Case study: Stranded in Southwark

Zara Mahamat and her children

Zara Mahamat is worried. Next month her family will expand with the arrival of her new baby, and she does not know where everybody is going to sleep.

For the moment there seems to be only one option – her new baby will have to share a bed with her daughter and herself. Space is tight in the sparsely furnished serviced apartment that is now a temporary home for Zara and her three children.

‘Our other house was nicer,’ says Zara’s seven-year-old daughter Khadijja, playing with her blonde Cinderella doll and nestling shyly into her mother’s side.

The family was made homeless in January, when Zara was evicted from her three-bedroom flat in Pimlico, Westminster. The cap on housing benefit, introduced in April 2011, meant Zara could claim no more than £340 per week towards her rent, which appears to have run to several thousand pounds a month.

‘I don’t think the housing cap is fair for my family,’ says Zara. ‘We’re struggling now.’

The family was made homeless in January, when Zara was evicted from her three-bedroom flat in Pimlico, Westminster, because she could not afford a rent hike of £420 a week. 

She turned to Westminster council for help. The council acted quickly to move the family into a hotel in Paddington, where they stayed for four months. Then they were moved to their current serviced apartment, several miles away in Southwark – a different borough.

In the past two years, Westminster council has secured over 360 properties outside its own borders across London to house vulnerable households such as Zara’s. 

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The apartment is clean and well maintained. It is in an eight-storey block of serviced apartments that is mainly populated by tourists and short- to medium-term workers visiting the capital. Similar properties to Zara’s can be rented for £169 a night. But it is not home for Zara and her children, and it never will be.

For Zara, who is unemployed, the ‘special deals with local restaurants, bars, museums and cinemas’ advertised for Think Apartment guests are far beyond her means.

‘It’s nice, but here it’s like a hotel,’ she says softly, her three children crowding in on the large black sofa. ‘Every time different people come and they make noise around us.’

Zara moved to the UK from Chad in 2003 with her then-husband. They have since separated. In addition to her sons Hamza, 11 and Mohamed, 8, and her daughter Khadidja, 7, she is eight months pregnant.

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The family is booked to stay at the serviced apartments until July 25, but Zara has no idea what will happen after that date. Westminster has provided scant information on her future and has not yet registered the family for council housing, which would allow Zara to bid for properties.

‘I called my caseworker but she never called me back,’ says Zara. ‘I don’t know what she’s doing.’ The family is being offered support by Zacchaeus 2000 ,a pan-London anti-poverty charity who support low income households affected by welfare reform and debt, including those being forced to relocate across London and the South East.

The family is stranded miles from the children’s schools and with no idea where, or how, they will find a more permanent home. The uncertainty and upheaval are taking their toll.

Hamza is preparing for school exams but must make a three-mile commute from Southwark to Pimlico Academy. ‘It’s very frustrating,’ he says. ‘I used to be able to get there in two minutes and now it just takes like an hour. It’s really tiring.’

Zara, who takes anti-depressant medication, spends her days ferrying children back and forth to school. In bad traffic, it can take up to an hour each way. ‘It is hard: it is far from the school,’ she says.

Amid all this stress and instability, Zara is struggling to cope. ‘Sometimes it’s so hard to wake up in the morning,’ she says.


This article has been modified since publication.