Long read: What life is like for homeless Redbridge families 'dumped' in hotel near Harlow
PUBLISHED: 17:04 11 February 2020 | UPDATED: 18:00 11 February 2020
It's 2.30am and parents are queueing in a hotel lobby on the outskirts of Harlow, to get a space for their child on an overcrowded school bus which leaves for Redbridge at 7am. There is pushing and shoving as parents fight to make sure their children, as young as five, don't miss school.
A few miles from the M11 - and 20 miles from Ilford - Phoenix Epping Hotel is home to at least 30 homeless families from Redbridge. It has been used by Redbridge Council as temporary accommodation for the last two years.
Families live in one room together, with one toilet and shower, and the hot water goes cold after 7pm, residents told the Recorder.
There is one working washing machine and one of the dryers is being held together with brown tape.
Radiators have been left unfixed in rooms which are crammed with single and double beds, friends have to give 24 hours notice to visit and families are struggling to access mental health workers.
There is no WiFi or TV in the rooms, which is what is advertised online for tourists who want to book at a room at the Epping Road hotel, and there is no security or staff at reception.
Wes Streeting, MP for Ilford North, said Redbridge Council "have a responsibility to put this right".
The council said it would be reviewing the bus service to ensure there are enough spaces and it would also be meeting with the management company to "ensure agreed standards are being met".
Who manages the hotel?
Land Registry documents show the former Travelodge and Little Chef was bought by Epping Essex Investments Limited, a company based in Ilford, for £1.8million in 2017.
The 60-room hotel is managed by Finefair, a real estate management company based in Gants Hill, which told the Recorder it is providing accommodation to the "required standard".
According to Redbridge Council's accounts, £3.8million has been paid to the company since 2015.
Epping Forest District Council said its attention was drawn to the hotel in 2018 and an enforcement investigation was carried out.
Finefair then submitted an application for a lawful development certificate for use of some of the hotel as short-term accommodation, but it was refused.
The company had argued that planning permission was not required to house homeless families, but the district council said planning permission was needed.
A retrospective planning application was submitted, and was granted in March last year.
Granting permission, the council said "short-term" accommodation would be defined as three months, but the Recorder understands that some families have been living at the hotel for at least eight months.
Meet Sabina and her three children who live in one room together
Sabina Ali, 58, and her family suddenly became homeless a few weeks ago and they were moved into Phoenix Epping Hotel after living in Redbridge for nearly 20 years.
Sabina has a 14-year-old daughter, a 17-year-old son and a 28-year-old daughter.
The four of them live in a small room with two single beds and one double bed, and she battles to get her children to school every day.
"To make sure your child can go to school, you have to get up at 2.30am to get a number so they get a space on the bus," she said, as she revealed concerned parents have had to create their own unofficial reservation system to make sure their children can get to school.
"Then you have to be out the door at 6am to queue for the bus. It's just chaos. There is pushing and shoving. Mothers fight and shout in the morning, which sets the tone for the day. I'm worried the arguments will turn physical.
"Kids come back from school shattered. They can't do homework. It's undignified and demoralising."
If children can't get a space on the bus, they miss school that day, Sabina said. The public bus comes once every half an hour and it costs £20 to get back to Redbridge, which many families can't afford.
"Children who are under 10 need to go with an adult on the bus, which means some children can't get to school," Sabina said.
"There is no space on the bus, so people are left behind. Everybody wants their child to go to school."
Sabina's children are top students at schools in Redbridge, but the move to Phoenix Epping Hotel has left them "shell-shocked".
"My children are so depressed. They are not eating; they are not talking," she said.
"They are doing exceptionally well at school so this will have a huge impact on them.
"They say we will be here for six weeks, but some people have been here for eight months.
"All I want to do is sleep."
'No one should pay to live here'
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The hotel gets one-and-a-half stars on booking.com, with reviewers complaining of stained beds, no staff and no toilet paper.
One visitor who stayed in April 2018 said: "Didn't know we were coming, bins not empty, cigarette burns on the curtains and shower curtain, no towels or soap in the room, no TV, this was more a temporary accommodation than a £96 hotel. I'd strongly advise against booking this place."
Another said: "Miserable. No one should pay to live here. It's the worst thing I've ever done."
Families living at Phoenix Epping Hotel today have described the conditions as "squalid" and compared it to a prison environment.
There is a communal dining area next to a kitchen, but there are no chairs, so families can't sit down for dinner. They eat their meals in bed.
Finefair said it provides a fridge, microwave and kettle in each room, but Sabina said she was only provided with a fridge and she had to bring her own kettle.
Little children play on their bikes and scooters in the car park and if you come home after dark, you have to navigate a 60mph road with no street lighting.
The homeless families who have been placed there by Redbridge Council have called for better management of the property.
"They are not managing the property how they are meant to be," Sabina said.
"It's a dumping ground. People have been here for eight months. The council are failing people.
"We are being put here and forgotten about."
Mr Streeting, MP for Ilford North, said: "One of the more shocking elements of this case is that the children living in this accommodation are battling to ensure they even have a place on the school bus.
"It is wholly unacceptable that the most vulnerable families are suffering as a result of systematic underfunding and cuts to local government budgets.
"Nonetheless Redbridge Council have a responsibility to put this right."
Council 'very concerned'
A Redbridge Council spokesman said: "We are very concerned about the issues raised by the people staying at Epping Phoenix Hotel and are raising this with this managing agent as a matter of urgency.
"We are also reviewing arrangements to make sure there is sufficient transport available.
"We would like to apologise to residents who have suffered any distress as a result of the conditions described at the hotel. The issue remains that we face a severe housing crisis and are finding it increasingly difficult to find temporary accommodation for people.
"This is why we are investing in new short-term accommodation in parts of the borough to provide people in need of emergency accommodation, with good living standards."
What Finefair has to say
Sue-Ellen Young, operations manager at Finefair, said the company is providing accommodation to the required standard.
"We provide a communal kitchen and a communal dining area, a dedicated washing room with six washing machines and dryers," she said.
"Residents are provided amenities such as fridges, kettles and microwaves, in their rooms. There is 24 hour security presence at the hotel.
"Finefair are working hard with the borough to provide local, affordable emergency and temporary accommodation and respond to all complaints swiftly and diligently."
What happened when the Recorder visited the hotel
When the Recorder visited the hotel on Friday, February 7, our reporter was met with security outside the entrance to reception and was told visitors were not allowed inside.
Later that day, after our visit, residents told the Recorder they had seen security staff for the first time in months, two new washing machines and a dryer had been fitted, the heating in the lobby had been switched on, problems had been fixed in the bedrooms and cleaners had been seen in the hotel.
Since contacting the Recorder with her story, Sabina and her children have been moved to a hostel in Goodmayes.