About 25 people would have to be kicked out of bedsits to make way for a homeless hostel if plans to relocate a controversial council-run project go ahead.
Brighton and Hove City Council is considering moving the West Pier Project from its current home in Regency Square to the former Hereford House care home in Hereford Street.
Last week, angry residents of the surrounding estate told council officers they were “saturated” with substance abuse, with dealers openly selling drugs on every corner at a heated meeting which was called short after some people walked out.
And people living in Hereford House, which is home to retail workers, nurses and students, said they were worried about where they would live if they were kicked out to make way for the hostel, as most Brighton rents are beyond their means.
However, the meeting ended with the council’s executive director for health and adult social care Rob Persey telling people there is now a “big if” over the plans and that he and his colleagues will consider carefully the points raised.
One resident of Hereford House, James Hunter, said: “I’m a recovering alcoholic and addict. From experience I can tell you that putting people in the mouth of the lion is not going to help.
“They need some time to get well away from the city and there they can just, little by little, insert themselves back into the community again.”
Another, Jane Briscoe, said: “I have lived there because Brighton rentals are so expensive. You live there because is’t a cheap place to live. I have been there a year and I’m perfectly happy there. We only found out about this on Saturday. We haven’t been told anything either.
“We’ve also found out that the landlord doesn’t have planning permission for it to be used in the way it’s being used at the moment.
“We all work or are students, we are all doing our bit but we can’t afford Brighton rents and it terrifies me being kicked out of there and having to find somewhere else to live. I have lived in four places in the three years I’ve lived in Brighton.”
And a third, William Oliveira, who lives there with his wife Vanina Sosa who is eight months pregnant, said: “My wife is about to give birth and there’s other residents here now and we dont’ know what we are going to do. Brighton is a very expensive place and it’s not affordable to get most housing.”
The city council only has a duty to house families and vulnerable single people, which means that most residents of the bedsits would not be eligible for emergency accommodation if they were evicted.
Many residents of the neighbourhood spoke of the frequent incidents involving drug abuse on the estate, with dealers openly selling from cars, needles littering the area, and addicts knocking on random doors trying to find their dealer on a weekly or even daily basis.
George Rooney, who manages the Martlet Court sheltered housing scheme next to Hereford House, said: “In previous jobs I have commissioned a number of substance abuse services and I’m horrified that you are considering placing this service on that site alongside everything that I see going on there on a daily basis.”
A resident of Hereford Street said: “There absolutely needs to be a hostel for vulnerable people. However, it seems that there hasn’t been due consideration.
“As we have heard from absolutely everyone, our community is saturated with substance use and there’s only so much that a community can sustain before it starts to crack.
“Hereford Street is quite short and really narrow. The acoustics of it with a tower block on either end means that any noise reverberates and wakes the whole street.
“Yes, they need to be near services, but in a very short residential street, bang in the middle of a community saturated with drug use – is that the best place, or is it the cheapest?”
Residents were also angry that there had been little publicity about the plans, or the meeting, with many people attending because one resident had made 200 photocopies of the small poster put up in each towerblock and posted them through his neighbours’ doors.
The Trust for Developed Communities, which organised the meeting, said that when the council had informed them it had already consulted stakeholders, it assumed this meant residents, but in fact it only meant the relevant council managers. Even Cllr Adrian Morris, who chaired the meeting, said he had not been informed of the plans until very recently.
Housing campaigner Steve Parry also raised the previous plans to move the West Pier Project to Seafield Road in Hove, which were abandoned when it emerged that the two houses which did not have the correct planning permission.
He said: “While there has to be resources for these vulnerable people, the way the council have gone about this has been 100% wrong and we can not have a community facility without the knowledge of that community and without drawing on the knowledge and expertise of that community.
“The council has spent 18 months at least prevaricating and trying to get the West Pier Project put elsewhere. This is totally incompetent.
“There are lots and lots of buildings in lots and lots of places and you have got the money, so it shouldn’t be a problem to find a better place to put it.
“As for the quality of the service being offered by the West Pier Project – from what I can see it doesn’t work. If the police were called out to you 700 times, that’s because you’re not doing your job properly. THere’s no point in having a system imposed if that system isn’t working.
“Stop ticking boxes in your ivory tower, and get down and talk to the community and do things in the community’s interest.”
Director of health and adult social services Rob Persey called the meeting short after residents began to shout and leave the meeting.
He said: “No decision has been taken to move the West Pier Project to Hereford House. No lease has been signed.
“The communication has been poor over the last couple of weeks. My colleagues came here today because we have not had any information what you the community think. We didn’t know what we were going to hear before we came.
“I would suggest that with your grace, that it’s not fair on my colleagues to continue.
“I have heard your worries very clearly and I think I have to discuss it with colleagues and councillor very carefully the issues about community safety.
“I have a strong empathy for the concerns that you have raised. I have family and kids.
“There’s no timescale for a decision. If it is to proceed – and that’s a big if, we will talk to you again. We have other options that we are looking at.”
Darren Rusbridge, the West Pier Project’s deputy manager, said that the hostel accommodates people with mental health issues, some of whom have substance abuse issues too.
He said there are at least two members of staff there round the clock, and the hostel is patrolled every hour. Drug use is allowed, although littering and dealing aren’t, and sharps bins are provided.
He added: “People are encouraged to get treatment for substance addiction and nurses and clinical teams visit the hostel.
If there is any antisocial behaviour, the resident will get a warning. Begging and street drinking, we give them warnings that they will lose their accommodation.
“When we first set up, of course we have complaints – we were a new service. But we never had any complaints of drug litter in Regency Square directly to the hostel.
“In the last year, we have had no complaints about antisocial behaviour, street drinking or begging from the community. We do share some of the concerns that the police don’t always respond.”
And hostel manager Karen Leenders said: “There’s no perfect place to put a hostel for homeless people with mental health problems but there are a lot of different things which we have to take into consideration.
“The problem with the building we have at the moment is that it’s very difficult for people with mobility problems to get into.
“This is my neighbourhood too. I live in one of the towerblocks and I’m clearly happy with [this location for the hostel].
“Most of the choosing is led by us attempting to find a safe building. This is part of the process and we need to know what other people think.”
Hereford House is currently designated by planning as class C2, which includes both the care home use it previously had until 2013, and hostel use, so it would not need any planning permission for the West Pier Project to move in.
The owner, Jodi Vig, of Dyke Road Avenue, Hove, currently has an application in to change its use to a 25-bedroom HMO, which is what it is currently being used as, although residents say some rooms are unoccupied and new tenants are not being sought.
Meanwhile, the houses in Seafield Road have been separated, and one divided further into two flats. One has had permission to be used as a 10-bedroom HMO refused, but internal alterations to allow it to be used as a six-bedroom HMO approved. The other’s basement flat has been approved as a three-bedroom HMO, and the developers continue to apply to convert the upper flat into another HMO.
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