“Now we’re fighting for decent homes for everybody”

Sarah Counihan-Sanchez is 17 years old and came to support the mothers involved in Focus E15. 

Her parents and their five children were evicted from their accommodation in Brent in 2012 as a result of the withdrawal of housing benefit and faced demands for repayment of tens of thousands of pounds. They were forced to live in unaffordable temporary accommodation in Ealing. Sarah is active in the Housing 4 All campaign, formerly the Counihan-Sanchez Homelesness Campaign.

WSWS: How did the campaign begin?

Sarah:  Our rent was £690 a week, which is the same amount that [London Mayor] Boris Johnson wants to charge for his “affordable housing” scheme.

Our housing benefit was stopped. My dad was in full time employment but whether you are or you aren’t, the rents are too high. My dad earns £450 per week. The rent was £690, not to mention food, water, clothes and so we were placed into accommodation in Ealing [London borough]. My youngest brother has autism and he was four at the time. We were made homeless two years ago and to this day, my youngest brother has not slept a whole night without reaching out to see if my parents are there. The upheaval of moving, we moved twice in the past two years, and the upheaval for a child, never mind a child with special needs, is too much. So that’s why we started the campaign.

WSWS: What made you start the campaign? Sarah: We were trying to speak to the councillors and we were trying to get some help and advice on what to do. We were being told that they would meet with us and then they didn’t show up. Then we went to the town hall and there were three police vans outside of the town hall waiting for us.

WSWS: Waiting for you specifically?

Sarah: Waiting for us specifically because our council had contacted them saying that we were going to turn up. As I proceeded to go to the door the policeman said, “If you try and go in, I’m going to have to arrest you.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know where I’m going to be sleeping at the moment so even if you did, at least I would know where I’d be sleeping.” And the policeman said, “No, because I will take you somewhere very far away.” So that’s bizarre in itself.

So that kind of thing kept happening. Once we were in a public meeting and they [councillors] put barriers in between the councillors and us. One of them called the police under the table saying that we were going to attack them. I would never do anything like that.

Our goals are to democratically and peacefully get our points across. We would never have any intention of doing that to anyone so we started the campaign because we weren’t being listened to. We thought people need an alternative and someone to go to, to feel like they’re being heard and listened to.

And we’re now doing councillors’ jobs, in the respect that people don’t feel like they can go to the elected councillors because they never publicise their surgeries, so no one ever turns up. Then they think that everything’s hunky dory because no one’s asking for help. They don’t publicise it because they don’t want to have to answer to people.

WSWS: Where do you think it’s going to go from here?

Sarah: I’m not too sure. This year, the past few months, it’s been a bit difficult because I’m doing my A Levels. My mum is awaiting surgery and it’s been a little bit hard the past couple of months. But now that the E15 mums [campaign] is getting very big, we’re starting to come up again. It’s sad that it has to be done but it does, so we’re more than happy to be involved. We’ve saved families from being evicted, so the fact that I can go to sleep at night knowing that I have stopped someone going through what we went through is the best feeling in the world.

I’m 17 now and to be able to say that we’ve helped families from being moved to Manchester and further, that is amazing, because what we went through I would not wish on anyone. In the Ealing house we were put in, there was a dead fox in the garden, there were snakes, there was glass all over the floor. There was a young autistic child who has no sense of danger, they just didn’t care. They said that the property was fine to live in but then an inspector came and said, “I don’t know why they’ve put you in here because it doesn’t meet our requirements.” But, of course, we’d already been there three months and they just couldn’t be bothered to move us again. They put us in another borough so they could release their duty of care to us.

WSWS: Where are you now?

Sarah: We are back in Brent. We were told when we were living in Ealing that if “you don’t find your own accommodation, your kids will be put into foster care”, so of course, we were looking the whole time anyway.

We were looking for private rentals ourselves. That was the only thing that we could do. I think my mum got a call from 50 landlords saying that they do not accept housing benefit, go and look somewhere else. But if the rents and bills are increasing and wages are staying the same, sooner or later you’re going to have to accept a tenant that has benefit. Unless you are Boris Johnson himself, you will not be able to pay for everything.

Jasmin is one of the Focus E15 mothers.

WSWS: What made you get involved in and help set up this campaign?

Jasmin: I was one of the mums from the Focus E15 hostel. When I was handed my eviction I had an option. I was either going to take the eviction and give up, suffer from depression, and be moved away from my family or get up and do something about it. I got together with the mums and got organised and started fighting for decent housing. Originally, it was just the mums at the hostel because we didn’t realise how wide the issue was. When we started talking to people, we realised how bad the crisis was and now we’re fighting for decent homes for everybody.

WSWS: How many people were in the hostel?

Jasmin: There are 210 flats, 29 mums and 181 single residents. The 29 mums got the eviction notices last year but now the single residents are being picked off one by one and have all slowly been evicted.

WSWS: What do you think about the fact that the flats are so close to the Olympic site? Jasmin: It’s absolutely disgusting. When I first moved into Focus E15, it was when the Olympics were just finished. I was actually promised one of the Olympic flats. We were first priority to be moving in to the new Olympic Village but only one of the mums got a place in the Olympic Park because they put up such a fuss the council had to give it to them.

WSWS: What do you think of the Labour council?

Jasmin: They haven’t done anything to help us whatsoever. We’ve met with our local Labour Mayor, Robin Wales, and he’s done absolutely nothing. Actually, the first time we met him he said it was absolutely disgusting what we were doing. He said “if you can’t afford to live in Newham, you can’t afford to live in Newham. What do you want me to do about it?” And that’s the kind of response we’ve had from him. We get locked out of meetings. We’re not allowed to express our voices. It’s really, really disgusting. And it’s the same for all the councillors and MPs as well.

WSWS: What do you think about the response to your campaign from sections of the working class?

Jasmin: People have gotten really active and involved. So many people say they are inspired and it’s overwhelming to think that people are being inspired by this. It’s so important that we all stand together.

WSWS: Why do you think people have been inspired? Jasmin: I think it’s because we were in that situation and we got up and did something about it. People can now start to believe in themselves and realise they can do something about it. You don’t have to just take the situation these people put you in. You can fight back. People are seeing themselves as vulnerable people—normal people that have come from all different backgrounds and they realise that they can get up and do something about it.

Alex is a tenant facing eviction from the West Hendon Estate in north London.

WSWS: What got you involved in the campaign in West Hendon? Can you tell us about that campaign?

Alex: It’s a campaign for non-secure tenants and lease-holders. What got me involved was that I was put in the estate about eight or nine years ago. In that time, I assumed I would be made a secure tenant because pre the [2011] Localism Act, one of the heads of Barnet Council, Mike Freer, said that the council will make non-secure tenants secure and that hasn’t happened.

What happened to me is that they started regenerating my estate and they’ve given me notice to quit, which means come March 2015 they will start demolishing my property. They’ve issued me with a repossession order, which takes place on November 18, so they are taking me to court to repossess my flat.

WSWS: Where will you go?

Alex: That’s the thing. We’ve got no concrete promises, being non-secure tenants.

WSWS: How many tenants are involved?

Alex: About 200 or so non-secure tenants on the West Hendon Estate. It was built in the 1960s and it is cheaper for them to demolish the estate because they won’t incur the 25 percent VAT [sales tax]. The private developer can avoid VAT if they demolish it rather than remodel. Barnet Council have given the land to Barratt home developers.

WSWS: What do you think about the role of the Labour Party in this?

Alex: A few Labour Party members have come to see us in our campaign and they said they would support us. After they get voted in, we never see them again. I don’t think Labour is any different to the Conservatives. I think they’re both of the same ilk, really. There isn’t any distinction between them.

WSWS: What about the trade unions?

Alex: The unions are always saying, “we have a community group this and a community group that” and they’re always saying they’ll support you and all that, but they don’t.

WSWS: What’s your perspective going forward?

Alex: We are hoping that we get granted a secure tenancy from the council because they are starting to take note of our campaign. I think they are getting a bit worried coming up to the general election and I think we might get secure tenancies, but the way they are offering secure tenancies now is flexible tenancies.

They offer you a five-year tenancy and you are means-tested as well, so if you make a certain amount after the five years, they can take it off you. I think you should be given secure tenancies rather than being forced up to Manchester or wherever they deem appropriate. That’s what we hear, that they are talking about moving people to Manchester or Cardiff.