A single mum has shared the desperate struggle she faces raising a teenager and young child in a tiny hostel flat.
Erin Brewster, 37, now lives with her two boys – 14 and four – in a box studio flat with three single beds, kitchen unit, and separate bathroom in Sydenham Park Mansions in Lewisham, South London.
Erin claims the temporary accommodation – which houses some of the most vulnerable families in the borough – has issues with rodents, and residents have reported unreliable hot water, mould and damp during the winter, as well as drug use.
Erin told MyLondon she was moved to the “Dickensian” hostel three years ago after she says her landlord forced her out of her Lee Green home.
“I was private renting for a decade,” she explained. “She wanted the flat back to to upgrade and sell it so we came here. It’s the result of the lack of market regulation in regards to rent.”
The average price of a flat in Lewisham has doubled in the last ten years, according to data from KFH.
Gentrification is “the process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, often displacing current inhabitants in the process”.
Erin said: “A lot of the residents on this side of the building do not have constant access to hot water. Everything needs upgrading. The caretaker does what he can.”
Erin has to fill up the bath with boiling pans of water and her kettle when she wants to wash. “It actually does feel like we are returning to the Dickensian era,” she added.
She is also terrified her young boy – who is on the autistic spectrum – will be hit by a car. She says her dingy room has no space for the “quick” toddler to run around, so she relies on the outside space to give him somewhere he can breathe. She said: “We have asked Lewisham to have gates put on to safeguard the children, we have had too many close shaves.” Residents have resorted to dragging wooden boards across the gaps while they wait for a solution.
With tears rolling down her cheeks, Erin said: “Is anyone not trying to get out? I was just saying to my neighbour this has been a very confining and isolating space to begin with. It’s been a confining space but I have seen community in action. When anybody moves out we are happy to see them go. These are just the cross roads, it’s just a matter of time.”
Despite her optimism, Erin is devastated about the toll it has taken on her eldest son, 14, who has spent his teenage years cooped up in cramped conditions, often leaving behind his mum to look for space and privacy at his grandma’s house. “He does not feel settled here,” she said. “It’s done such a number on his mental health, it’s been a marked difference on his ability to engage in class.”
Erin also said it was a bad environment for her children, and told MyLondon she had seen cases of people taking drugs in the building, had heard allegations of domestic violence and there had been ‘threats’ made by some people with mental health issues. She said: “You get to see the whole underbelly of what cuts look like and crisis.”
Erin said some residents had been in the temporary housing for “five years” and complained institutions “are not doing their job”. She said: “It’s all about ‘pass it on’, misdirection, and misinformation. I follow all the rules just to find out the rules do not mean anything.” Erin described this as “a vulnerable time” in her life.
“I miss home I do,” she continued. “[My son] is going to go back to my mum’s, at the end of the day it’s what’s best for him. A lot of the time the children do not stay here because they do not feel safe. We are happy to have a roof over our heads but the tearing apart of families – it’s duly felt.”
Erin now has a “deeper appreciation of space” and “hot water and heating”. Holding back more tears, she ended: “It’s not about what you have, but who you have.”
MyLondon understands there is major refurbishment planned on the building, but no plans to rehome Erin and her children.
When MyLondon visited the building, three residents noted unreliable hot water and total lack of water in once case.
Pregnant mum Sydney Cliff, 23, was only moved after shaming the council on Facebook after a year of complaints – including concerns about pests and brown water coming from her taps.
Another woman Christelle Litti, 36, compared living there to “death row”, adding “you do not know when you will get your execution”.
A Lewisham Council spokesperson said: “Lewisham Homes have previously taken action to address issues with water and mice in the property, with further repair work due to be carried out.
“A regular pest control programme is in place for the building and Lewisham Homes will be carrying out further investigations to identify any issues with water in the building.”