Concerned about the number of children living in squalid conditions in temporary accommodation, Jane Williams decided to do something about it. A year on, she has some learning to share with service providers
Photo: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian
A will attempt to get a good night’s sleep sharing a double bed with her 18-month-old twins and her grandmother
F will watch her 2-year-old daughter, already traumatised by domestic violence, kept awake and cowering by the shouts of drug users and drunks outside her door in B&B accommodation
L will listen to her 3-year-old wheezing again because the window by her bed is cracked and mould on the wall is growing faster than she can clean it off.
The doctor wants to charge £65 to write a letter confirming that her wheezing is made worse by the poor housing
In December 2017, there were 1,994 under-fives living in temporary accommodation in the London borough of Newham. This number represents a need that is never-ending. It is refreshed weekly with the churn of new families being housed in Newham while others are moved away.
I am able to give you a number thanks to a FOI request made by a newspaper. I’m not sure what the most up to date figure is as there is no agency that keeps track of the under-fives swilling from borough to borough, effectively homeless. I imagine it is likely to be about the same.
When I was a governor at Kay Rowe Nursery and Children’s Centre in Forest Gate, one of the recurring discussions was how to reach families in the hostels, hotels, HMOs (houses of multiple occupancy) and refuges in the area. We knew they were packed with under-fives but we weren’t seeing these children at the centre.
On taking redundancy in January 2017, I decided to investigate. I went to one of the temporary accommodation blocks and asked the mums what was stopping them. They told me that they were financially, socially and emotionally unable to get to the local children’s centre up the road - it may as well have been miles away. Next, I approached local agencies involved in children’s services. Once they knew the situation, they’d have to respond. Or so I believed.
By May of 2017, the horrible realisation that nobody was going to do anything sunk in. In June, myself, a local councilor and ex-nursery head, a few plucky volunteers and local health visitors, alongside the London Black Women’s Project, Shelter, Workplace Newham and the Kay Rowe Nursery and Children’s Centre set up a pilot program in a donated hall to assess the needs of this group of parents and design a service to meet it. The depth of need shocked even our most world-weary volunteers.
I felt like I could not do anything, I was stuck, I was failing as a mum. I thought – they should just take my children away, and I will just crawl away into the forest. I could not cope any more.
As well as these harrowing insights, we also learned from the mothers what they needed to make their lives better. They wanted somewhere safe and spacious for their kids to play and where they could be during the day. They wanted someone who would listen and understand without passing judgement. They wanted a way of accessing help that did not involve traipsing around the borough on the bus or visiting hot, inhospitable office blocks.
We designed the Magpie Project to reflect these needs. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday mums can bring their children to a place where they can play with engaging and interesting toys. This is a huge deal for children whose only play space at home is their bed because the floor is too filthy or infested.
The women stay for the snacks and soup, have access to a clothes banks, nappies and toiletries and get their travel expenses reimbursed. The project provides access to a social network and when the women are ready, we invite professionals such as health visitors and immigration advisors to the sessions to help them start seeking solutions to their problems – housing or otherwise.
At the beginning, we worked out a set of basic rules of behaviour that everyone follows, but apart from that, we do not set up expectations for people to fall below. Our guiding principle is that the women choose what happens. If a mother needs someone to take her baby so she can sit and stare at the wall for an hour that is what we do. A mum fell asleep in a workshop a few weeks ago – we did not wake her. She had been working nights and looking after her children during the day.
We start from where the mums are – not where we think they should be.
What is so innovative about this?
Well, exactly! It seemed obvious to us that if someone is struggling the best thing to do is ask what we can do to help. We didn’t realise that this is not the approach that most other organisations take.
When we spoke to local agencies about these missing under-fives – the children in temporary accommodation whose needs they were not meeting - we were surprised to hear responses such as “These are not our children”. In other words, the children are housed in Newham by housing or social services departments of another borough. “These families do not engage” translates as “we have not been able to engage them”. Or our particular bug-bear: “These families are hard to reach”. We even had one local authority member of children’s services tell us that they had no statutory duty to under-fives whose parents did not actively seek help.
We countered by rephrasing the problem in terms such as “all our children”, “failed by services” and suggesting that perhaps these families were not hard to reach but that existing services might be “difficult to access”. That it should not be the sole responsibility of parents to find, navigate and negotiate help. Services that provide that help should also make some effort to engage.
Our message is this: Get out of the office, get out from behind the desk, take off the lanyard, go to a neutral space, put the kettle on, pay travel and listen. In this situation, mums are the experts. They know how they need to be helped. They could help you design a service that works well for them, and by association, everyone.
That is what we did and within a year, we have a community of 185 “hard to reach” and “difficult to engage” families. Before we came along, half these families were not in touch with any children’s services. Now they are. We have also walked with people on their journey to full immigration status and less temporary housing.
We have big plans for the project over the next few years including partnering with organisations that can help us put mums’ experience of services – not services’ experience of mums - at the centre of policy decisions, by raising their voices, validating their viewpoint, and mapping their journeys into and out of homelessness.
But the learning from Magpie is not just about how services could close the gap between themselves and the families they purport to serve. It is about the untapped good will and love that we could all work to unleash within our communities to support our most vulnerable members. It is about how a group of individuals can make a difference. We were a group of people who saw an injustice, got concerned about it and took it upon ourselves to do something.
It is too easy to think that the problem is too big or that it is not our business. The message from Magpie is if you break the injustice down and think about what you can do together to change it, incredible things can happen.
I had been asking for help for four years. Nobody heard me. When I came to the Magpie Project I thought ‘these people are listening! They want to help’. I grabbed that opportunity with both hands
It takes a village: how to set up a community project
-Involve local businesses, ask for sponsorship, donations and support.
-Involve community organisations. We approached the community garden, the local NCT and Women's Institute and asked them to do what they could in terms of fundraising, donating and volunteering.
-Let everyone know that no matter what they do, no matter how big or small, it will be appreciated. I told people that they did not have to solve the housing crisis, but maybe they could put an extra pack of nappies in their shopping basket, volunteer to paint faces one day, or donate their old buggy.
This approach meant that we now have an army of fundraisers, knitters, quilters, clothes sorters, volunteers, Reiki practitioners, yoga instructors, beauty therapists, baby massagers, artists, dancers, theatre groups who share what they do with the mums at Magpie.
Jane Williams is one of the founders of the Magpie Project in Newham.