Last Tuesday a group of 29 young mothers and mothers-to-be occupied an East Thames Housing Association show flat in protest against their prospective eviction from the Focus E15 Foyer, a hostel that provides temporary social housing and training to young people in Newham. Some of the Focus E15 Mothers have been there for more than three years. Six months ago, the women were served an eviction notice following a council decision to cut £41,000 of funding for the Foyer and its purpose-built single-parent units. The only alternative offered to them was private rental accommodation in Hastings, Birmingham or Manchester, far from their families, friends, jobs, colleges and children’s schools.
If they refused the offer, they would be judged to have made themselves ‘intentionally homeless’, alleviating Newham Council of the responsibility to find them permanent accommodation. They would have no help with deposits, scant protection from rising rents and eviction, and none of the key support and training that the foyer until recently provided. ‘This life is stressful,’ one of the mothers says in the online petition. ‘I understand why people take their lives.’ Nearby, the Carpenters Estate stands mostly empty, boarded-up, waiting for a private buyer to redevelop it. Overlooking it is an Olympic stadium still plastered with the promise to ‘Inspire a Generation’. More than 24,000 households are on the waiting list for social housing in Newham.
Women are on the front line of austerity. More likely to be in low-paid precarious work, more likely to have dependents, women are more reliant on increasingly meagre state welfare and public services. A recent report from the Women’s Budget Group details how women are disproportionately affected by budget cuts, with single mothers losing an average 15.6 per cent of their disposable income, compared to 11.7 per cent for single fathers and 9.7 per cent for couples with children.
‘To that single mother struggling and working her heart out for her children,’ David Cameron said in 2010, ‘we can now say: “We’re on your side.”’ Not any more. If plans to deprive under-25s of housing benefit go ahead, nearly half of those affected – 171,000 people – will be single parents.
Single mothers – routinely demonised in the right-wing press as feckless, fecund and incompetent, their palatial houses evidence of the indulgence and injustice of the welfare state – may look like an easy target. But ‘you’re not tearing us apart from our families,’ the Focus E15 Mothers have said. ‘We’re fighters.’ The housing association now says there is no immediate threat of eviction from the Foyer. The group will be holding a public meeting next weekend.