Cinzia D’Ambrosi: Gendered face of London’s housing crisis

Photos and text by Cinzia D’Ambrosi

After years of documenting the lives of individuals in insecure housing in London, a clear pattern emerges: a significant portion of this demographic comprises single mothers in either no or low-paid employment. This raises the pressing question: why are so many women and their children being failed so profoundly?

Melissa fled domestic violence, seeking refuge far from her former home. However, living in a shipping container with her three young children has aggravated her depression and anxiety, failing to provide the safety and comfort she desperately needs.

Since 2006, Francesca recounts: “I have been evicted 3 times. The first time, I was living in a private rented accommodation through Hammersmith and Fulham council. I was living with my two children and expecting a third child when I was handed over an eviction notice. I was made homeless and then the council offered me a home in East London. My only financial support was my work as a mobile hairdresser and my clients, my children’s school and everyone I could ask any support to, is living in West London, however I had no where to go. I checked the place and it was rife with crime and I did not want my children to live there so I refused. Then they looked for a place for me in the private rented sector. I was told to go to Ealing Housing Team and at first they sent me to Willesden Green to live in one room. We had to move out and had to rent a storage for all my things. I could not live there with the children going to school miles away. Everyday they were late at school and getting detention so I went back to the council and told them of these challenges and that was when I was allocated a container flat in Meath Court in west London.”

Francesca and her three young children have been evicted many times before being moved to Meath Court.

Francesca has 3 children who in their entire lives have only lived in temporary accommodations. Living in the shipping containers is very difficult with no space for any privacy. One of the children, who has asthma, sleeps in the kitchen. On the very first day they moved into the container, he had an asthmatic attack.

Families that live in the containers report their shock when they first arrived at the site, some at first not realising that the shipping containers were to become their homes.

“How could it be humanly possible that containers could be offered as homes?”

Nathalie Bangama, from Congo, with three children, moved to Meath Court after a fire destroyed her home last year. Despite living in Ealing for over 15 years, she was shocked to be offered shipping containers as housing instead of promised flats. She couldn’t believe it, knowing even in Congo, women and children aren’t housed this way.
Nathalie is a single parent and she has had to strlie is a single parent and she has had to struggle with being on her own with three children and with the awful circumstances of her living conditions at Meath Court.

Similarly to many other women, Nathalie could not believe her eyes when she was given shipping containers as a home. “Even in Congo, we don’t house women and children in shipping containers.” Nathalie Bangama, originally from Congo, has three children 15 years old, 4 years old and 9 months and she ended up at Meath Court after her house caught fire. When she was given the keys to the container flat, she was crying and crying. She was told that within 6 months, she would be given a proper flat, but 2 years later she is still waiting.

Another resident of Meath Court is Melissa, a victim of domestic violence that was to be housed, in a different borough under the protection scheme. Melissa and her three small children were housed in the shipping containers. It has led her to depression and anxieties. Living in a container, it has not helped her to heal from her traumatic experiences. Instead, it is continuously making her feel unsafe and deeply anxious about herself and her children as the environment is characterized by rampant drug use, theft, and a pervasive sense of insecurity.

Like herself, many women in Meath Court have experienced sexual harassment and incidents of intimidation by drug users using the shipping containers as a space to deal, or to sleep for the night. “There was an incident of a woman falling down from the stairs and she is currently in coma – Melissa recounts. And my front door was tempered and broken, she continues- and I have taped it with a black bin bag and I am still waiting for someone from the council to come to repair it. I feel very anxious about my safety and that of my children.” Melissa’s broken door was not repaired at the time of my interview with her, weeks after the incident. Her rent is £370.55 + £19.05 service charge per week to live in shipping containers without a secure front door.

When Zara received the one-bedroom flat, she had just given birth. Her baby was only a week old. Given the top floor, she found walls riddled with bullet-like holes from the previous tenant’s mental health struggles. It was a frightening, lonely, and disheartening experience for a first-time mother.

When Zara was given the one bedroom flat she had just given birth. Her baby was one week old. She was given the last floor and one which all the walls were plastered by bullet like holes. She was told that the previous resident was suffering mental health issues and was using a hammer to bang the walls. “It felt scary, lonely and very disheartening for a first time mother who had just given birth.” Since living in the container, her wellbeing is deteriorating. She has pleaded to be allocated even in another one-bedroom in the containers, one without the violent markings on all the walls, but her pleas have gone unanswered.

Following the unanswered calls for the installment of security cameras or the placement of a security guard at Meath Court, women have resorted to create a WhatsApp group to ensure each other’s safety by sharing their whereabouts.

As policymakers and stakeholders seek solutions to London’s homelessness crisis, it is crucial to recognize and address the specific challenges faced by women. Failing to do so not only perpetuates the cycle of homelessness, but also deepens existing inequalities within society.

The question arises: why have so many women and their children been failed so miserably? Is it due to perceived vulnerability and social standing, perpetuating prejudices that hinder their access to decent living conditions?

All images ©Cinzia D’Ambrosi

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