A True Christmas Story

by Ben Reeve-Lewis

11:04 AM, 16th December 2011
About 7 years ago

A True Christmas Story

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A True Christmas Story

I’ve been a bit quiet of late. Knocked out by a killer dose of what Frazzy calls ‘Man Flu’ and like the rest of you, running around tying up loose ends before Xmas descends on us for 4 days of food, alcohol, sleepiness and family rows.

In a week when Leeds council reports a 200% increase in homelessness applications and Grant Shapps is urging people to ring the local ‘No second night out’ hotlines if they see a rough sleeper, I thought it appropriate to talk about homelessness in the run up to Christmas as opposed to my normal P118 fare.

My Co TRO Steve has given up his Xmas to work for Crisis, alternating dishing up food with dispensing housing advice for those in trouble. He does housing work all year but still finds time to volunteer in the festive season.

I’m not going that far but I don’t mind writing an article. Talking to him today set me thinking about 2 unsung heroes I would like you to know about.

Georgie Grey and Belfast Barry

When I was 18 I found myself on what used to be called ‘the dole’, not JSA, it was way before that. Times were different. There were loads of seasonal jobs around, in fact I had just finished 6 months working a summer job as a bus conductor on the 21 bus up the Old Kent Road to London Bridge and Moorgate. You could also get a Xmas job on ‘The Post’ delivering Xmas cards back then.

With so many jobs around I spent some time just hanging out, having a break until one dreadful day I received a letter from the Dole Office, telling me that if I didn’t get a job they would cut my money. Well you can imagine I was furious, who wouldn’t be? I had to get up and go to the job centre, the very cheek of it.

Amongst the depressing racks of cards with job details written on them my eyes reluctantly alighted on a possibility whose pay was considerably more than those on any of the other cards, it was working as a “Resettlement Service Officer Grade II” with the civil service, no previous experience necessary, a job with the DHSS who were at that point generously keeping me in a life of luxury. I duly applied, for the post and got it.

Trouble is, once I turned up on day 1 it was evident that despite its grand title, in reality it was simply working as a bouncer in a doss house. Enhanced sensibilities means that we call them night shelters these days. There aren’t any of these massive institutions left anymore, thank God.

I was stationed in the notorious Camberwell Spike, a 1,200 bed direct access night shelter in Peckham, south east London that was designed by the man who built Dartmoor prison at the same time. The Spike was built as a workhouse, and with the same level of imagination. 40 men to a dormitory, it was called the ‘Spike’ because in the courtyard, even when I was there, there were rows of metal spikes hammered into the ground. Back in the days when they were used, ropes were strung tightly between them and if you couldn’t afford to sleep in the flea bitten dormitories you would simply hook your armpits over the ropes and fall asleep, the rope keeping you off the wet ground, hence the term ‘A night on the spike’.

George Orwell stayed at Camberwell, or Consort Road as it was always officially known, and wrote about it in ‘Down and out in Paris and London’.

It was a terrifying introduction to the world of housing but it did one wonderful thing for me. Those scabby old bearded geezers who slept in doorways, singing drunken songs, the people you rushed by and avoided eye contact with suddenly became human beings who I grew to know and like….even respect.

I learnt so much from my first few weeks in that world that a fear entered my soul, a fear of how close we all are to being there with them, even within my first week in the job. Hearing their stories and talking to them for the first time I realised that we are all only a few pay packets, a broken relationship, a bad decision or a job loss away from those guys. That fear has never left me. Nor has the clear understanding that ending up on the street isn’t just something that happens to other people.

One of our guys had run a successful haulage company and got hit by one of his own trucks which caused brain damage. His wife left him and the business went down the pan. He was never drunk or any trouble, which is why he wasn’t in a hospital but he spent his days scrounging fags and tea and talking to fence posts. I recall his name was Harry Sullivan and he was from South Africa.

Another guy, Ray, had been a carpenter but like Harry acquired a brain injury at work which left him obsessed with the idea that the devil went shopping in Lewisham market.

But I really want to tell you about Georgie Grey. He popped into my head for some reason. This is actually his real name but I figure it is such a long time ago it wont matter to anyone.

Georgie started sleeping rough – ‘Skippering’ they used to call it, when he was 16. I knew him when he was in his mid-70s. A painter and decorator with a drink problem and distinct inability to keep a home but he worked really hard. He was clean, even dapper but had his spells on the drink. He was never anything other than genial and likeable but would never be one of life’s achievers. Meeting him as an old fella I’m not sure it even bothered him.

He died at 76 one Christmas and his only surviving relative was his sister who lived in Glasgow, she travelled down for the funeral.

He was well known and liked by many of the other residents who asked if they could also attend the council run service. We kitted them out in shirts and ties from the store and got them shaved and bathed. I drove them in the dark green reception centre minibus to Hither Green cemetery for the service.

As we all piled out of the van we met this tiny little Scottish OAP who was very polite and genteel. From her conversation it was evident that she had no idea of the life Georgie had lived for 60 years, to her he was just a painter and decorator who lived and worked in London.

She asked us how we knew him and we all froze and looked at each other not knowing what to say. But Belfast Barry came to the rescue, thinking quicker than the rest of us and told her that we were all Georgie’s workmates. She was satisfied with the answer and mightily chuffed that we had all turned out for him.
Belfast Barry. One of the most difficult drunks we had in the place. A man who had given me a black eye on more than one occasion and yet at that moment I could have kissed him. What a wonderful human being, what a kind act. He took Georgie’s sister’s arm and escorted her into the service while we all walked in behind them like a royal wedding of the dispossessed.

I don’t want to sound like I am doing Thought for the Day on Radio 4 but I can honestly say I am proud to have known those guys and it is my connection as a young man to them and their world, their basic decency and humanity in difficult times that makes me, all these years later, still fascinated and involved with housing. Even though today my work is a world away from dodging punches thrown by drunks in the booking-in area of the Spike.

Housing is about people and whether you are a landlord, an agent or a housing adviser it can be useful to bear that in mind. It isn’t about tenancy agreements, or mortgages or, Loan to Value it is about human beings and their lives. It’s that knowledge that keeps me in this business. Despite the fact that housing law is my area of operation, I never forget what it is really about.

Merry Xmas from Me and Frazzy



Comments

7:52 AM, 17th December 2011
About 7 years ago

Homelessness; Ben, what about the risk of a tenant causing a landlord to become homeless if the tenant choses not to pay rent and the landlord was forced to evict which as we all know can take ages.
For those LL without a big cash pile what about the issues that could cause a LL to be homeless.
I have come very close and am still in a precarious position wher I could be homeless caused by wrongun tenant.
A tenant not paying rent couild cause two people to be homeles; the LL and tenant!!

Michael Holmes

15:38 PM, 17th December 2011
About 7 years ago

At this time of year, a thought provoking article like Ben Reeeve-Lewises' is well worth articulating, I agree with every sentiment he expresses, we get too tied up in the details of our business sometimes, the real purpose of all our endeavours should be to spread the greatest amount of happiness around the greatest number of people we can, not just dwell on our own personal gain at the cost of bringing misfortune to somebody else.

3:42 AM, 18th December 2011
About 7 years ago

Afraid I totally disagree; Housing is ALL about mortgages. AST's and and LTV etc in the PRS.
It is definitely NOT about peoples lives.
Unless you have lots of money and wish to be a philanthrapist like Rowntree or Peabody then fine.
I would conjecture that the vast majority of LL who are not rich are in this game to make as much money every which way they can; end of.
We are not interested in peoples lives we just wish to make as much money as we can.
Of course the tenants have every right to expect the LL to behave and provide the contracted service they are paying for.
But that is it pure and simple.
I am not interested in anyones's hard luck story; everyone has them, me included.
The PRS is a BUSINESS not a charity.
If the business is doing so well that it chooses to exercise corporate responsibility then clearly it could afford to spread it's benificence to various parties.
Most PRS landlords ARE NOT in such a good position.
I am afraid the cold hearted reality is of the PRS is that LL owe money to banks for properties that have been purchased to let out to tenants.
Without their being a PROFIT motive how many LL do you think would bother to be engaged in the PRS?
Therefore tenants should thank their lucky stars that someone goes through all the hassle of being in a position to provide the opportunity to provide accommodation to a tenant.
Without LL where would ALL these tenants live?
This as most of them can't afford to buy and there is not and NEVER will be sufficient social housing affordable to these tenants .
Clearly it must be pragmatic from the perspective of marketing your business that you treat your customers with the respect they deserve commensurate with the monies they have paid for the service you are providing.
That is ALL you are obliged to do as a small LL.
If you wish to do more that is your choice.
Most of us however are not in such aposition; we have to dance to the bank's tune.
Therefore tenants HAVE to dance to our tune; which is pay your rent or you WILL be evicted.
Providing both sides comply with terms of business as defined in their AST and relevant housing legislation then the BUSINESS relationship should prosper.
I am afraid the banks don't care about any sob stories and the concept of 'good cheer and good will to all men' is something the banks are not the slightest bit interested in.
As a LL wait until the you are in arrears on your mortgage payments caused by a wrongun tenant giving you some sad sob story as to why the rent hasn't been paid.
Do you think your tenant is the slightest bit interesed in the status of your mortgage payments; they shjould be as non-payment of rent could result tin the tenant being booted out by the mortgage company.
The majority of most tenants are irresponsible as they are not concerned about the effects of their behaviour may have on a LL's financial position.
If they get booted out because the property is to be repossessed because they did nort pay rent; they will just move on to another mug LL and carry on regardless leaving behind a LL who will most likelybe bankrupted because of the tenant behaviour.
I am afraid tenants are going to have to get used to the idea of 'Life's a bitch and then you die'
Best solution for ALL is for the tenants to PAY their rent regardless and for LL to supply the service in full to the tenant they are paying rent for.
Then everyone may have a MERRY, MERRY CHRISTMAS!!?

Ben Reeve-Lewis

9:01 AM, 20th December 2011
About 7 years ago

I was going to reply last night Paul but I couldnt think of the right angle, so I slept on it.

I get everything you say but the analogy that came to mind was that of Xmas dinner, of which I am doing a lot of planning.

All of the things you say above are spot on but this is to concentrate on the cooking rather than the end result. The loans, the tenancy agreements, the regulations are clearly essential but on their own they are meaningless. The end result is the reason for it all.

I would expect a chef to focus on the ingredients and the method but I think the best chefs never lose sight of the fact that it is all about the meal on the plate.

Either I'm right or I've had one too many xmas parties I think haha
Cooking i

Ben Reeve-Lewis

10:05 AM, 20th December 2011
About 7 years ago

And I have to say, while we are on the subject of the cuddly homeless. I think there is a bit of a smokescreen going on at the moment.

People tend to think of homelessness as a 'Street sleeping' type of thing but in fact that is a tiny proportion of the real problem. Grant Shapps is focussing on this because at this time of year it tweeks people's senses but I do think, an I admit I may be being massively cyncial, that this is deliberatley urying the real problem with honmelessness.

Leeds council announced last week that in the last 2 years their homelessness applications have risen 200% and nationally there has also been a signigficant rise in homeless applications. These arent street homeless applicaants either.

Under Part VII of the Housing Act 1996 there are several ways a person can be homeless:-
Nowhere to live,
not reasonable to remain by virtue of Violence, or threats - property conditions such as overcrowding - poor standards -Unaffordability - Caravan or boat but nowhere to place it - threatened homeless within the next 28 days.

This is what forms the backbone of homelessness applications, not street homeless.

People sleeping on the streets are more visibile and more easily fit people's sterotypes of homeless people but they are in fact a tiny propertion. Leeds Council's 200% increase will be largely copmprised of these categories, not the teeny percentage of street sleepers.

Doing something for street homeless is important work but it can also make it look as if the government are tackling a problem whilst simultaneously running polcies that are making invisible homelessness rise dramatically.

I would rather Grant Shapps work on polcicies to addess real homelessness rather than indulging in profile raising sleeping out stunts

10:20 AM, 20th December 2011
About 7 years ago

Ben,
I really do get an awful lot from your articles. Thanks very much.

I have 3 rental properties and am a good landlord, keeping all properties in a good state of repair. Thankfully I've always had good tenants, probably more by luck than judgement, although I'm sure it helps that we live in rural Devon and principally target tenants between house moves.
Your artivles really do make me think about what I'm doing, probably because you come into contact with areas of society that i scarcely know exist. I would be willing to let one of my properties (at a reduced rent) to someone who needs a bit of help but i'm worried about being let down. i think one of the reasons our tenants look after our properties is that we charge a high rent (although I note your experiences with a Dr) and if we charged less i'm concerned that the tenant would be less considerate. What do you think?
Thanks again for your thoughtful articles

10:49 AM, 20th December 2011
About 7 years ago

I agree with the meal on the plate; but if it is not paid for it cannot be provided.
This is the situation that most landlords face.
Why should I provide a Christmas dinner when if I don't get paid for that I can't afford to have my own Christmas dinner!!!

Ben Reeve-Lewis

11:41 AM, 20th December 2011
About 7 years ago

I'm not syaing that the customer shouldnt pay for the meal Paul, even though there may be elements of it that they dont like, such as sprouts. What I am saying is that a chef needs to bear in mind that the ingredients and the cooking techniques are simply methods of providing the meal.

Renting, whether you are a landlord or a tenant is about people and homes, not balance sheets and tenancy agreements which simply serve the end purpose.

You cant have one without the other I agree but it is where the focus is placed. I think that if the bottom line is the most important thing to a person, and I see no reason why it shouldnt be, then I would suggest that landlording might be the worst business to be in. There are probably easier ways of making a living. Or maybe just farm a property out through an agent or PSL scheme so you dont have any contact with the tenants.

I meet people who cook for a living and hate it. I know people who work in my offcie who would rather be doing something else. as one office wag put it the other week "I used to love my mother until I found out she was a member of the public" haha

Ben Reeve-Lewis

12:06 PM, 20th December 2011
About 7 years ago

Thanks Ken, its nice to get positive feedback.

I think there is something to be said for your argument. When I first started training I offered free courses to get people onboard and build a reputation. The troubel with that is the courses filled up straight away but on the day hardly anyone showed because they didnt value it. It was a lesson I didnt repeat.

I understand your concerns of getting an inconsiderate tenant, but without being in anyway facetious or dismissive I have to say this is one of the risks of the lettings business. All industries have their risks and annoyances.

As a trainer my risks are cancelled courses and lost invoices (I have just found out this morning that a £750 invoice has gone missing from a client I did work for 6 weeks ago......4 days before Xmas thank you very much)

There is a growing movement towards tenant accreditation and I am in favour of this new trend as a method of helping reduce the risks. Maybe a reward being longer tenancies if they want them and a lower rent. Many landlords I meet who vaklue the fact that they have a decent tenant will help keep the rent affordable. If it is just about the money then this can leave a landlord more vulnerable.

My experience working with landlord/tenant disputes is that if a tenant feels that landlrod is taking the pee with the rent they are more likely to miss payments, feeling they are simply getting their own back. I'm not saying that is right, it's just what I hear tenants say.

I am a great advocate of being the type of landlrod who involves themselves in the life of their tenants to a certain extent but this I admit is no protection from betrayal of trust I'm afraid

Mark Alexander

12:17 PM, 20th December 2011
About 7 years ago

Hi Ben - PSL? Private Sector Leasing scheme? We must all learn to add detail to abbreviations as we are confusing a lot of newbies.

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