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169 evictions in Britain a day: “I knocked every door, and no one helped me”

From 2010 to 2017, the official number of evictions rose by 53 percent. Iwona was one of those made homeless. 

Iwona is early. She is always early for appointments, including being interviewed by a journalist. This is no easy task. She is a lone parent and a carer to her mother who both has dementia and uses a wheelchair. Iwona works in a supermarket, volunteers at a local food bank, and is studying part time to become a social worker.

Her first eviction was eight or nine years ago because the landlord was trying to sell the home. She went to the council, who found her somewhere to live in Kensal Rise, northwest London. Her family moved from a one-room place into a three-bedroom house. But this was around the time of the benefit cap, so it became too expensive to stay.

Iwona’s mental health has been badly affected by a string of evictions since. Within minutes of starting the interview she is in tears. Her WhatsApp messages, used to arrange the interview and keep in touch after, portray a different side to her life. Her profile pictures are made from a series of mischievous and cheeky snaps, with friends and fancy dress playing a big part. She’s someone who clearly enjoys life, has friends, family, and is part of a community.

Eviction is an everyday crisis in England. From 2010 to 2017, the official number of evictions recorded by the Ministry of Justice rose by 53 percent, to 169 evictions a day.Even those figures are a dramatic underestimate. They only capture the number of evictions that take place through the courts. Private landlords in England can use the hated Section 21 notice to end a tenancy without reason with two months’ notice. Research from Shelter found that the loss of a private rented tenancy accounted for 78 percent of the rise in homelessness since 2011. While it is possible to challenge a Section 21, for example where details are wrong on the notice, it is only really a stressful means of stalling. Many tenants move on rather than contest their eviction, and these never make their way into the statistics.

Nor are many illegal evictions recorded: those where the landlord has told someone to leave without a formal notice, through threats, and where the most vulnerable tenants do not know enough about their rights or are too fearful to do anything about it. In housing associations, where rent are usually lower and tenants have greater rights, evictions due to rent arrears have still risen by 32 percent in four years.

During her third and most recent eviction a year ago, Iwona started feeling suicidal and was prescribed antidepressants. The landlord was phoning her every day, threatening her, and eventually took her to court. Iwona’s crime? It was taking too long for her to find a new place to live. “I am really worried, it just makes me crazy,” she says. Thinking of her mother and daughter kept her alive, but despite her responsibilities, she still felt utterly unsupported. “I have been everywhere… I knocked every door, every door, and no one helped me.” The local council said she would have to be rehoused outside London, in Birmingham, and that if she became homeless they would have to put her mother into a care home – something Iwona felt would be a disaster for them both. “I cannot start a normal life, I cannot work, I cannot live my life because constantly I am moving,” she says. Iwona has thought about moving back to Poland, but is worried that her daughter, who was born and raised in the UK, will experience racism because she is mixed race.

The rents in Brent, the borough of London where she has lived for 13 years, have risen 15 per cent since 2011. A two-bedroom flat in Kensal Rise in north-west London, the kind that would just about meet the needs of Iwona, her mother and her daughter, would cost around £1,400 a month in rent. “When I look for accommodation, it seems impossible to find anything,” she says. “First, I am on housing benefit, second I have a disabled mum in a wheelchair.” Each time she struggles to find guarantors, since landlords often demand these be both property-owners and in full-time work.

Being evicted tips people like Iwona further into a cycle of poverty. Ronald Daley is a housing lawyer working for Advice4Renters, an organisation set up in the 1980s to help private renters in the London borough of Brent. “Our clients are very clear that they find it disruptive and damaging to family life, to children’s education, to children’s happiness, to be evicted and forced into a situation of homelessness,” he says. Many of his clients started their tenancies able to pay the rent, but over time, welfare reform and specifically the benefit cap have led to them experiencing a financial shortfall. This means they quickly get behind on rent and face eviction. Thanks to the buoyant rental market, even landlords whose tenants’ rent is covered by housing benefit are known to evict their tenants in favour of someone who can pay more. Elsewhere in the area, he explains, landlords are buying up bedsits and converting them into self-contained flats to rent out for more money. “One way or another money, or the profit motive, is a big incentive for the landlords to evict private tenants.”

But the impact of eviction on an individual can be devastating. A Swedish study of over 23,000 evictions over three years found the suicide rate was four times higher than the control group, even accounting for vulnerabilities like addiction and pre-existing mental health issues. In 2013, the North London coroner’s court ruled that Nygel Firminger, a housing association tenant, took his own life as a direct result of his eviction. A year earlier in Spain, the banking association suspended evictions for two years in cases of “extreme hardship” following the death of a woman before her eviction for mortgage arrears

“In a lot of cases now you’ve got housing officers who are managing thousands of tenancies. They can’t possibly make personal contact on a regular basis,” says Deborah Garvie from Shelter. The systems have become more automated, which means problems that could have been solved by a visit and now dependent on tenants receiving, understanding, and responding to auto-generated letters. One distressing development she has seen is housing associations using High Court bailiffs to evict tenants rather than County Court Bailiffs. The latter will give notice so that people can prepare and effectively hand over the keys. High Court bailiffs do not need to give any notice – “you could have a child very unwell in bed or something like that and the High Court bailiff could turn up and you all have to get out now”.

The problem is not just in London. Outside of London, the places with the highest level of eviction include Luton, Halton and Peterborough.

“They've brought us to court over trespass,”  says Nick. “It's not a legal site so obviously we've no permission to be there, however, they've been supplying us with bins for god knows how many years so they've known we're there.” Nick has lived in a caravan for the past four or five years on a bit of land owned by Sheffield City Council. Others on the site have been there 20 years.

Before moving to Sheffield in his caravan, Nick worked as a Tree Officer in London and Essex. He is clear in his mind what is behind the decision to move them off. “It's just basically down to money. I know for a fact that a small plot of land sold for £140,000 and the site we're on is probably about 20 times that size. So you're talking hundreds of thousands if not millions.” A previous attempt to evict the residents was thrown out of court several years earlier, he explains.

Nick has been on the housing list for two years, and hopes to move into a flat but is frustrated by the complicated process. “Every time I go they've lost my paperwork and once I get the paperwork filled in they say it's because you've got two dogs, if you just had one dog we could house you, which just sounds like rubbish to me because it can't be any different with two dogs than one.”

Barking and Dagenham has one of the highest numbers of evictions in the UK. Adrian Brazier and Peter Phillips at the local Citizens Advice Bureau are on the front line of the housing crisis. They provide legal advice and representation for people facing the loss of their home. They have both noticed an increase in evictions, both from private landlords and social landlords. The causes include welfare reform, banks taking action against landlords, and retaliatory eviction as in Brent. Barking and Dagenham Council try their best, explains Adrian, but they cannot solve it. This leads to “irrational decisions being made”, according to Adrian. He and Peter win nine times out of ten when challenging the council.

One relatively straightforward fix for Adrian would be to allow councils to use their “discretionary housing payments” to help tenants pay down their housing debts. At the moment there is an end-of-year rush to spend this funding before it is taken back by government. Adrian would like tenants to be able to apply once a year for debt relief of up to £500. This, he believes, would have a dramatic impact on the number of people being evicted because of rent arrears.

Iwona got in contact a couple of months after we spoke. Her landlord had told her she wanted her to leave. This was one year into what was meant to be at least two-year tenancy, but not one guaranteed in law. A few days earlier Iwona had been awarded a prize for her volunteer work in the community. She managed to find a new place for at least the next twelve months somewhere nearby, but could not find somewhere adapted to her mother’s disability. Within a month Iwona’s mother had a bad fall and has been in hospital since.

Additional reporting by Joanna Eckersley​.

A 1907 painting of Spinoza, who was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656. Credit: SAMUEL HIRSZENBERG
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Why atheists are true believers too

How atheisms are imitating the religions they claim to reject.

In 1995 Richard Dawkins became the first ever “professor for the public understanding of science” at Oxford University. By the time he retired, 13 years later, it looked as if he had privately renegotiated his contract; for he was now functioning as Oxford’s very own professor for the public misunderstanding of religion.

In The God Delusion (2006) he argued that the existence of God was a scientific hypothesis which was almost – almost – demonstrably false. Miracles were scientifically impossible (yes, professor, I think we knew that: the clue was in the word “miracles”). And the creation story in the Book of Genesis was very bad science indeed. Opposing the stupidities of modern “creationism”, and all the other pseudo-scientific or anti-scientific dogmas of the fundamentalists, is one thing. Criticising the moral evils committed by religious fanatics is another, and no less worthwhile. Yet to treat religion itself as merely a defective form of science is a strangely crude error, rather like thinking that poetry is just a way of conveying factual statements that are to be tested for their truth or falsehood.

In his new book, Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray – who, I should mention, is no more a religious believer than I am – has little time for the so-called New Atheism of Dawkins and Co. The confusion of religion with science is only one of the points he objects to. Even if it can be shown that religion involves the creation of illusions, he argues, that does not mean that religion can or should be dispensed with; for “there is nothing in science that says illusion may not be useful, even indispensable, in life”. As for the idea of the American New Atheist Sam Harris that we can develop “a science of good and evil” which will contain all the correct liberal values: Gray sees this as a piece of astonishing and culpable naivety, ignoring nearly two centuries’ worth of evidence that scientism in ethics and illiberalism go happily hand-in-hand.

If this short book were just another intervention in the Dawkinsian “God debate”, it would be very short indeed. In fact it would get no further than page 23 where, at the end of his brief opening chapter, Gray concludes damningly that “the organised atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon, and best appreciated as a type of entertainment”.

But the New Atheism is the least of the seven varieties that make up the subject-matter of this book. The others are all much more interesting, being connected with significant elements in our culture. And if the phrase “our culture” sounds parochial, well, that is an issue Gray deals with explicitly, pointing out that what we call “atheism” is something much more specific than just a rejection or absence of religion as such. It is a rejection of certain religious beliefs – and that narrows the field already, as many religions of the world are not primarily belief-systems at all. In particular, Gray argues, it is a rejection of belief in an omnipotent creator-god, which means that while atheism is Christianity’s close relative, it bears no relation to Hinduism or Buddhism at all.

So this is a book about post-Christian thinking – most of it, in Gray’s view, pretty bad thinking, too. One of his targets is secular humanism, which he describes as “a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation through history”. Another is what he calls “making a religion from science”, a delusion which he traces all the way from Mesmerism in the late 18th century, via dialectical materialism in the 19th and 20th, to those futurist thinkers today who dream of uploading a human being’s consciousness to computer circuits, thereby rendering it immortal. And another is political religion, “from Jacobinism through communism and Nazism to contemporary evangelical liberalism”.

Obviously there are overlaps between these three varieties of modern atheism; dialectical materialism, for instance, has also formed part of the creed of Marxist political religion. The one fundamental thing they have in common, on Gray’s account, is that they are all doctrines of progress, of an onwards and upwards march of humanity through history. Whether he is right to say that secular humanism is committed to this view, I am not so sure; doubtless, those who believe in humanist ethics will also think that if more and more people adopt their ethical system the world will become a better place, yet it’s not clear why they should regard that as inevitable.

But one thing at least is clear: John Gray regards all belief in human progress as the most pernicious of delusions. Despite all his eloquence on this subject, some readers may feel that his argument runs away with him, taking him further than he needs to go. It would be enough, surely, to say that the basic moral qualities of human beings have not changed over time, and that there’s no reason to think that any improvements in human behaviour that have taken place are part of a pattern of inevitable progress. Yet Gray goes further, claiming that there has been no real improvement at all.

The abolition of slavery? Slave auctions in “Islamic State” territory have been advertised on Facebook. The abandonment of torture? It has persisted at Guantanamo Bay. Well, yes; but having pockets of slavery here and there in the world is not the same as the situation 200 years ago, when it was a huge and entrenched institution, questioned only by a small minority. Yes, torture continues, but not as a standard judicial procedure. And in many countries there have been substantial, long-term changes in attitude and treatment where female subjugation, child labour and the criminalisation of homosexuality are concerned. Surely there must be some way of acknowledging this, without relapsing into Pollyannaish Steven Pinkerism?

One reason for Gray’s emphasis on the theme of temporal progress is that it fits these various secular atheisms into a larger pattern – that of salvation through history. And this brings us to the core of his argument: out of the whole range of major religions, only Christianity works in a historical dimension like this, which means that the secular atheisms are imitating, or unconsciously reproducing, a central feature of the very religion they claim to reject.

He makes this point again and again. These modern atheists’ view of the world is “inherited” from Christianity. Their belief in progress is “a secular avatar of a religious idea of redemption”. Jacobinism and Bolshevism were “channels” for the millenarian myths of Christianity. Bolshevism was in a “lineage” going back to medieval millenarianism. The apocalyptic myths of radical Christian movements “renewed themselves” in secular, political forms.

Having watched Gray wield his scalpel so effectively on other writers’ arguments, I can’t help thinking that this one deserves a few incisions. What does it mean to say that a communist who yearns for the coming of the classless society is really expressing just the same view as a millenarian looking to the reign of Christ on earth? The form of the belief may be roughly similar, but the content is entirely different. And if these are “inherited” ideas standing in a “lineage”, what is the evidence of a continuous chain of transmission – from, say, the 16th-century radical Anabaptists of Münster (whose chaotic quasi-communist experiment Gray describes in graphic detail) to the Bolsheviks of Petrograd and Moscow? As for the religious myths “renewing themselves” in a secular guise: this seems perilously close to the mindset of Dawkins’s theory of “memes”, which Gray has scornfully dismissed as hardly a theory at all.

Gray also mentions a Gnostic “impulse” that has recurred, unchanged, over two millennia. But if the same impulse can produce a religious idea in one period and a secular one in another, it seems that the impulse is something that stands behind both, itself neither secular nor religious. In which case, the modern atheisms may be not so much reproducing religious beliefs as expressing some basic yearnings that are pre-religious or non-religious in themselves. These are dark theoretical waters, and I am not convinced that Gray has got to the bottom of them.

Yet what he has done is to produce a marvellously stimulating account of some major currents of post-Christian thought, in which ideas and arguments leap constantly off the page like white-hot sparks from an anvil. The dismissals are concise and often devastating; but there are also wonderfully funny details, lovingly accumulated by a wry observer of human foolishness. It is nice to learn, for example, that Auguste Comte’s secular religion of Positivism imposed on its followers “special types of clothing, with buttons placed on the back so that they could not be worn without the help of others – thereby promoting altruism”. And I would challenge anyone to read Gray’s account of the cult of Ayn Rand, with its compulsory cigarette-smoking and rational tap-dancing, and not laugh out loud.

But what of Gray’s own post-religious beliefs? He certainly does not belong in the fifth category discussed here, that of “misotheists” – the Marquis de Sade, Dostoevsky and William Empson – whose views were shaped by a positive hatred of God. (Here, at least, he has no difficulty in showing that some kinds of atheism are dependent intimately and inseparably on Christian theology.) Gray’s own sympathies are divided between his two final varieties: the naturalistic, undogmatic and guaranteed progress-free atheism of the philosopher George Santayana; and the philosophico-theological theories of Spinoza and Schopenhauer, which argued obscurely both that a greater reality, possibly to be identified as Spirit or God, existed, and that to talk about it as a god who created the world, or intervened in it, or issued commands to humans, was to misunderstand it entirely.

Santayana was himself an admirer of Spinoza, and towards the end of the book, Gray quotes his characterisation of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher as follows: “By overcoming all human weaknesses, even when they seem kindly or noble, and by honouring power and truth, even if they should slay him, he entered the sanctuary of an unruffled superhuman wisdom.” I am not sure that this is quite the image that readers should take away of Gray, whose tolerance of human weaknesses – at the personal level, if not the intellectual one – seems admirably generous. Nor can it be guaranteed that people will acquire unruffled superhuman wisdom by reading this book. More likely they will find themselves tremendously, even painfully, ruffled. And I mean that as high praise, for an author who is one of the greatest intellectual provocateurs of our time. 

Noel Malcolm is editor of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes and a fellow of All Souls, Oxford

John Gray will appear in conversation with Jason Cowley at Waterstones Trafalgar Square, London WC2, on 2 May (newstatesman.com/events)

Seven Types of Atheism
John Gray
Allen Lane, 176pp, £17.99