Marston Court residents say metal boxes not fit for habitation
Erin Martin with Katana and Kasia-Rae at Marston Court. Picture: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
July 6, 2023
While taking a stroll along Bordars Walk in Ealing you might catch a glimpse of a strange scattering of buildings off in the periphery. The council ‘houses’ look from afar like work site offices, set up, temporarily, to shelter workers on their tea breaks.
However, unfortunately for some, this is home. A spot where people made homeless, often through little fault of their own, pay through the nose to inhabit corrugated metal cells designed to transport goods.
Marston Court, as this estate is known, is so nearly obscured by the buildings around it that it is very easy to forget the tens of individuals and families, largely single mothers with their children, that live there.
For the many trapped in the ‘temporary’ housing, they feel the council has left them to fester in shipping containers so uninhabitable that some residents said they would prefer to sleep in parks or under bridges than stay there.
The estate is often deathly quiet and even the sunny weather can’t brighten the rusty walkways, tired pathways and stacks of grey containers. It’s very hard to imagine anyone actually living there, with the whole place looking like it was built as a film set for a cautionary dystopian movie.
Within the containers, poor insulation means they are converted into ovens in hot weather and freezers during winter. Improperly secured doors and windows give birth to colonies of mould, unsanitary conditions have spawned armies of cockroaches, while the lack of proper foundations means that plumbing and electrical problems are constant.
Marston Court. Picture: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
Meanwhile, the electronic gate, which is supposed to control the flow of people onto the estate, has been broken for three years according to one resident, giving access to drug dealers.
Everyone Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) spoke to was scared and every single person had at least one technical issue in their containers. Perhaps the shocking most detail of Marston Court is how much it costs to live there.
One bed is £324.40 per week, while a two-bed is £387.69 per week. This adds up to £1,550 a month for a two-bedroom shipping container.
When asked directly how it can justify charging that much, Ealing Council did not answer. Some residents did tell the LDRS their rent was covered or partly subsidised by housing benefit however it was unclear if some were having to pay full price.
Pictures taken by resident showing cockroaches and drugs found at Marston Court
Erin Martin has lived on the estate for two years. As a part-time care assistant and full-time mother of two, she says that the estate isn’t good enough to live there for ‘six weeks let alone two years’.
She was made homeless after the family moved back to the Caribbean while she was pregnant and at university. After six years of being placed in temporary accommodation by the council, she was forced to move when a large leak was found in the ceiling.
“It was either here or Slough,” she told LDRS. Not knowing what awaited her outside London and hoping that Marston Court would be a truly temporary solution she opted to stay in the city.
“When we moved in here ,our shower didn’t have any hot water and neither did the kitchen sink. It took them two years to come and fix it. Me and my kids were bathing using a bucket and a kettle for two years, just so they could come in 20 minutes and fix it, my sink still isn’t giving me hot water.”
Erin adds, “The rent here is ridiculous.” Even with housing benefit deductions, she is still paying £600 a month out of pocket.
“Right now I feel like these people are doing this to me on purpose, I feel like they are making money off me. They shouldn’t do that to people, especially when you are on a low income.”
Erin Martin, resident at Marston Court. Picture: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
She is desperate to get out not just for herself but for her two young daughters, Katana and Kasia-Rae. Erin has spent a lot of her time bidding on different housing through the council’s portal trying to find somewhere more bearable to live.
In the winter, the shipping containers get incredibly cold with often a single radiator to heat up the long narrow rooms.
“In the summer it’s unbearably hot, in the winter it’s unbearably cold, it’s freezing. If it rains it leaks, the whole living room is swimming with water and you are telling me that these are the conditions people should be living in?” she said.
“Since I have moved in, it’s been crickets. They don’t make it easy to know who to talk to, who to ring, who to speak to, there is no information. No avenue to know ‘oh right this is the person I need to talk to to get some help’.
“Eight years, I have been waiting for Ealing Council to house me, for eight years. Everywhere I have been put is ‘temporary.’ Eight years isn’t temporary.”
A studio flat in Marston Court. Picture: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
Erin says fights and drug dealing are an almost daily occurrence in the small estate of just under 50 people. Police are around every other week to deal with fights and other anti-social behaviour.
She said, “Now the sun’s out, it’s only just the beginning, all the time there is drama. One morning I was getting ready to go out and I had my two kids and my goddaughter here and it was Sunday morning, it must have just been 9 o’clock and there was this big commotion outside. There was a whole lot of them shouting, screaming swearing and the kids are scared, crying in here and stuff. Police showed up, it was madness.”
Reporting incidents of violence and drugs to the council always elicits the same response – call the police. “Call the police?! What kind of response is that? Because at the end of the day, me calling the police can only do some much but as an authority you know there are people here with their kids, you guys need to be more proactive.”
Unsavoury characters hang around the estate’s front gate late at night which Erin says she finds intimidating, “I come home late from work sometimes and I am petrified when I get off the bus of who will be waiting outside.”
For the residents, even something as basic as doing the laundry is a trial, full of complications and pitfalls. Erin recalls an incident that has been echoed by other residents and confirmed by the council in the communal laundry room.
Resident Paula in the laundry room. Picture: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
The room has been used as a venue for drug dealing, a base to intimidate residents, and multiple people also confirmed that a man was found sleeping on top of the washing machines on several occasions. The mum said the sight of a mattress in the communal space shocked her.
She said, “One time I was going to the laundry room and I had one of my kids with me. The door was locked and I was struggling with the key and someone opened it from the inside. So I walked in there to find that there is a man living in the laundry room, a bed made up over the machines and everything.
“The gates have been broken since I moved in here, anyone can come in. I know where we are living may appear like squalor but that doesn’t mean we should be treated like this.”
Other residents have said that strangers used to ‘line up’ outside the laundry room to buy drugs, an issue that the council has recently solved. However, the solution as Erin points out, has come with its own problems.
“I can’t wash my kid’s clothes the way I would like to,” she said, “the council’s solution to curbing anti-social behaviour was to change the locks with the laundry room and now only one resident has the key. Now, I understand, he’s [housing manager] is trying to do something to curb it but now that has compromised the rest of us in terms of freedom of access.”
Erin is angry with the council and has said that she has heard council workers refer to Marston Court as the ‘s*** houses’. “I heard him say it but I’m not even mad because he ain’t telling no lies. They know, they know it’s not fit for purpose so why are you lumbering people here?”
“They spent £182,000 on the King’s Coronation, the most of any borough in the country, in the country! Not even just London. So how are you going to tell me it’s OK to live here? Are you serious?!”
“Considering the country we are in, these things should not be happening,” Erin says that fixing the gate would make a bigger difference but for years nothing has been done. “Fix the gate, fix the damn gate. How hard is it to fix a gate?!”
Erin admits she is desperate, a feeling echoed by many of the other parents. She said: “If things carry on the way they are now, at this point I would rather live under a bridge with my kids than live in here, really and truly, because I can’t live like this. These places are a bad, bad idea.”
The play area at Marston Court. Picture: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
Likewise, Paula Aleksandros said something very similar when speaking about her own situation saying she would rather take her children and ‘go and live in a park’ than continue to occupy her shipping container home.
She is also a single mum of two, fighting to stay buoyant in the tumultuous housing estate. Welcoming us into the first container of her two-container home, which acts as a playroom kitchen, living room, bedroom and hallway, she shows us images of injuries she has received after trying to stand up to local drug dealers.
They show tracks of bruising running down her legs. She brandishes another photo, this time of dealers laying out their wares in the laundry room. Paula says her attempt to gather evidence of dealing is what made her a target.
The abuse and threats she has received have caused her to send her daughter and son away to their dad who has no custody rights over them, something she says was an absolute ‘last option’.
She said, “I go in the laundry room and there are guys in there with drugs, there are girls who will be swearing at me showing me the middle finger and that they are going to beat me up and f*** my kids up.
“This girl beat me up in March because they are doing drugs. Everyone is hating on me. I got bruises, an ambulance came. It’s crazy.”
Paula, 31, says that the incident, being forced to send her children away and flat issues have caused a psychological backlash including her suffering from symptoms of anxiety and depression.
“I wanted to kill myself,” she said, “I really wanted to kill myself.”
She said that she feels that the council would prefer to kick her out of her flat rather than tackle the problem of dealers and violent individuals. Recently she staged a sit-in at Ealing Council’s offices to protest her situation.
Paula says she feels so unsafe that she is now sleeping rough rather than staying in the estate overnight. She described the council as ‘the worst’.
She adds, “The worst experience of my life, they actually made my life so much worse.
“I know that they don’t care, I can see that. I keep thinking one more email, one more conversation maybe there will be progress, you have that hope. But in the end, you see that they do not care.”
Paula’s downstairs neighbour expressed similar sentiments about not feeling safe. She is currently being housed in Marston Court after fleeing domestic violence and says she feels she’s left one dangerous situation for another. After being in the shipping containers with her four-year-old child for two years she says that she does not feel safe.
“The gate is always open and the whole place is full of kids and they can’t even go and play outside because it’s not safe,” she said. “I don’t trust anyone around here. There are too many people selling drugs to be safe.”
Part of her concern is to do with drug dealers sparked by their previous activity in the laundry room. She said, “They were selling drugs in the laundry room it was impossible to get in, mainly because there was a massive queue outside.”
Having fled her previous home the mum describes her feelings when she first saw her new shipping container shelter for the first time. “I cried when I saw this place. I’m not going to lie I was happy because of course they gave me a house and took me from a very bad situation.”
But joy turned to horror rapidly.
She said, “When we first arrived it was winter so it was very cold, it was empty so there was nothing inside, just the bed. Nothing was working, the toilet wasn’t working we actually spent three days without a toilet. Only one hob works and the oven is still not working.”
“We had no hot water for two years. Water was coming from the ceiling, we had mould for more than one year and the council told us to close the windows.”
She says she has received very little help to fix the issues from the council with the toilet still barely functioning after she called for emergency plumbing. The resident has also been suffering from a cockroach infestation.
Poor ventilation has meant that her daughter has been falling sick every other week with black mould spreading due to humid conditions. “I have no hope. If this was for six months fine. But after a year and now two, I have nothing. My neighbour has been here for six years.”
Resident who fled domestic violence at Marston Court. Picture: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
Another parent, Louise Charles, is a teaching assistant and has an 18-month-old daughter.
She has faced similar struggles as Paula and Erin, including an infestation of cockroaches. “I have been for a year now and it’s disgusting, the man next door has cockroaches and they are coming over here,” she said.
Something as simple as playing can risk her daughter’s exposure to dirt and roaches. “I have seen cockroaches crawling all over her stuff before, it’s just dirty,” Louise said.
Even getting to the front door can be a struggle. “I can’t let her walk up and down the stairs because it dirties her clothes. She gets covered in all the rust on them. When it rains they can get pretty dangerous.”
Louise says she feels lied to by the council who told her the shipping containers were a ‘two-bedroom flat in Hanwell’.
The mum said she took her shipping container home because otherwise, she was under threat of being declared ‘making herself intentionally homeless’ – a similar story to other people in Marston Court.
The council will categorise people as intentionally homeless if they repeatedly refuse accommodation offered to them even if it’s unsuitable, unsafe, or miles away from where they are from. Homelessness charity Shelter says: “It can affect your rights to longer term housing if the council decide you’re intentionally homeless.”
For Louise living on the streets or bed hopping was simply not an option with a young daughter, so she moved into Marston. “I hate living here,” she said. “I just want to leave.”
While she waits for another property to pop up, she has also been left shocked to find a man in the laundry room with a mattress and ‘crack and heroin all over the top’.
Louise also agreed that the introduction of a single key has helped, but drug dealers still prowl the premises both outside and inside the perimeter. This was something witnessed during the Local Democracy Reporting Service’s visit to the estate when two men were seen doing an exchange in broad daylight not far from children playing nearby.
Louise said: “I feel like s***, I hope she’s at that age where she won’t remember it so by the time we move I’m assuming she’ll be two or three and she won’t have any memories of living here. I don’t take any pictures in here. She shouldn’t be brought up here.”
Mum Ranjana, the person responsible for the laundry key, says drug dealers hide their contraband in the bushes when police come by.
She said, “There are many small kids coming and buying drugs and they use this as a selling place, every day, outside and inside.”
“Then the police came by and now they are still selling, mainly outside the gate but sometimes inside, not every day though. I am not happy because they are scary, I don’t talk to them much because maybe they will hit me. I see but I don’t say anything.”
“For me, the big problem here is drugs.” She said she is scared for her two young children about drug dealers and their sometimes threatening behaviour. “They are coming mostly from 3pm until 6pm, sometimes later, maybe 9, 10, 11pm.”
Ranjana with children Angel and Hayden at Marston Court. Picture: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
Ranjana, the mother of Angel and Hayden, says that drug dealers hide their supplies in bushes and under rocks when police are called. From her vantage point on the second level, she can see them as they do it.
“Hiding drugs in the rocks or in the grass. Police come and they don’t find anything. Quick check, gone. Police can’t see. I can see from here but police cannot.”
On top of this, she is suffering all the same issues that blight the other shipping containers. She hasn’t had hot water for eight months in her kitchen and water in her shower runs inconsistently.
The stories of the 48 other people living in Marston Court are near identical to these women. All of whom without fail had similar complaints.
In a statement that seems to reflect every resident’s frustrations with the estate, Paula said: “Burn it to the ground, make it disappear completely. It shouldn’t even be. They [the residents] shouldn’t even be there in the first place.”
In response to a request to comment an Ealing Council spokesperson said, “The modular units at Marston Court provide a much-needed supply of local affordable accommodation for households, who require urgent temporary housing assistance while moving towards a longer-term housing solution at a time of a growing housing crisis across London, made worse by the government’s policies.
“Issues relating to water and lighting in the homes at Marston Court are being investigated. A Hostel Officer oversees the day-to-day management of the site and visits at least twice a week alongside our handyperson team maintain the public areas.
“A private security company visits every day. In addition to this, there are regular police patrols and CCTV cameras in place. We are undertaking repairs to the damaged security gates, and are looking into an improved security gate, which should reduce the risk of future damage.
“Following initial issues with the laundry room when it was used by non-residents, a long-standing arrangement has been in place agreed with all residents, that the keys would be held by a resident who would give them to neighbours as and when required.
“Feedback to the Hostel Officer is that there are no problems now at the laundry room. If residents see criminality or persons unknown on the site, they should call the police for assistance as well as raising the issue with officers at the council.”
It did not respond to queries as to why the shipping containers are charged at the market value rental rate. In a separate statement about Marston Court, the council said, “It should be absolutely clear that the council is committed to decommissioning Marston Court and re-providing higher quality temporary accommodation. However, this cannot happen immediately as we are facing an increase in the number of households who are in urgent need of support with their housing.”
“We cannot justify closing Marston Court immediately, despite our concerns about its quality, without options lined up for those people living there.”
Rory Bennett - Local Democracy Reporter