Diane Taylor writes:
A woman working for a council-owned organisation helping to alleviate homelessness has been suspended for sleeping rough in a council garage.
Arleen Matthews, 48, has worked for almost a decade for Homes for Haringey – an arms-length management organisation that looks after the council’s housing stock and manages its assessment of homelessness applications.
Its website states: “We want to prevent homelessness whenever possible.”
Matthews’s job is to ensure that the council’s housing estates, where there are 16,000 tenants and 4,500 leasehold properties, are properly maintained.
She had been living in private rented accommodation with her son, Kishur Williams, 18, but she fell behind with the rent and was evicted.
In desperation and with nowhere else to go she and Kishur started sleeping in a garage on one of the estates she managed.
When Homes for Haringey discovered what she was doing, it suspended her and she is facing a disciplinary hearing for sleeping in the garage on Friday.
She has received a letter from her employers stating that she has breached health and safety rules by sleeping and storing her belongings in the garage.
She has also been accused of misusing a Homes for Haringey property for personal use.
Her appalling living conditions came to light when Matthews and her son presented themselves as homeless to the council’s housing officials.
“We were just using the garage as a stopgap,” she said.
“I kept looking for alternative, cheaper accommodation. But every door we knocked on to try to get a place to stay they refused us.
“They told us that they only wanted tenants who were earning at least £30,000. There’s nothing out there for the helpless.”
In desperation Matthews and her son presented themselves to Haringey council’s homelessness team.
“The housing official who interviewed me wanted to know absolutely everything about me. She even asked me: ‘Where do you wee?’ I said ‘I’m not going to answer that’.”
Matthews has a family history of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and says her health has deteriorated as a result of becoming homeless and being suspended from her job.
“I have had five DVTs in my right leg,” she said.
“My mum died of thrombosis at 48. I’m now 48 and I’m under so much stress because of all this that I’m terrified I’m going to die at the same age my mum did.
“My blood pressure has gone sky high because of everything I’m going through.”
She said her take home pay was £1,352 a month, supplemented by £320 working tax credit and £82.50 child benefit for Kishur because he is still in full-time education.
The rent in the place she was evicted from was £1,200 a month, leaving her with little money left for essentials.
“I ran up rent arrears of £5,000,” she said.
“I offered to pay off £3,000 but the landlord said I had to pay off everything in one go.
“I tried to do everything I could to resolve the situation but in the end we were evicted on 1 November and my son and I had nowhere to go.
“My husband died five years ago but I’m still paying off the cost of the funeral and the other debts he left.”
A few days before she and her son were due to be evicted Matthews spoke to a woman who rented out garages on one of the housing estates Matthews looked after.
She asked if she could rent one of the garages and the woman agreed. The rent was £15 a week.
She said the woman handed her a key and told her that they could sort out the paperwork later.
“We slept on a sofa and a mattress from our previous accommodation. It was horrible.
“Water came in when it rained and we found mouse droppings. There was no heating or water.”
Matthews and her son stayed in the garage until the beginning of December.
She had a plastic bowl that she carried with her and washed wherever she could.
“All the time we were living in the garage we continued to look for alternative cheap accommodation.
“It was a terrible experience living there, something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
“We would get up between 5 and 6am to avoid being seen by anyone on the estate.”
“When I went to the council and declared myself homeless I was made to feel so worthless by the member of staff who dealt with me.
“She forced me to tell her where we were sleeping.
“A couple of days later I was called in to see my manager and was told I was being suspended because I was sleeping in a council estate garage.
“The whole thing has made me really ill. I have been getting terrible headaches.
“I came back to work in March of this year, although my doctor felt I wasn’t really fit to work.
“We have been treated worse than animals.”
Matthews and her son are currently living together in a tiny room in a hostel in Tottenham, which is infested by cockroaches.
Matthews is paying £159 a week for this.
“I just don’t know what’s going to happen to us,” she said.
Her son is at college studying sport and accountancy and hopes to pursue these studies at university but says it is a struggle to study because he and his mother are homeless.
“I’m so depressed,” he said. “I feel like I’m living in a prison.”
A Homes for Haringey spokesperson said:
“All our staff are paid at least the London living wage and our most junior positions offer salaries of £18,324 to £19,374, depending on length of service.
“We at Homes for Haringey know as well as anyone the challenges of the private rental market in London.
“We will help anyone who comes to us with applying for housing benefit or other financial assistance should they need it – for example, those on lower incomes.
“We cannot comment on the details of any ongoing internal investigations.”
A woman who was suspended by a council-owned organisation dealing with homelessness after she was found to be sleeping rough in a council garage has said Guardian readers who helped her and her son after reading about their plight had “made our Christmas”.
Readers offered to donate money and one had already paid a lump sum to clear Arleen Matthews’ debts.
A company had offered her 18-year-old son an internship, a supporter had set up an online donations page and another had started a petition calling for Matthews’ reinstatement.
Until her suspension, Matthews, 48, was working for Homes for Haringey, an arms-length management organisation owned by Haringey council in north London that looks after the local authority’s housing stock and manages its assessment of homelessness applications.
The organisation’s website states: “We want to prevent homelessness whenever possible.”
Matthews’ job is to ensure that the council’s estates, which house 16,000 tenants in 4,500 leasehold properties, are properly maintained.
She had been living in private rented accommodation with her son, Kishur, but fell behind with rent and was evicted. Matthews said she was amazed to no longer have debt hanging over her.
“I’m overwhelmed by the support I have received,” she said.
“People still have hearts and still have compassion. I woke up this morning with so much strength.
“Someone has granted me my dearest wish: to pay off my outstanding debts. That alone has made our Christmas.”
She said when she and her son had nowhere else to go, they started sleeping in a garage on one of the estates she managed.
When her employers discovered what she was doing, they suspended her while they investigated possible breaches of health and safety codes for sleeping and storing personal belongings in the garage, and misusing Homes for Haringey property.
Matthews had been due to face an investigatory meeting on Friday as part of Homes For Haringey’s disciplinary process, but it did not go ahead.
Her situation came to light when she and her son presented themselves as homeless to the council’s housing officials.
“I ran up rent arrears of £5,000,” she said.
“I offered to pay off £3,000, but the landlord said I had to pay off everything in one go.
“I tried to do everything I could to resolve the situation, but in the end we were evicted on 1 November and my son and I had nowhere to go.
“My husband died five years ago, but I’m still paying off the cost of that and other debts he left.”
She said the offers of assistance had included an internship for Kishur with a Haringey employer.
A Homes for Haringey spokesperson said:
“When Matthews presented as homeless to us, we placed her and her son in emergency, temporary accommodation, where she is still living.
“We are continuing to try and help Matthews resolve her homeless situation.”