“It’s a bit of a tight squeeze,” says Helen, 12, gesturing towards a small room where almost all of the floor space is taken up by two beds and a wardrobe. She has just started secondary school, and aside from the stress of making new friends, starting new classes and becoming a teenager, she is contending with the realities of living in a converted office block, which means sharing a bedroom with her mum.
“There’s no space for her to do her homework,” says her mother, Audrey Newman, sitting in the room that serves as their kitchen, lounge and dining room. “She’s going to need her own room. She can’t still be sharing a room with me when she’s 15, 16. That’s not acceptable.”
The family, including Helen’s 13-year-old brother, is one of many living in Connect House, a block of former offices in the middle of an industrial estate across the road from a waste tip in Croydon.
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Until several weeks ago, the building was being used by local councils to house homeless families temporarily while they found them something more permanent. The cramped conditions and industrial surroundings had prompted anger, but residents knew there was an end in sight.
Now it has emerged that local authorities are moving families into private rented flats in the block as a permanent solution to their housing needs. This sort of arrangement, known as a “private rented sector offer”, lasts at least one year and allows councils to fulfil their main housing duty – meaning they can remove families from the homelessness list.
Residents of Connect House would have had to agree to move there under these arrangements, but they say it was because there was no other viable option. Now they say they feel ”trapped”, no longer considered homeless, but unable to call the converted office block a home.
Their plight stems from the wider housing crisis facing the country, which has led to more than 8 million people across England currently living in unaffordable, insecure or unsuitable homes.
A toxic combination of rising rents, controversial welfare reforms and a severe shortage of affordable homes has seen soaring numbers of families simply unable to afford to house themselves. They are left at the whim of cash-strapped councils to find them somewhere to live.
Audrey, 50, who was born in west London, says she reported being homeless to Hammersmith and Fulham Council, and was given the option of either moving to Luton or into Connect House through the local authority’s direct lettings scheme.
“It was an easy decision because I said I wasn’t moving to Luton, I would have been too far from my family,” she explains. “But now it feels like we’ve been put here and that’s it, no one wants to help us. We’re out of sight, out of mind. That’s how I feel.”
Two floors down, Roxanne Enns, 28, has been living in the converted office block with her seven-year-old daughter, Demi-Leigh, since April. She had reported to Sutton Council as homeless in June 2018, and was given an offer to move into a private rented flat in Connect House. Out of desperation and with no better option, she took the offer.
She quickly regretted it after discovering that there were silverfish insects in the flat, as well as a growing mould and damp problem. She also feels the environment is unsuitable for her child, but because the council discharged their duty on her case, she feels that now there is no way out.
“I’ve been stopped outside with my daughter and asked if I want to buy drugs. She’s just done her year two exams. It’s just ridiculous,” she says. “It’s a nightmare. These silverfish have got massive now, and nothing has been done. I was crying my eyes out about it last week.
“But I’m stuck here now. If I move out, I’ll become intentionally homeless. I can’t do that. My little girl can’t be homeless again. So I can’t get out of here. I’m trapped.”
Roxanne, who used to work in a care home and is hoping to go back to work soon, said it would be “physically impossible” for her to rent another property due to the cost of a deposit and paying a month’s rent in advance.
“How am I ever going to save to get out of here? The government are putting us in a hole and no one is helping us to get out.”
Among those in Connect House is a refugee couple who was moved into the block in May, just weeks after being granted asylum. The man and woman, who did not want to be named or for their country of origin to be reported, are living in one room together.
“We are grateful for this country, and the government here. They have helped us. We feel grateful that at least we’re okay,” says the man. “But there’s not much room here. I haven’t been able to bring any friends over. I feel ashamed of having someone walk in.
“When I left I had a beautiful home, but I was forced out of the country. It hasn’t been easy. We’ve been going from one accommodation to the next. We keep our luggage packed because we don’t want to be here … we just want a fresh start. That’s it.”
Local MP Siobhain McDonagh says the building has been a concern for more than a year – but in recent weeks, a number of councils have been using it to discharge their duty to homeless families instead of considering it temporary accommodation.
“Some families think they’re here temporarily, but in fact this is their permanent home,” she says. “No matter how long temporary is, I think if something is temporary you can try and put up with it, but it’s pretty bleak if you think this is your permanent accommodation.
“People are here with their kids, their kids may have special needs, health problems. You have to walk through an industrial estate.”
Ms McDonagh said the situation stemmed from a change to planning laws in 2013 which enabled developers to change the use of buildings from offices to residential without the need for planning permission, coupled with the “complete crisis” in the number of social housing units available.
Homeless charity Shelter warned that this type of arrangement was cropping up across the country as the housing crisis worsened. Chief executive Polly Neate said it was “modern-day ‘slum’ housing”, adding: “Shoddy old office blocks are no place for any family to live. It should never be ok for children to grow up in cramped, or worse dangerous, flats in the middle of industrial parks with no safe space to play.”
South West London Estate, which recently bought Connect House, said it was aware of the problems facing households living in the block, and that it was “trying to be proactive” at identifying issues and working to resolve them. A spokesperson said they were doing what they could to improve the situation but added: “You have to ask the councils why they have put a family of five in a two-bedroom flat.”
Sutton Council said it does not manage services at Connect House and denied that it used the block to discharge its homelessness duties, adding that tenants were living there “through their own choice”.
Meanwhile, Hammersmith and Fulham Council said it was “hugely frustrated” by a number of government policies affecting their ability to house people. They said the Right To Buy scheme was taking properties off the rented market, and universal credit was having a negative impact on those who need housing as well as making it difficult to attract landlords. The government, on the other hand, claims councils have been given “a range of powers” to ensure privately rented homes meet standards.
While authorities argue over who is to blame, for Roxanne and daughter Demi-Leigh, there is no end in sight. “At least people in temporary accommodation get moved out,” said Roxanne. “I’m left here to rot. I’m stuck.”