Corporate Conspiracy

This text was written by Mat Kennedy, boat builder, member of Deptford’s residential boating community and board member of Friends of Deptford Creek.

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I moved onto a boat in Deptford Creek around 2012. Like many Londoners, there are areas of the city I have never seen and will probably never see. In 2012, Deptford was one of these areas for me. I grew up in Harlesden, which in many ways is Deptford’s reflection on the other side of the river, and maybe that goes some way to explain why the area fits so well for me. But the thing that struck me so completely was the sense of community in Deptford, something many areas of London including Harlesden have lost. There are very few places as tolerant of differences as Deptford. I feel like the sense of dignity extended on the street to even the most difficult or marginal characters is a testament to an area whose cultural identity is rooted in worldliness. There is genuinely a feeling of inclusiveness that somehow celebrates the imperfect, and in a world obsessed with aspiration and quite frankly mentally deranged because of it, this sort of attitude is of value and worth protecting. The market is, in my opinion, the thing that holds this together; its rhythm pulling everyone back out into the street three times a week and reminding people again and again that we are all alright and your neighbors are mostly nice people and the world is fun and all that shit in the news a false reality.

Today Deptford is at a crossroads; as a post-industrial area, there are large tracts of land earmarked for development. In addition to this, there is a vast reserve of publicly owned housing stock, schools, hospitals, social care buildings and other municipal service centers being directly sold off to plug funding gaps or bargained for ‘affordable’ new build housing. Central government is starving local councils and instructing them to extract revenue from existing assets while simultaneously setting new build targets. This lack of funding in combination with a target driven housing agenda means the classification of what constitutes affordable has been willfully stretched to the point of absurdity. The housing crisis is being constantly referred to as a supply issue while tens of thousands of so-called luxury flats sit empty, bought as investments or simply as a way to park vast sums of wealth. Luxury investments are touted on a global marketplace while often substandard ‘affordable’ housing is sold at inflated prices to a captive market of young buyers trapped by the terms of the help-to-buy scheme. Developers and government sell the idea that the new apartments will act as a stepping stone towards a life of rising investment value, security and wealth. But this is a lie, and not only a lie that threatens to ruin the lives of so many individuals in the coming years, but a lie that threatens the very fabric of London as an un-ghettoised metropolis. Nowhere is this more evident than in areas like Deptford. In order to facilitate the allusion of an investment on the rise, Deptford has needed to undergo change. This is not the sort of natural change that areas undergo through socio-economic shifts. From the outset this has been a coordinated and shameless corporate campaign waged by developers and wealthy investors, supported by major press publication through lazy repetition and encouraged by a government lacking in imagination to see when it is being completely shafted.

Some examples include development companies like Cathedral, heard to ‘only fund art projects aimed at drawing well-heeled punters to the area’ (anonymous source) while openly touting ‘off plan’ developments to far eastern investors as a rising opportunity in an artistic area. Deptford Market Yard has culturally appropriated the name of Deptford Market on Google so that it appears as if it is Deptford Market (a street market that has existed for hundreds of years). The Old Tidemill Garden, flanked by around 60 bailiffs at the time of writing, holding off the community while they decimate a public garden that could easily have been integrated into plans for more apartments. The list is very long and much of it is of an insidious nature; it’s the drip drip effect of a weird type of social conspiracy that aims to sanitize, manipulate and divide a community and ultimately supplant it with a vision of something that looks like an investment opportunity. These actions are seriously damaging trust and are designed solely to sell flats, but by creating this narrative, a new reality forms on the street, a strange world of invisible dividing lines and resentments.

It’s impossible to describe the anger felt in London as a whole and more acutely in areas like Deptford towards the deceptive strategies deployed by councils and developers and the narratives they spin; from building site awnings adorned in fake graffiti and local cultural referencing designed to somehow camouflage the unattainable price tag to the fundamental premise of a housing crisis based on supply propagated as both a profitable piece of bullshit for the developers and an ideological feedback loop for a state. Almost anyone I speak to can see something deeply unhealthy about the way this is being done and no matter what side of the political spectrum you sit on, it is clear that the state has an obligation to protect people from corporate conspiracy – a role which it negates because it is complicit.

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“I don’t want to move. It’s home!”

Julian Kingston has lived on his boat Sabine in the Theatre Arm of Deptford Creek since 1987. His wife Jeannie Seymour joined him in 1996 and together they have lived in Deptford ever since. Julian has been a wood craftsman and boat builder for over 35 years and was involved in restoring Massey-Shaw, London’s oldest fire-boat, and in conservation works on HMS Warrior in Portsmouth.  Julian is also involved in the Lenox Project, which proposes ‘to build a replica of the Restoration warship Lenox in the dockyard where she was originally built – King Henry VIII’s Royal Dockyard’ (www.buildthelenox.org). This is not only to respect Deptford’s history as a shipbuilding area but also to create jobs, training and apprenticeship opportunities for local young people. It was a response to the development proposals at Convoy’s wharf by Hong Kong based Hutchison Whampoa that totally ignored Deptford’s local communities and its heritage.

DSC_2488Julian in his workshop on a Thames Lighter

When Julian moved to Deptford, the plan was to restore Sabine, an 1895 German one time steamer in Deptford Creek and go travelling again, but Deptford got into Julian’s blood and he stayed. When I ask him why he stayed, he laughs: “It’s Deptford, isn’t it? It’s got something about it. I think there are enough people here who don’t like being pushed around and that makes it interesting. I also like the creative element in Deptford but not the one that’s marketed by developers but the creativity that comes from the people themselves.” Anyone who knows Deptford well will understand what Julian means.

Julian and Jeannie enjoy living on their boat. They also have two other boats, a dinghy and a Thames Lighter that had been used as a fireboat in the Millennium River of Fire, which houses their workshops (Jeannie is a dressmaker) and garden. They also have bees and together they produce Creekside Honey – sometimes for sale at Creekside Discovery Centre in years when the harvest is good. In her beautifully written piece about their life on the Creek (read full piece here), Jeannie describes it as idyllic and wonderful, at least until all the trouble started with nearby construction works.

‘It was absolutely magical. Julian’s boat was the only boat in this arm of the creek. We had the whole place to ourselves in the evenings and at weekends. There was no DLR, no one in the college, no one in Mumford’s Mill, no flats at the end of the Creek either. We could even star watch because we had no light pollution and we could sit out on the deck watching the water undisturbed.’

Jeannie and Julian’s garden and bees on their boat Sabine (at the back of bottom image)

Ever since the DLR was constructed in the late 1990s, their lives have been anything but peaceful as they have had to keep fighting for their right to remain on the Creek and with that their right to remain boat dwellers. I spoke to Julian in summer 2018. Here is his story:

“The first major disruption was the construction of the railway (DLR). Up until that point, the land was actually owned by a partnership of my kid-brother and two other guys. They owned a film catering company, which took them to film locations all around the world. I built and repaired their kitchen trucks and eventually became their transport manager. As they expanded, I suggested that they buy the land I was squatting on, where they could keep their fleet of trucks and where I could have my workshop and use a bit of the yard for my work. They bought it with the peppercorn arrangement that I am moored here, use their access and occupy a bit of the land with my workshop and that in return I also got paid as their transport manager and looked after their fleet of trucks and containerised kitchens. It was a really good deal…until the railway came along. It started with the bailiffs coming round about once a week in their Mercedes and smart suits telling us that we had to evacuate the site by a certain date. My brother and his lot were offered a paltry compulsory purchase which came to half the amount they had originally paid for the site, and an eviction notice from the council. I got so fed up with these characters coming round, I went to the planning office to see if there’s anything on file that would put them off. I found all sorts of interesting historical facts about the site but also an incriminating letter which in the end resulted in a very favourable deal for my brother’s company. They received just over a million and an agreement that they would continue to own the site and get it handed back after construction finished. They were nevertheless forced to re-locate outside London to keep going.

Unfortunately, this deal didn’t account for the fact that Jeannie and I were living on this site. We suddenly had the railway company breathing down our necks, demanding that we vacate the site immediately. To them we were just (quote) “water gypsies” and they thought they could just get rid of us like that. But this was our residence, so we went into a legal battle to get moved to another secure mooring while the railway was being built and that we would be able to move back once construction was complete. We had to move during construction because our boat was directly under the proposed railway and they had to put a batter slope against the sea wall (e.g. crushed concrete and brick rubble) to reinforce it during construction. The agreement was that this would be removed upon completion and that our berth would be recreated. We won in the end but it was a 4-year battle that turned me grey and nearly bankrupted us – I had different colour hair when it started!

Julian in his self-made study under a picture of Sabine at the beginning of the 20th Century.

They then put us on the mooring over in the main basin – under Mumford’s Mill in Deptford College. The trouble was, Sabine is a vintage vessel and needs proper mooring so I gave them exact drawings to make a suitable berth. The railway company hired a contractor to prepare and make a suitable berth but the contractor messed up and made the berth 8 foot too short. As the tide went out Sabine very gradually tipped over and there was the imminent danger of breaking the back of the ship. I was furious. The keel could have snapped! I rang the company, but they didn’t want to know. We spent the next tide furiously trying to dig out the keel and get her to sit upright again. We were absolutely knackered and went to bed only to wake up to the sound of running water under the floor. A huge piece of flint left in the berth by the contractors had punched a hole the size of a 50-pence piece into the bottom of the ship and we now had a leak in the most inaccessible place. We needed to get to dock and got our insurance company on the case to inspect the berth. After endless discussions, during which the railway company refused to be in the same room as me (the second time this happened was with Hutchinson Whampoa at Convoy’s Wharf), the insurance company, the railway and their contractor settled on a satisfactory deal, with the rail company paying for an over-plating both sides of the keel for the entire length of the ship, which was brilliant. So, we did alright in the end but boy it was a fight.

But the trouble just went on. When we came out of dock, we couldn’t get back in the Creek because they hadn’t removed the batter slope. They had allegedly run out of money, so instead of removing the rubble, they spread it all across the Creek. This meant the water was one metre shallower so there was no way of getting to the berth to moor our boat. Once again, I had to threaten legal action to get the railway company to understand that we couldn’t return to such shallow waters and that they had to create a berth where our boat could sit. I even contacted the Port of London Authority (PLA), who are responsible for navigation issues, but they claimed this wasn’t their waters. I had contacted them once before, soon after moving to the Creek to offer payment for mooring, but they didn’t even know where we were in the creek and said it wasn’t worth doing the paperwork. Attitudes are very different today. Anyway, the rail company very begrudgingly agreed to create a berth by lifting out tonnes of spoil. They cleared just enough for us to get in the channel. The rest of the rubble was left in the Creek. In a way, it’s turned into a rather nice environment now – especially in the summer you can see these great bushes of water pepperwort growing – grubbing in the rubble that’s left. It’s turned into a diverse environment rather than just gloopy mud. And I quite like the finished railway and living under its sculptural curves but it is a mixed blessing in that it is the prime instrument that has attracted the feeding frenzy of developers to Deptford, but it’s also the reason that we do not already have some vast “luxury tower” right next to us. It’s all rather funny!

DSC_1592Sabine under the DLR railway bridge, surrounded by water pepperwort in summer.

And then the current owner and landlord turned up and bought the site off my brother and his business partners. We’d only just got back to our residence and wanted to complete an agreed deal that me and Jeannie would buy the site off my brother’s lot for £200,000. I wanted to turn the site into mainly green space with a boatbuilding area but then suddenly there’s this chap offering £260,000 and wanting a vacant possession. Obviously, we weren’t just going to leave and so my own brother and his partners tried to get us out by taking us to court! I didn’t speak to him for about 10 years after that. Luckily the judge found in our favour and the guy had to buy the land with us as sitting tenants and the peppercorn arrangement still in situ, which allowed me to rent a small piece of land for my workshop and vehicles.

After that, more boaters arrived and we grew into a nice little community here. The landlord didn’t really care much for the site and my lease agreement never changed. Seven years later, the landlord teamed up with venture capitalists The Artworks Creekside, who came along with their redevelopment proposals in 2017. The Artworks Creekside were planning to construct shipping containers 3 storeys high at the yard for small businesses and studios, with “luxury” moorings, shops and cafes. Artworks had bought a controlling share in the site and now wanted to collect fees for mooring licences, which would make them a lot of money and pay money to the PLA as well, something the PLA had had no interests in previously. As the Artworks lawyer said: ‘We’d expect central London mooring rates for such a mooring because, after all, this is the Deptford Riviera’! A detailed overview of all this can be found on the Crossfield Blog.

DSC_0606Since our conversation, Artworks have put single-storey containers with little workshops into the yard in spring 2019.

We all objected to their plans and demands, not just us boaters but also people from all around. In the end, they backed down and amended their application to containers at ground level only, which seems to work well, albeit the planning consent is only for two years so what happens after that is not hard to guess! The boaters at Creekside No. 2 have formed a co-operative and after getting a surveyor to value the land, we made Artworks an offer of £380,000 for a long-ish lease on the waterfront. We wanted to secure enough space for our boats and a small linear path, garden and service area that would even double as a public path in daylight. As far as we can see, this doesn’t clash with any of their planning. But clearly they’re waiting for much more lucrative offers than that. It’s just like in other areas of Deptford, it’s social cleansing, just on water rather than land. It’s wrong to suddenly expect a whole community of people to radically change their lifestyles in order to feed the rental desires of some investors. Actually, I don’t really enjoy doing all this, I’d much rather have a peaceful life but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve been here over 30 years and that gives Jeannie and I certain rights.”

Despite this small victory, Julian’s vision of a peaceful life is still a long way to go. Although the last year has been peaceful for the boaters, who actually appreciate some of the improvements made to the yard, it is uncertain what Artworks are planning to do with the site and the boaters in the future, and there are rumours that the space by Lewisham College, which is just opposite Julian’s and the other boats, will eventually see tower blocks constructed. This would mean a dramatic removal of Julian and Jeannie’s daylight, so dramatic it would subject to compensation in planning terms and relocation during construction. This would leave only two options: not build or completely relocate the whole community to an equivalent mooring. The chances of finding this are pretty remote. I ask Julian what having to move would mean to him. He says: “It would be a real challenge – we’d have to downsize dramatically. I think the only option would be either a marina somewhere on the Medway or possibly find another mooring somewhere nearby but that’s very unlikely. It’s funny isn’t it? From a practical level, the Creek is not great: air pollution is terrible because of the close proximity of Deptford Church Street and the almost constant slow-moving traffic due to the Tideway Tunnel and all the other construction sites steadily canyonising the creek, so there is the constant threat of something happening. But I’ve grown so fond of the place, I don’t want to move. It’s home, and besides, I’m passionate about seeing the Lenox Project through.”

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Once again, I think of Jeannie’s piece, where she says towards the end:

Landlubbers might think we are strange but actually we are no different from them. Our boat has a TV, a bath, central heating and we pay Council Tax too. The only difference with us is we go up and down on the tide twice a day… which takes some getting used to’.                     

Boaters are dwellers like all other dwellers. They have a right to live at their residencies like leaseholders and tenants have the right to live in their flats and houses. Taking away their mooring spaces displaces them in the same way knocking down houses/flats displaces the people living in them. Whether it is a boat, a flat or a house, these are dwellings which are situated in a particular place – Deptford in this case. This together makes up their home and taking this away is taking away part of their existence, of their being-in-the-world, of their sense of belonging and membership, of their right to live in Deptford.

DSC_2470Julian in his kitchen

 

 

 

 

“The amount of homeless people in this area is horrendous”

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I recently did a workshop at the 999 Club to speak about homelessness, how some of the homeless navigate Deptford and how they feel about the changes happening in the area. The 999 Club in Deptford is a charity that provides essential services for homeless people or people that are vulnerably housed in Lewisham and South London. Service users can take a shower, have breakfast, see a health professional, and stay in the Night Shelter, where they also get a hot meal. The 999 Club recently became well known for introducing 10 sleeping pods for their night shelter in December 2018, which means that instead of sleeping on a mattress in a shared open space, people can sleep in a bed in a little pod that can be closed off with a curtain. This gives the service user privacy and their own space. Service users can also take part in activities such as First Aid training, IT courses and other training, and can get help with finding work. As well as this, they can meet with an Advice and Support Worker to get help with accessing benefits, managing finances, challenging eviction and finding accommodation.

DSC_0374The sleeping pods at the night shelter

Homelessness has increased steadily over the past decade, with Lewisham being in one of the worst-faring boroughs in England. There are currently 2,000 households in Lewisham that are either sleeping rough or are in temporary accommodation. Government welfare policies and the aggressive housing market have directly contributed to this homeless crisis, leaving already vulnerable people to fend for themselves. Because of this, demand and provision at the 999 Club, which was established 25 years ago, has increased, with the Night Shelter running at full capacity and a waiting list. For more information, please visit: 999club.org

When I arrive for the workshop in the morning, the communal space is packed with people drinking tea, chatting, using the computers or just sitting in a warm place. Zisca, the Learning Coordinator, has already prepared a table and Paul, Nick and Jermaine are sitting there waiting for me. Liliana, Christiana and Bibiche, who were doing their work practice as part of their Social Care and Health Studies at the time, join the discussions. Dalair, another service user, joins the conversation later. We begin the workshop by highlighting on a Deptford map the places that are of importance to the three men before we go on to talk about memories of Deptford, how the men ended up homeless, how they navigate Deptford and its surroundings, and the impact of homelessness on mental health. We also talk about the importance of places like the 999 Club and how the 999 Club in particular has helped the four men deal with their homelessness. Each person’s story is different, however, one thing all agree on: homelessness can happen to anyone!

Workshop at the 999Club. Photos: Bibiche Alembene

DSC_0363Nick making notes during the workshop. Photo: Anita Strasser

Nick became homeless due to family issues. He was living with his son and daughter-in-law, who decided to divorce his son. Supporting his son in every way, also financially, Nick ended up not only losing all his money, but also his home and his job. Before seeking help from the council, Nick slept in his car for 2 weeks. When he finally went to the council, he was referred to the 999 Club. “I was lucky”, he says, “during the day I was here [the communal space] and during the night I was in the night shelter – so it was alright for me. It’s great that once you’re referred to this night shelter, you don’t have to apply daily to get a place; you’re here until they’ve found you somewhere. I was here for 10 weeks before I got a place, and now I’ve got my own room in a house and it’s brilliant. I can just walk in and shut the door behind me, it’s quite an amazing feeling. Anyone now who wants to see me, they have to knock on my door – that’s massive!” Nick can’t express enough praise and gratitude to the people of the 999 Club. “The perseverance of people working at the 999 Club helps people get a home again. Everyone who is in the night shelter ends up with somewhere to live eventually. They are brilliant!” Read more about Nick’s story here by clicking on this text.

Nick mapNick’s map of places in Deptford accessible to him

Looking at Nick’s map (above), I see that he has only highlighted the Albany and Deptford Lounge. This is because these are the only places where he feel he can go. “When you’re homeless, you travel from library to library because the thing to do when you’re in a homeless situation is trying to avoid boredom. I start my day coming to the 999 Club before I walk around to the Albany or Deptford Library to do some reading or watch a film. Sometimes I go to Lewisham or Peckham Library, but Deptford Lounge is the most convenient and the staff in there are very understanding. You can’t go to sleep of course but you can stay there all day if you want. You can also go to the park but not when it’s raining and cold.” With libraries being under threat in the borough of Lewisham, I ask Nick what it would mean if Deptford Lounge were to close. He says that “it would be disastrous for the area and for homeless people.” Nick explains that when you’re homeless, it’s not just about not having a home but also about not having any money to spend. This means that it is important to have local spaces where homeless people can go as they often cannot afford the bus fare to go to a free museum elsewhere for example. “A lot of us haven’t got any money but most things cost you something. I’m not saying transport should be free but there should be heavily reduced bus fares, not just for the homeless but also for people who don’t earn much, so that they can get around as well.”

Nick has only been in Deptford for a couple of years but already he thinks that Deptford is going to become a central place for the homeless. “The amount of homeless people in this area is already horrendous and it’s only getting more. The council is so overstretched that if you go there and report that you are a single man who is homeless, they just shrug their shoulders.” For Nick, the reason for this crisis is Right to Buy, which, in his opinion, was misused, and the fact that the money was not put back into building new social homes. Nick is also concerned about the amount of betting shops and thinks this should be illegal as these shops exploit poor people by giving them false hope.

In the end, we get talking about mental health issues – a huge problem for homeless people, including Nick who hasn’t always felt strong enough to deal with his difficult situation. Being homeless and out of work for the first time in his life, he felt ashamed, ashamed of his situation and having to ask for help. He also struggles with the general perception of homeless people as drug addicts or alcoholics and never as people who have suffered misfortune. He feels much more capable now that he has had support and come out the other side, but he has first-hand experience of what it means to be put on a long waiting list to get help with issues that actually need immediate attention. Being housed again was a big first step to help him cope with his situation but he still has a long road ahead of him. “Not everybody is as lucky as me to be sent to the 999 Club and to get my own place in just 10 weeks”, he says. But Nick is also incredibly pro-active and has joined many courses, workshops and training sessions. He has recently completed First Aid Training and he’s doing everything he can to bring his life back on track.

DSC_0343Workshop at the 999Club. Photo: Bibiche Alembene

Paul has also experienced severe mental health issues during his 15 years of being homeless, suffering major nervous breakdowns. Paul grew up in Deptford and became homeless after he returned from being in the army. At the time, a council only had to rehouse you if you had a local connection. As Paul had been away for a long time, he was deemed to have lost this connection and so it wasn’t the council’s duty to rehouse him. “The reason why I couldn’t get housed was because I hadn’t lived down here [Deptford] for so long so they couldn’t find me anywhere to live. They changed that legislation and today it’s possible to be referred to another council, but it’s still like warfare”, he says. Paul has lived in numerous house-shares and now lives in a garage in Camberwell. He comes to the 999 Club every day and loves walking around Deptford. Deptford is where his heart is and walking around helps him take his mind off negative things. He also takes advantage of the support that is provided for people with mental health issues.

Paul notesPaul’s drawing of his mind

Paul has many memories of Deptford, good and bad, and he also has strong views about Deptford today. Here he shares some of his experience with us. “I remember the legendary music parties in the Crypt at St Paul’s, actually I was 14 then so wasn’t supposed to be there but we looked older so could get in. We were goths at the time and just loved those parties. In the 80s, there were the Irish, the Pakistani, Bangladeshi, West Indies, that’s what made it so interesting, and the parties got a lot of us together, we were less segregated. You just knew that if you got into certain areas, like down by Millwall or the river you’re gonna get grief. We could never walk down by the river because we knew we’d get beaten up by skinheads. You really had to be able to run in those days, especially down by the river because you were so far from anywhere. Now you can walk down the river without fear, no-one’s gonna attack you. Because I grew up here, I know so many people now, people that used to get up to bad stuff, but amongst all that stuff, we just got on so well amongst ourselves. I also remember that everybody learnt a different trade and you often got a job with someone your dad knew. This is how people got into work. I don’t see such a great spirit of community these days. I mean the people who run the new businesses, especially the coffee shops, why don’t they go into local schools and offer work experiences for young local kids? We have a lot of young people here in the area and there’s a lot that could be done for them. I like the new businesses and I’m sure the people work hard but they don’t engage enough with the local community and often after a few years, they sell on and move out. I think that businesses should provide opportunities for local young people. Work experience for a local young person could give them a chance in life, set them on their way.”

Generally, Paul really likes the changes Deptford has undergone in the last decades. He thinks it looks much better, has better transport connections, and he can walk around freely without experiencing the racism that was rife in the 80s. He also wouldn’t be too upset if Deptford Market were to disappear as he used to hate being ‘dragged’ through it all the time when he was a kid. For him, the area has a lot of potential which should be used to help young local kids. What he considers really sad is that the money from properties bought through Right to Buy years ago wasn’t put back to build more social homes, and that homeowners now make huge profits on these properties while simultaneously enjoying favourable tax laws. “Social Housing has been misused, leaving poor families with nowhere affordable to live.”

Paul says that finding a home for homeless people is obviously a priority but he thinks that this in itself does not solve all problems. In his experience, homelessness comes with a lot of other issues that are often ignored. “My own issue is mental health, I fall into a depression and have suicidal thoughts; other people need to feed their addictions. Housing is always put first but people need training in how to cope with life: paying bills, managing finance, getting back to work, how to survive basically. Many who manage to get rehoused, eventually fall back with their rent because they buy drugs or a 42inch TV screen. Then housing benefit gets cut and then the depression kicks in. And it doesn’t mean that if you then approach a centre you get help instantly. Centres are over-stretched and there is a long waiting list, especially for mental health issues. So, it’s good to do as much as you can from the beginning. There is lots of training out there, and the 999 Club offers lots of courses, but sometimes people seem too despondent to engage. They think once they’re housed, everything will be fine.”

Like Nick, Paul is very proactive and goes to Deptford Lounge to search for jobs on the internet. He does jobs here and there, whatever comes up, and manages to get by like this. Having been homeless for 15 years, Paul is very clued up on the services that are available. He says the beginning, when you don’t know what’s out there, is hard, but once you have all the information, you see that there are a lot of centres that help the homeless. In order to access them, however, you need to be able to walk a lot and far.

DSC_0338.JPGDuring the workshop at the 999Club. Photo: Bibiche Alembene

Dalair, father of two who has recently been housed after being homeless for some time, agrees with Paul, saying that the physical and mental wellbeing of homeless people and those on lower incomes should be a priority as this could help them get lifted out of dire situations more quickly. He benefited from group therapy and physical exercise, particularly walking. As he joined the group late in the day, he wrote a list (incomplete) of things that need to be considered – see below:

Del notes

Finally, Jermaine tells us his story, another reminder that homelessness can happen to anybody, even once very successful people. “I put my hands to all different kinds of things to make it in life – I did music, catering and before I came here [the 999 Club], I was a property developer. I worked really hard for 20 years and managed to buy myself a 6-bedroom house on a mortgage which I was paying all the time. I also took out a loan which needed paying back, but unfortunately, I had an accident and then things started to go wrong. I couldn’t work and pay back my loan so I approached the loan company because I should have been covered through PPI (Payment Protection Insurance) but then I was told I couldn’t claim for it because my work had been seasonal when I took out the loan. I argued if that was the reason, they couldn’t have signed me up in the first place as my work was seasonal then. But they refused and so I challenged them because I had paid for cover all those years. I then got sent from branch to branch and then the company in London went into liquidation. Then I found that they were working from Guernsey, but they have different rules there and so I found myself stuck with this loan. It’s been an ongoing battle. I have received 15 eviction notices from my house but so far, I have managed to save myself each time. Now they’ve gone to the High Courts to send in the bailiffs. Again, I applied to stay in my house and I won, but then I was told I had one month to try and sell the house. So I went to an estate agent and stupidly told them about my situation because they then tried to take advantage of me – they first only offered me £100,000 for a 6-bedroom house! Then they offered £200,000, and then £500,000. I mean there is a big difference!”

DSC_0336Jermaine and Paul during the workshop at the 999 Club. Photo: Bibiche Alembene

Jermaine is aware that if he gets this money, he’s very lucky because it is unusual to get this kind of money. “But I’ve worked so hard and it’s very hard in this country to get to where I was, and then it seemed like it was all just gonna get taken away from me for nothing and there’s not much I can do. The system isn’t working for me, I tried every single possible thing and still I’m just going to lose my home. I asked what I need to do to not lose my home, they said I need to pay £35,000, which I didn’t have but I tried to get a loan to pay it and when I found a company that would give me the loan, I was told I now needed to pay £68,000. So, within the space of a week it went up by £33,000. They are making it impossible for me to pay the money. I feel so hard done by! And to think how many other people experience the same!”

Jermaine admits that before this happened, he used to think that people hanging out in the 999 Club and other centres for the homeless were lazy, that homelessness was their choice and that they didn’t want to work. Through his own experience, however, he has realised that homelessness can happen to anyone and for all kinds of unjust reasons.

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In the end, Jermaine draws a map of his Deptford (he grew up here) and it very clearly emerges what kind of places have importance for him: places of gathering. Most places he highlights are from his youth, such as schools and playgrounds, Moonshot, the Albany, a Music Technology School on Edward Street and the market. He loved what is now the Richard MacVicar Adventure Playground on New King Street, where he attended wood workshops, painting classes and where he had a lot fun. He also has fond memories of Moonshot, where there were discos, basketball, tennis, ice-skating, days out and where he had his first date. He also remembers when his cousin got pulled out of the club by his ears by his father because they had stayed late. He also used to go to the Albany, where he did some shows as a performer, and finally, the Music Technology School, where you were sent when you were “a bit of a bad boy” (he laughs). Jermaine also worked for various places in the area and particularly remembers working for various stalls on the market, selling things like socks, ladies’ and men’s underwear, scarves, gloves, shoes and handbags. “I like thinking about those days, it makes me feel good”, he says at the end.

Jermaine notesJermaine’s map of Deptford

In conclusion we agree that it is important to remember that homelessness can happen to anyone and for a variety of reasons. We also agree that the sooner one asks for help, the sooner one might get out of it. Nick, Paul, Dalair and Jermaine, have all been very proactive in seeking help, but it is a long road to get back on track. In the end, Paul highlights that there are also a lot of hidden homeless people who do not come to these centres and that we need to reach out to them too. “There are a lot of hidden homeless women out there who are too afraid to ask for help. For them it is much harder to ask for help as there is always the potential to be abused, beaten and trafficked. You wouldn’t believe how many homeless women are out there! We need to reach out to them to get them access centres like the 999 Club.”

In the end, we have lunch together, chat some more and take a few pictures with Jermaine and Nick and the volunteers. Everybody else had left by then. Thank you to Nick, Paul, Jermaine and Dalair for participating and sharing your stories, thanks to Liliana, Christiana and Bibiche for helping, and thanks to Zisca for making this workshop possible.

Photos by Bibiche Alembene and Anita Strasser.

“People here don’t want demolition”

Benson Odidi is the proprietor of Divine Cargo on 355 New Cross Road. Divine Cargo is a shipping company that provides a full range of air, sea and road freight services. If you need a parcel over 23 kg shipping anywhere in the world, Divine Cargo is the place to go, and if you need to have a parcel shipped here, Divine Cargo can also be a collection point. On the premises, there are also computers, copy machines and facilities for scanning, project binding and using the Internet. And finally, there is also an array of colour samples of African textiles which can be ordered in bulk and shipped anywhere in the world.

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I am speaking to Bola, Benson’s wife, who in his absence tells me about their business, the area and the fact that their shop is under threat of demolition. The first thing Bola tells me is the kind of relationships that have formed over the years through the shop, and that this is not just a shop but plays a role in the community as well. She tells me about an elderly gentleman who came in asking for help after suffering an attack on a night bus. “This elderly gentleman, who used to live upstairs, came in asking for help with filling in an insurance form to give to the police because he had been attacked by a group of youths on the night bus. He’d been in before a few times using the computer or asking for help with other paperwork and as I’ve always assisted him, he felt he could come in here asking for help. A few weeks later he died because the punch to his head did some damage. And because I helped him fill in the form, I was able to tell his family what happened. Without this they would not know the reason for this death.”

I then ask Bola about the shop – how it all started, what they do and how the planned demolition will affect them. “We started in 2010. The parade wasn’t really lively then, many shops were closed and properties empty. Immediately after we came others followed and the parade is really lovely now. Some put up Christmas decorations, people sit outside, sometimes there’s music playing and the children are dancing. There is a really nice atmosphere here and children and adults like it.”

Bola tells me that many of their customers are (Goldsmiths) students who, after finishing their studies, need their belongings shipped back home or a place elsewhere, or who come in to have their projects printed and bound for college. But their customer base is very mixed. Some elderly people who live upstairs come in to use the computers, often asking for help with technology and paperwork. Other people, also often living upstairs, have their parcels delivered here (and Divine Cargo also collect smaller parcels to be picked up by neighbours who are not at home), and many people come in ordering textiles in large bulk to be shipped somewhere – often to Africa for a traditional wedding or elsewhere for curtains.

DSC_2235When I ask Bola about the demolition plans it becomes clear again, as with the other businesses, that it would mean the end of their business venture. “All the rates will go up – for phone lines, broadband, water and rent. We won’t be able to exist with those rates. We would become jobless. It would also deprive our customers of our services.”

Bola understands that redevelopment has to happen, but that this should happen in areas where there is space or where buildings are in a really bad state. According to her, this does not apply here: “The buildings here are fine, they are not in need of demolition. They need maintenance and they should have been maintained better to stop demolition but since we’ve been here no repair work has ever been done. And there is no space here already. The traffic is always congested and with more people there will be even more traffic. People here don’t want demolition; it’s not the right decision and it will affect a lot of people. The parade is already lively as it is – we are like a family here and demolition will separate many people who have built up lasting friendships. For example, there is an elderly man living upstairs who comes down to the parade every morning. As we are the first shop to open, we often sit down and have a chat. Or sometimes people just come in asking for help with letters to the council.”

DSC_2234When I ask Bola what she would like to say to the council she replies with: “Listen to the people, take their experience into consideration. Revisit the decision to demolish – it’s ok the way the area is, it just needs decorating.”

What strikes me most though is what Bola says afterwards. “Children love the parade, they come here every day after school and hang out here – it’s such a nice atmosphere. And they know us and they come in to use the toilet. There is no public toilet in New Cross, the next one is in Deptford Lounge. And it’s not just children that use our toilet, other people too. Some people are diabetic or have other health conditions where they might suddenly need to go urgently, and we let them. I know we as a business don’t have to but we need to look after the less privileged people – there are no more places for them to go and not having a toilet to go to might mean not going out for them. Today it’s all about money, it’s all for the posh and those with money. I know we need business but it doesn’t mean we can’t look after the less privileged.”

In the end, Bola tells me that she has experience working with people with Autism and knows about issues of access for less privileged people and how they are treated at times. And when I listen to her passionate account about the lack of public toilets, the wider implications of this influx of private money and the persistent cutbacks of public facilities become even more apparent, restricting access and participation even further for the less privileged.

Evelyn Community Centre: community store and much more

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I recently spent some time at the Community Store in the Evelyn Community Centre in Deptford, speaking to the amazing volunteers and the families that shop there. Natasha Rickett (front left in image above), manager of Bunny Hop Day Nursery located at the centre, and Keith Walton (back left), Chair of Evelyn Tenants and Residents Association with an office in the centre upstairs, were approached by Lewisham Homes to set up this Community Store to provide  families on low incomes with affordable fresh food. Together they developed a concept, and with funding from Lewisham Homes for the first year, Natasha and Keith decided to go for it and opened their store for the first time in February 2019. Supported by over 10 keen volunteers – local residents such as Jane Walton, Keith’s wife, local councillor Silvana Kelleher, and others, some of whom are also members of the scheme, the store became an instant success. “Our plan was to make it look like a small-scale store where members could pick what they want”, Natasha tells me. “The idea was to remove the stigma of food banks and the perception of begging and to provide people with a shopping experience in their local community space. People pay £3.50 a week membership and for that price they get about £30 worth of shopping each week. Our aim was to slowly build up to 20 members in the first 6 months and to then slowly increase the number of members. However, on the first day, already 20 people signed up and we had another 20 on the waiting list. When we shut after the first day, we just couldn’t believe how well it went. For me this was a massive eye opener to see so many people in need of this. A lot of our customers are parents from the nursery, some of whom are literally on the breadline, and to see their happy faces when going home with 4 bags full of fresh food is just wonderful!”

The shop is open every Tuesday from 5 – 7pm. More information can be found here: https://www.lewishamhomes.org.uk/evelyn-community-store-opens-its-doors/ Pop down to the official opening event of the community story tomorrow, 31 July 2019 1 – 4pm with “family activities, stalls, food and financial inclusion support from the welfare benefits team” (lewishamhomes.org.uk/events/evelyn-community-store-opening-event). 

The food is collected from FareShare on Deptford Trading Estate and comes from leading supermarkets. Instead of going to waste, good quality surplus food is donated to FareShare, and places like Evelyn Community Centre pay an annual membership for a particular package. If requirements increase, the membership fee increases. On top of their weekly delivery, surplus food orders can also be made online on a live feed, depending on what is available, enabling the centres to top up their weekly deliveries with special additions. Keith then often collects the food from FareShare, or sometimes directly from the supermarket, which can then be frozen at the centre to remain fresh. “And it’s great when you can provide families with that bit of extra and special food, for example for Easter or Christmas”, Natasha says. “To see people’s faces when they leave is so rewarding! People don’t feel ashamed coming here, that’s why we have the tables out for people to sit down and talk, it has a community feel so people don’t have to come in hiding their faces. And while they’re waiting, they can have a cup of tea and some biscuits.”

All this involves a lot of groundwork and work behind the scenes, which Natasha and Keith do on a voluntary basis: going online every morning to see what surplus food is available, collecting food, freezing it, informing people, advertising, organising, etc. Sometimes they also contact supermarkets and companies directly to see if they can obtain free nappies or food for Christmas to give to families. One Christmas, Natasha contacted Aldi to see if she could pick up some surplus food on Christmas Eve. When she arrived, she was given so much food that she had to ring Keith to come with the minibus as she couldn’t fit it all into her car. They then distributed all the food among the families that came for a pickup. “Food poverty is always going to be an issue here, especially with families that are on low incomes or on benefits. Some families are on the breadline and it’s nice to see that some of these families have become members of the Community Store”, Natasha says.

Natasha Ricketts is founder and manager of Bunny Hop Day Nursery located at Evelyn Community Centre. She trained at a nursery in the same location about 25 years ago and after working there 18 months, the opportunity to set up her own nursery came up. Together with another lady who now works elsewhere, she set up Bunny Hop in 1996. Although it is a private nursery, Natasha decided a long time ago that she wanted the nursery to be available to local families on low incomes. With the view that she wasn’t going to retire early, and the fact that she has comparatively low overheads, despite increases in rent and food prices, she charges low rates. This, together with her flexible attitude to timings and other requirements (i.e. children are supposed to bring their own lunch but as some families cannot afford this, Natasha often feeds the kids), and the fact that Natasha is willing to be here all day long, has enabled many struggling parents and families, from all different cultures and walks of life, to leave their children at the nursery while they go to work, fulfil carer responsibilities or have the chance to get much-needed rest. “There are children here that unfortunately haven’t had the best start in life and if we can help them a little bit, we will”, Natasha says. Because of this, and the fact that some staff have worked with Natasha for over 20 years, the next generation of families are now bringing their children to the nursery, surprised and happy to see the same staff still work there.

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The nursery is located in the middle of Evelyn Estate and is surrounded by greenery. There is a large, lovingly decorated indoor space, one sheltered and roofed outdoor space and one fully open and outdoor play area. I’m struck by how green and quiet it is, meaning there are no cars or streets around and rather than high iron gates, which you usually see around playgrounds, the fence is covered in hedges so all you see is greenery. There is a lot of space, equipment and toys, and you can see it’s an enjoyable place for kids to play. “Most our children come from high rises”, Natasha explains, “and you know which ones because they’re the ones that want to be outside all the time cos there’s no balconies and a lot of the flats are over-occupied so when they come here, they want to be outside, come rain or shine.” Natasha says that three quarters of the families come from the immediate area, some from just outside the area and only about 3% come from outside Lewisham (but these are people who used to live in Deptford and attended the nursery themselves).

Because Natasha is at the Evelyn Community Centre all day, she, together with Keith have become the volunteers that deal with the day-to-day tasks that come up. Although there is a caretaker for the building, Natasha and Keith sweep floors, clean the toilets and kitchen area and do a lot of the repairs – particularly Keith. Keith says that because Lewisham Council is in the process of transferring the centre over to Lewisham Homes, hoping Lewisham Homes will take responsibility, repairs aren’t being dealt with. “For me that’s unfair because we’ve all been paying our rent and taxes to the council (there are others that rent offices) and they’re not putting the money back into the centre”, he says.  One of Natasha and Keith’s biggest questions is: “Where is all the money going? And all the money that is being saved by closing so many other centres – where is it going? It has not been put into the remaining centres so where is it? Because there is money – just nobody knows where it’s going!” With a 2-3-year wait on getting repairs done, Keith and Natasha prefer to take the bull by its horns and do it them themselves. At one point, Natasha even got a loan out to have a trip hazard fixed in the garden which otherwise would have meant that kids wouldn’t be able to play outside. It was the council’s responsibility and Natasha tried ages to get it remedied, but rather than waiting for an accident to happen while waiting to have it fixed, Natasha decided to sort it out herself.

When the centre seemed to be under threat a couple of years ago, Natasha and Keith were ready to fight. Evelyn Community Centre was on a list of centres that were potentially going to be closed, so each centre needed to compete to remain open. Natasha and Keith collected signatures, listed all the things they do at the centre and went to the consultation meetings. “It was a very scary time because you kind of get complacent when you’ve been here so long and then suddenly the thought of not being here! There’s no way they can take this down, there’s too many kids that need that place, where would they go?”, Natasha asks. Keith says there are now possible plans to knock down the centre and rebuild it within 50 new properties for rent but without parking. “How are people supposed to access the centre then? It’s all very well trying to reduce traffic and building cycle lanes, but not all people can cycle or walk. We have people with mobility issues here – how are they going to access their community centre? Not having parking spaces is not going to reduce traffic. People will just park in adjacent streets, making it impossible for others to find a parking space. Sometimes plans are really badly thought-through.”

For now, the centre remains open but with the council not willing to hire out the centre to more user groups than are currently there, and with all the council’s assets being sold off to develop flats, you never know what will happen next. “We just hope the council is going to start hiring it out again. We already have some user groups such as us, the nursery, a Vietnamese Dance Group, a Church group, a knitting and crochet group – we all pay rent, but there are a lot of other things people want to do, like an after-school-club, a dance club for the youngsters with hip-hop and street dance, and these things bring people together, it stops segregation! And it would bring in revenue too. Community centres are vital for an area, especially this one because it’s right in the middle of an estate so it brings all people together!”

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Since the cuts and the closure of so many vital centres that used to help people with paperwork, Natasha and Keith have also become go-to persons for people needing help filling in forms and other things.  Natasha expands: “One day this elderly gentleman came here, looking for the housing office, and I said ‘Sweetheart, that closed years ago. Is there anything I can help you with?’ So we sat down, I filled in his forms for him, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and posted it. After that he kept coming back about 2 or 3 times year to get help with his paperwork. Then he stopped coming, maybe he got too poorly. But if we hadn’t been here, what would he have done? Or the kids that are in the basketball court outside, when it’s really hot, they come in asking for water. So in the summer, we tend to put jugs of water in the fridge so we can give them water.”

Other times when Natasha opened the community centre for people in need was when shelter was needed for residents having been evacuated due to a fire breaking out in flats on Evelyn Estate on two different occasions. Being so well connected with local people, Natasha was informed immediately upon which she informed residents that she had opened the centre. Both times, residents spent the night there, had access to shelter, hot drinks and a quiet space for mourning and counselling upstairs. Another time she opened the centre during a power cut, enabling mothers to prepare bottles for their babies. Natasha loves living in Deptford, she likes its diversity, the community relations she has built up over the 30 years she’s been here, and she likes her place within the community. Despite working from “stupid o’clock to stupid o’clock”, if she can help local families that are in need, she is more than happy to do so.

Spending time at the community centre, particularly Tuesday evenings during the community store, I can see how important this centre and its initiatives are for local people. There is a buzz in the hall with people chatting, kids playing and parents doing the shopping. I sat down and chatted to a few people to hear their views and experience of Deptford, regeneration, housing and welfare cuts. I met two young mothers who shared their experiences of being homeless due to unfortunate circumstances in their lives. They talked of sleeping in a car with an 8-month old baby or sofa-surfing for months on end; of being treated as a number in homelessness statistics rather than as human beings; of the horrific and lengthy bidding process to get housed only to find yourself too scared to be in the kitchen with your children in case the dodgy boiler the council refuses to replace explodes again. And I met Rebecca, an 11-year-old girl who dreams of being an artist and who eagerly wrote a poem about how much she loves Deptford. As her mum did the shopping, she made a beautiful collage using some photographs I brought in to express her views about Deptford (see below). Also other shoppers expressed their views using images representing all kinds of different perspectives of Deptford which I’ve taken over the last couple of years (green spaces, new developments, council blocks, old and new shops) and writing comments (see below).

Rebecca

Esther

I also spoke to Natasha and Keith about their views, and like the members I chatted to, they like some things and are sad about other things. One of their bug bears is that, in their view, there isn’t enough consultation with residents and that decisions seem to be made by people not living in the area. Natasha’s particularly cross about the way Deptford High Street has been and will be changed (pavements have been flattened to merge with the road; promised parking wasn’t delivered; the planned one-way system). “When they first changed Deptford High Street, when they said the pavements need doing, they said that all the residents and tenants had been consulted by sending letters out, inviting residents to come to consultations. So I asked a few traders on the High Street and none of them had received any letters. So, I don’t know who decides what’s to be done and how but I doubt it’s people that live or work in Deptford. Some people are making these changes which they think are for the best, but best for whom? We have a major issue with parking and the change in road layout has resulted in more rather than less congestion. It has certainly made my commute worse!” Keith agrees, saying the needs of local people are not being taken into consideration, particularly when it comes to parking.

Another issue for Natasha is the proposed moving of bus stops on Evelyn Street, which, in her view, seems to be in favour of commuters and new developments’ aesthetic rather than people in the area. “Who asked the elderly whether moving the bus stops would be convenient for them? They say there were consultations but with whom? Did they reach out to elderly and disabled people who might get confused or whose journeys will be made more difficult if bus stops are moved? You can’t just put letters through the door and expect people to come to consultations. Some people can’t read, others can’t see, others can’t leave the house. And many cannot navigate online sites to put their views in. I don’t know what the solution is but if you tell me you consulted the community, then I’d like to see evidence for that!” Natasha herself lives with a disability relating to her back, which is not immediately visible. She relies on a huge daily dose of strong pain medication to get through the day and at any moment she could have an episode that would leave her unable to walk and with pain that can only be relieved through spinal block or an epidural at the hospital. She knows what it means to not be able to get out of the house or not being able to get help fast enough. And Keith knows what it means not being able to access the increasingly more digitised information and consultation processes. He is dyslexic and despite being very computer-literate and involved with the local authorities[1], he finds it difficult to deal with all the written information. “There’s never going to be such a thing as complete digital inclusion. There are too many people in this borough with disabilities and dyslexia like me, that don’t allow you to be included.”

DSC_2514Keith tucking into pie & mash at Goddard’s before it closed in October 2018.

Another thing Natasha dislikes is the rapid increase of rent prices for businesses on the High Street. “There was a flower shop next door to Albin’s (Funeral parlour) which did really well. It was lovely with little trinkets in the window, and the lady had built up a nice clientele and friendships in the area. I saw her on her last day – she looked like a defeated woman. She said the rent was raised so much in one go that she couldn’t afford to keep the shop open. I just don’t understand why they would do that. The shop has been empty since then – it’s such a shame! [2] It’s sad because there is a lot of potential on the High Street and people are investing into their businesses and a year later the rent doubles and they have to close again. Instead of making Deptford more diverse and getting people to come down and stay, they’re just shutting everywhere down so it slowly dampens everyone’s spirit.” Natasha likes the new places on the High Street, like the flower shop that’s now gone, the gym, the Gin Bar, Tony’s Daily and other places. “It’s absolutely lovely to have little shops again but how long will they be there before they’re shifted out?”

Natasha also likes some of the new housing developments, although some of them are too crowded for her. She particularly likes the Anthology Development just down the road from the community centre – not only does she think the development looks fantastic, she also likes their ethos as one day they came in, offering to decorate the inside of Evelyn Community Centre. “They came round with all the different colour charts they use, asked us to have a look and get back to them. And since the council wasn’t fulfilling its responsibilities again, we really appreciated the grand gesture! And then the builders they were using came round and donated toys made by their apprentices, among them a toy kitchen (image above) which the kids love! So that was amazing!” But as much as Natasha likes the Anthology development, she is also aware that the people who live on Arklow Road are losing much of their daylight, making their homes gloomy even on a bright summer’s day. And she is particularly concerned about the Tyre Shop who’d been there ‘forever’. “Did he have to go? Was he outpriced? Did he have to move because they’ll put housing there? Did he have to go because he doesn’t fit with the image of the development? I don’t understand because he was always busy. I would really like to know what happened to him.”

DSC_1992New Cross Tyre Shop by Arklow Road and the Anthology Deptford Foundry Development in 2018.

[1] Keith was awarded Tenant Champion by Lewisham Homes in 2016 for the good work he does in his local community. More info here: https://www.lewishamhomes.org.uk/keith-is-24housing-tenant-champion/

[2] The shop became Deptford Beds in July 2019.

 

 

“I like living in Austin House”

DSC_1542Quoc Ton Luu and his wife Pam live in a council property on the third floor of Austin House. They have lived here for 30 years and brought up their four children in this flat. All four children, two boys and two girls with the eldest 48 years old, have moved out already, and until 20 years ago, Quoc Ton’s mother lived with them as well.

Quoc Ton came to Britain as a Vietnamese refugee in the 1980s. They lived in Newcastle for 5 years before moving to London. “My son liked London so we followed him”, he laughs. “There were no jobs in Newcastle but there were jobs in London so we moved here”, he adds.

Quoc Ton is a retired carpenter and has put down all the floors in the flat himself and made all the beautiful doors as well. He’s also a keen gardener and the window sill in the living room is adorned with colourful orchids. He also grows Ginseng on the balcony, making the approach to the front door look very inviting. Generally, despite his age, he’s a very active man and still goes jogging regularly. Quoc Ton likes living in Austin House and would like to stay. “I like living here, I like the area. It’s near all the stations, it’s very handy.” When I ask him how he feels about the demolition plans, he takes a pragmatic stance. “If everybody else will move, I’ll move. I will follow other people. But living here is better for me. I prefer staying here.” When I ask him if he would make all the floors and doors again himself if he had to move to a new place, he replies “yes, of course” with a smile.

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“We tenants, we are not going to win”

DSC_2497Bernard is a pensioner who lives on the 2nd floor in Austin House on Achilles Street, which is up for demolition. Until his retirement in September 2017, Bernard was a Drugs and Alcohol Worker, helping young drug users find a way back into normal life. It was not something he had planned; he had done a moulding apprenticeship in a factory in Charlton in the 70s and became a skilled moulder/core maker for making ship propellers. When the Propeller section moved to Birkenhead in the mid 70s, he didn’t know what to do, so he went to Oxford Street to look for work, where he met a blind man from South Africa. Bernard told him about himself and that he didn’t know what to do and the man said: “It sounds like you like working with people. Why don’t you try working with young people?” Bernard was intrigued and then it all fell into place.

Bernard found voluntary work in north London to help troubled young adults, where he was taught everything from the ground up. And through some coincidences, one of the managers there, Karl, was to play a big part in Bernard’s long-term future. When Bernard took a paid job in a mental support office in Brixton, Karl was Bernard’s manager again, and after Bernard was diagnosed with sickle cell disease after coming out of a 7-week coma after falling ill at a family party, Karl offered him a job in Newham as soon as he was getting better. “Do you want a job working with young Class A drug users?”, he asked Bernard. This is how he became an Alcohol and Drugs Worker.

After being diagnosed, Bernard needed to be rehoused into more suitable accommodation. He was living in Forest Hill at the time and then he was offered this council flat in Austin House. At first, he didn’t realise where Achilles Street was, despite the fact that he grew up in New Cross, but when he arrived in 2005, he immediately went down Memory Lane. “I came to the UK in the early 1960s when I was 9 years old and grew up not far from Achilles Street”, he tells me. “I used to live in Batavia Road, went to Childeric Primary and attended the doctor’s surgery at Clifton Rise where now the new flats stand. What is now Fordham Park used to be all houses and what is now the underpass by New Cross Station and McMillan Park used to a road that would take you all the way from Pagnell Street to the Albany”, Bernard remembers. “It has changed so much; my past is all but a memory now.” Later his family moved to Brockley and Bernard has moved around London a fair bit, but he has always stayed closely connected to New Cross through school, music and friends. Sickle cell disease has brought him back to New Cross for good.

Bernard remembers Moonshot (when it was still in its original location) and Sybil Phoenix, a Caribbean woman who put her heart and soul into looking after the black community, organising youth and community projects that kept young people off the streets. Bernard was one of those kids, and all the events organised at Moonshot kept him out of trouble. “At that time, there were lots of gangs in the area and there was the Lewisham Gang who invited me to become a member. At first I said yes but then I asked them what they do. When they said they steal, rob and break into people’s houses I declined. My parents had brought me up to never steal and always tell the truth, so I said no. Unfortunately, that made me the enemy of the gang. I remember there was a fight one day between my friend George, a local guy who was part of our community, and another gang. There was a lot of territorial rivalry between Jamaicans and this gang was on our turf in the Childeric playground. It got nasty and George stabbed someone in the side; I was holding George’s coat. To this day I can hear the blade going into the guy’s body and it will stay with me forever. The fight stopped – the guys hadn’t expected to be beaten. I just ran home.”

Life in the 70s was tough for a Jamaican living in New Cross, and Bernard was part of the British Black Power Movement. He remembers his first experience of racism. “I was 12 and walking home from School in my school uniform and then three white women walking past said to me: ‘You have dirty black knees!’ I ran home and asked my parents to buy me long pants!” Later, when he was a young adult, he had a friend living close to the Millwall Den and they used to watch the games together but afterwards “I could never walk her home, I had to leave straight after the game because otherwise I wouldn’t have made it home in peace.”  Bernard was nearly killed at Dartford Train Station, when a group of skinheads who’d been drinking in the Railway Tavern, beat him up really badly. He only survived because a white girl shouted: “You’re going to kill him!” and then they stopped. The train guard put him and another badly beaten black guy onto the train. “I have no recollection of that train journey but luckily the other guy also got off at New Cross and somehow I made it home.”

Bernard is clear that racism still exists today and that we need to recognise it’s there; that parents need to make their children aware. “My parents always taught me to do the right thing, so I’m not bitter. But sometimes there is no cohesion within families, the way some kids talk to their parents! There was a difference in my upbringing, in the values I was taught, to always be honest and respectful. And there were other people that looked after me and influenced me a lot – three in particular. The first was the milkman I used to do the milk round with. He was the sweetest man I’ve ever met. He couldn’t care less that I was black; he took me under his wing. Then there was Mr Laws, an English Teacher at Samuel Pepys Primary School, which doesn’t exist anymore. He would teach us black kids how to pronounce difficult words. And there was one of my mentors when I started up my apprenticeship in Charlton – I learnt a lot from him. ‘What people say is a measure of who they are’ – is really what I have learnt. Children are not bad by default – it really depends on what they’re taught and told when they grow up. But I had a choice and I made something of my life, and if I could do it then others can do it too. People can choose to be good people.”

Bernard went to school with Jah Shaka (or Nev Powell as he was called before), the well-known DJ whose sound system, the Shaka Sound, became well-known across the country for promoting roots music and a spiritually charged atmosphere*. Before Shaka became famous, he used to DJ in Moonshot using the sound system Freddie Cloudburst. Bernard has always loved music and was part of that scene at the time and it was through a strange coincidence that he became a DJ himself. “Shaka was the DJ that night but was not known by that name at that time. We were in Sybil’s house before with Shaka getting ready. We were in different rooms and Shaka asked me to put a record on to check that the equipment was working. I was so nervous my hands were shaking. I’d never put on a record before. My hand was shaking so hard I dropped the needle onto the record. I looked up and then the strangest thing happened. All the people in the room were looking at me and I became aware how much I loved the attention I was getting. It was magic. It was then that I decided to become a DJ.”

Music became Bernard’s No 1 love. Bernard used to DJ in a club on Peckham High Street called Bouncing Ball (later Mr Bees) but he also recalls a night where he was DJ-ing in Ram Jam in Brixton. “You have to understand that people who used to go to Ram Jam knew their music; resident artists there were mostly Jamaicans and so expectations were high. If you didn’t hit the mark with the music, people would not move. There was no-one on the dance floor at first when I started but I remember that after I started playing music the dance floor filled up. It was this power of music that was greater than I. Music was the love of my life”, he says, “music, liquor and weed, this was the life. It was rough and at times dangerous, but life was good!”

His DJ career ended when the smoking of weed became so much that he lost focus. “There are times when your senses are heightened or slowed down and if you’re not mindful, the music will draw you in and distract you from focus. It was a very competitive scene so there was someone ready straight away to take over from me.” But Bernard has no regrets. This love for music is now gone and has been replaced by the love for God; Bernard became a born-again Christian. He first had doubts, but it was God that told him he would blind him to music, and this is what happened. Bernard stopped DJ-ing. But music has taken on another role in Bernard’s life: he’s learning to play the guitar. Now that he is retired, he’s bought himself a guitar and is taking lessons at home.

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Bernard likes living in Austin House because he’s back where he grew up. Living on the 2nd floor is convenient because of his illness. As Bernard can fall ill any time, the ambulance need to be able to get to him quickly so he can’t live higher than on the 2nd floor. Bernard also knows some neighbours who are there for him if he needs them. “There’s Bill obviously – he’s been living here for a long time. He also helped me out once when I locked myself out. Since then I always have a set of keys in my pocket. And there are some other people I know, but the community here has changed a heck of a lot. Many of our former neighbours have moved on or died. Goldsmiths has enlarged its territory and students aren’t mixing very well. They’re here for a bit and then go off again. You can talk to the older folks but the younger ones aren’t interested.”

Bernard would rather he didn’t have to move and he’s not happy about the demolition plans. “I first got wind of the demolition plans was when the council came round telling me they are making provisions for the homeless. I’m not saying no to that, of course we need to house the homeless, but it’s the way the council goes about it. They just steamroll over people’s views, and will the flats really be for the homeless? The council need to put more thought into this and think about how it will affect us. I’ve seen the full implications for our community in the past and now we’re going through the same again. All the community spirit of people living here, and the effort people have put into it over the years, that’s all going to be lost again. There’s one woman who used to live here but her rent went up so much (it’s a privately-rented flat), she’s had to move to Catford. But I can still phone her up and tell her I’m sick or without money and she’ll be here to help. Such relationships take years to build up. But everything has already changed so much. I grew up with certain things in my mind, buildings and places in the area, and they are only distant memories now. Some people call it progress; I don’t think it’s progress if all community centres and council homes are being knocked down. And if you don’t know what was there before, you won’t understand. At least my memories can’t be erased, when I walk through the area, through Fordham Park, I walk through people’s houses because that was there when I grew up. But when I’m gone, my memories will go with me and my history will be erased. But the way the whole area is changing, the local communities will also be erased.”

Bernard is a council tenant and has been promised to be rehoused. He has informed the council that he cannot live higher up than the 2nd floor but hasn’t heard back. According to him, it is only a matter of waiting now. “We tenants, we are not going to win but please treat us right, treat us fairly! We need better regeneration and think about all people. They want to build a car park on Clifton Rise and have Achilles Street free from parked cars. But I am registered as disabled; sometimes I cannot walk as far as Clifton Rise, especially on days when I’m not too well. I need close access to my car and need to be able to get home quickly. At the same time, I need to keep fit and do exercise to manage my illness but on days when I feel dizzy or weak, I cannot walk to Wavelengths to do exercise, I need somewhere closer and cheap to use a gym. I’m a pensioner now and I know what it means to live on a state pension. I used to go on holiday once a year and never worry about money, but now that I’m retired, things have changed a lot. So, I’m limited, physically and financially. I can take sick at any time and I’m very aware of that; the first sign of back pain and I need to stop everything right away and go home. So, it’s good to have people around me that I know and can trust, but I don’t know where these people are going to be housed after that. I hope I’ll be fine.”

*Reference: Anim-Addo, J. (1995) Longest Journey: A History of Black Lewisham. Deptford Forum Publishing

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