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How a group of Essex lawyers turn things around for those facing homelessness

‘Maybe the government should do it, but they’re not.’

The Essex town of Harlow was home to the UK’s first tower block. As one of the first of the new towns to spring up in the middle of the last century, Harlow was a post-war dream of modern housing. 

Decades later, a symbol of this century’s housing crisis looms over the town centre – Terminus House. 

It wasn’t built as a housing block. It’s an old office block, repurposed as accommodation, and has been described as a “human warehouse”, or as an “open prison”. 

Some of those living inside turn to Jackie Brown of Harlow Advice Centre

“People are still telling me that there’s lots of issues with drugs and violence. Most of the clients don’t like it at all,” Brown said. “It’s very hard to get them out of there.” 

The help that food banks provide is perhaps obvious. But Brown and her colleagues go further, appealing against evictions, and buying time for people to deal with their debts. Without intervention, their clients stand to lose everything. 

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“Some people go bankrupt. Some people wind up on the streets,” Brown said. “The help gives you peace of mind, knowing that you’re doing what you can to put your situation right is really important. In a way we enable that.” 

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Harlow is poised to be hit hard by the cost of living crisis. Nearly two thirds of residents have less than £125 a month of disposable income. In the advice centre, where help is offered for free, that is becoming obvious. 

“We’re giving out more food bank vouchers than we did before. Sometimes you have people who come to see me who can’t afford their next meal,” Brown said. 

Choosing between heating and eating has become a motif of the crisis. Brown points out there’s a third prong: paying rent. “I can see it’s going to be a real big issue,” she said. 

“We’re going to have cases come to us where people have been evicted because they can’t afford to pay for their heating bills.” 

The centre, along with applying for legal aid funding, has received investment from Big Issue Invest, the investment arm of The Big Issue. 

The work is unglamorous. By way of contrast, Brown points out that newly qualified solicitors at London law firms earn upwards of £100,000. “It’s wonderful but I’ll never get that in my life. I don’t mind,” she said. 

“It’s really nice because you’re helping people,” Brown said when describing her work in her hometown. “There’s a buzz in helping people to turn their life around.” 

Brown added: “Maybe the government should do it, but they’re not. It’s no good saying ‘they should do it so we won’t’, because that doesn’t help anybody. 

“There’s genuine need for help here. It’s the right thing to do.” 

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