to and return to the main hall, where a few hours later, after having given a verbal statement to summarise again my situation, I am informed that, the duty manager was correct in his decision and they have no responsibility to help me. I am then given photocopies outlining the appeal process, after which I leave.
A few months later my appeal is dismissed and I receive a phone call from Hackney to confirm their decision, again, what follows leaves me somewhat troubled.
The man on the phone starts to tell me in his ‘opinion’ the 2 bed privately rented ex-council flat I have moved in to, is
No shit Sherlock?
I explain to him that due to the kindness of the landlady and generosity of family and friends, I managed to secure my first tenancy in nearly three years, at a monthly rent, actually much less than anything else available within the locality. I went on to say that, having a secure roof over my head, again for the first time in years, was singularly the most significant improvement in my life and without which, I have no idea how I would have coped.
I am, still signed off work by my GP as I await some sort of therapy to address the meltdown I experienced a few months ago, the waiting list, is of course lengthy and I have attempted to protect what remains of my sanity by attending numerous self-help fellowships in order to preserve my, almost, 8 years of unbroken sobriety, despite many, many, days when the thoughts of ‘just giving up’ have been with me from the second my eyes have opened. I have, of course, continued to be a daddy to Tabitha and made the best of this little flat, she has her own room, which I have attempted to make as comfortable as possible for her, she stays with me 2/3 times a week, as she always has.
The man on the phone then suggests, despite having signed a 12 month tenancy agreement, I should move a mile or so up the road, where it would be possible to rent more cheaply.
I point out that this would move me out of Hackney and into the next borough; he seems unconcerned and then goes on to ask me to give him a breakdown of my finances.
I explain this situation to him and the inherent difficulties of being unemployed and being a good dad, a situation exacerbated because I do not receive any of the child benefit despite the fact I care for my daughter as often as I do. I explain I am teaching her to swim and that when she is with me, I obviously have to feed her and when the weather is against us and Clissold Park not an option, I take her to the indoor play area. Hardly puts me in the Bernie Ecclestone category when it comes to spoiling our kids does it?
He then again attempts to persuade me to move out of the borough, going as far as providing the addresses of some properties available to rent in Tottenham, to which I respond by asking him how I would walk Tabitha to school 3 days a week from there?
What he then says, is quite possibly, one of the most insensitive and hurtful things anyone has ever said to me and trust me, I’m no stranger to that sort of thing.
“Well, clearly, Mr Mason, given the high cost of renting the property you have CHOSEN to take on and the fact you will not consider moving to the addresses I have looked up on the internet for you, I can only suggest, in order to save money, you only see your daughter once a month and try and save money that way”.
As anyone who knows me will testify, I am rarely without comment, but after hearing that, I am suddenly left speechless.
He then goes on to tell me that he will write to me to confirm the council’s decision to reject my application for housing, but that if I ever find myself homeless again, to come in to Hackney town hall and speak to them.
I am going to make sure, that by whatever means necessary, I will never need to walk into Hackney town hall ever again. I cannot ‘prove’ anything I have reported in this missive relating to what I have experienced with Hackney council, nor do I expect to get any kind of meaningful response from anyone working for them, or indeed, those charged with representing their constituents here in N16.
I just wanted to write it all down and have a good fucking cry, so I did and I have.
Thanks for reading.
Simon Mason 11/02/14