By Gabby Thorpe
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Life in a container is like a prison – residents speak out

This article is over 4 years, 3 months old
Councils warehousing poor people in disused office blocks are now putting them in shipping containers. Gabby Thorpe spoke to residents at one west London development about life on the frontline of the housing crisis
Issue 2669
Lulu Abu Baker was told that she would have a permanent home in 51 days, but she has lived in a shipping container for 9 months
Lulu Abu Baker was told that she would have a permanent home in 51 days, but she has lived in a shipping container for 9 months (Pic: Guy Smallman)

It’s a horrifying vision of housing for the future—and it could be happening near you. People in desperate need of housing have been forced to live in converted shipping containers in Hanwell, on the outskirts of London.

Residents there sleep in mouldy beds. Parents have to share beds with older children and wash younger ones in the sink. They face ­unbearable heat in the summer and freezing ­temperatures in the winter.

It’s a snapshot of what the Tories, councils and developers have in store for working class people as the housing crisis gets worse. It’s already happening in other cities—and is likely to spread.

At least 130 people live at the structure in the borough of Ealing, west London. Of its 34 units, the largest one—meant to house six people— has just two bedrooms.

Lulu Abu Baker has lived on the upper levels with her three children, aged between two and 12, since last December.

She used to work for Ealing council, but now cares ­full-time for her profoundly autistic son.

She told Socialist Worker, “I’m constantly worried that he’s going to run and hurt himself on the stairs.

“I should have been given a container on the ground floor, but the council don’t think about what our needs are. It’s not safe for him. It’s not safe for anyone. No human should have to live here.”

The structure is made of wood and metal and suffers from extreme temperatures in the summer and winter. Children there are at constant risk of getting ill when it gets cold.

There is little room for anything beyond beds and a kitchenette. And some cannot afford to keep paying for storage and have to pile up their belongings in the containers.

Many of the adults have to share their beds with children because there is no room. Lulu has the largest family on the estate, but the space she gets is no bigger than it would be for someone with one or two children.

She should be on the highest priority band of the housing register because of her son’s autism.

But the council is refusing to move her up from Band B—and it’s not the only way the authorities aren’t helping.


Lulu was told she would have a ­permanent home 51 days after being placed in the shipping container. “I have asked the council numerous times when we will be rehoused,” she said.

“They said that the only way for us to get out of here is by using the ­bidding system for council housing. But I don’t have time to bid on houses, and when I do it’s not getting me anywhere.”

“My son is twelve and he takes up all of my time. Especially here, it’s a real struggle.”

Lulu’s experience is far from unique. Over 100,000 children are living in temporary accommodation, according  to the Children’s Commissioner’s Bleak Houses report published last week.

This includes converted shipping containers and office blocks—including one in the neighbouring borough of Brent. The report shows that it’s also happening in Cardiff, Bristol and Brighton—and is likely to spread.

Another resident said that living in the containers made raising children difficult. The containers only have small shower rooms.

“There’s no bathtub here”, she explained. “Originally I was washing my son in the sink.

“But now I wash him on the floor—getting a cup and washing him that way—because he’s too big to fit in the sink.” The situation in Hanwell isn’t just a housing issue. A majority of the people living in the structure are migrants with children. One resident—who had lived in the “jungle” refugee camp in Calais—said the living conditions are worse than in Eritrea.

“Sometimes it’s damp in here and there’s mould,” she said. “It’s green inside the windows and even on the bed. It’s better than Calais, but no one wishes to live inside a container ­especially with kids.”

The people housed in these structures are victims of racism. 

The biggest container has 2 bedrooms, and is meant to sleep 6 people

The biggest container has 2 bedrooms, and is meant to sleep 6 people (Pic: Guy Smallman)

One woman, staying in a B&B in Southall in the same borough, said she thought migrants’ living conditions were deliberate. “It’s part of the hostile environment,” she said. “It’s as if they’re sending a message to us saying, if you can’t take it, go home.”

Refugees and migrants should have as much right to decent housing as anyone else living in Britain.

Ealing council has denied that the conditions are bad. But it’s clear that the containers are not safe to live in.

After the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, which killed at least 72 people, there was an overhaul of fire safety protocols. But at the shipping containers, there is only one gate and no fire exits.

So if the wooden slats at the base of the structure caught fire, the only staircase in and out would be overcome with smoke.

This means that residents could be left trapped inside their homes. 

The council has put up netting to prevent pigeons from flocking on the site. But the birds get trapped behind it—causing another health risk.

This is another example of how the council’s claims amount to nothing. The Department for Communities and Local Government said that anyone who feels unsafe in their homes can request a review.

But lots of the people living in the shipping containers feel abandoned by the government. And the conditions in the shipping containers show the contempt Tories and housing bosses have for all working class people.

It’s appalling that people are housed in shipping containers and old office blocks, when safe, spacious, affordable housing should be a right for all working class people.



Refugees crammed into infested rooms

Horrific conditions at the Maharaja Guesthouse in nearby Southall show how the Tories treat asylum seekers.

The Home Office uses the B&B to provide emergency accommodation.

Footage obtained by the Guardian newspaper last week revealed overcrowded rooms with thousands of cockroaches.

Families with up to four members were crammed into a room, and expected to share double beds.

People staying there have described instances of mice running across their children’s faces at night.

The accommodation is provided by the Home Office contractor for Wales and the South of England, Clearsprings Ready Homes. The rooms are priced from £40 a night—the same price as a three star B&B in the area meant for tourists.

Asylum seekers placed here are told that they will have access to laundry facilities and places to sit and eat. But these facilities are not easily accessible to those living across the four buildings that make up the Maharaja Guesthouse.

Ealing Council has said it will look into the situation. For a lot of people staying at the Maharaja, this could mean being put into shipping containers like the ones in Hanwell.

The guesthouse scandal comes at a time when the Home Office is putting into place new accommodation contracts. This is because housing practices were brought into question as a result of issues similar to those of Southall.

The new contracts are unlikely to lead to improvements.

In Glasgow it means that 300 asylum seekers face eviction by contractor Serco at the end of this month. The new landlord, Mears Housing, has demanded to take over empty properties.

Councils blame Tories but refuse to fight

Councils claim that shipping containers are an “innovative” solution to the housing crisis.

The website for the Hanwell project is boastful about it.

The Head of Allocations and Accommodation says, “The concept of providing accommodation on sites we own—which are quick and affordable to build—is exciting.

“We’ve learned a lot from this first project and there were many sceptics.

“So it’s quite nice to counter any negativity with a solution which is local, fit for purpose and as near as cost neutral as we can get.”

This attitude towards people’s living situation exposes a rotten truth at the heart of the housing crisis. Luxury flats for the rich take up space and resources while homeless people are left forgotten.

Other council officials are less boastful, but claim nothing can be done because the Tories have imposed cuts on local government.

A spokesperson for Ealing council said, “We have no choice but to use temporary accommodation to house the sheer volume of homeless households that present to us.”

Councils should not convert shipping containers into barely tolerable spaces for migrants and the poorest to live in. It’s a disgrace that many of the councils housing people in shipping containers and office blocks are run by Labour.

They should fight alongside ordinary people to demand government puts resources into building permanent, safe and affordable homes for everyone.

We need millions of new council houses and stringent control of private landlords.

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