"Our aim is to help you live as independently and happily as possible" City West
"I worked all my life and came to this place thinking it was going to be a good living... but the charges have become bigger for everybody and it's getting a bit rough to pay the money" says Ernie Spencer who is 84 and has lived in a sheltered housing scheme in Pennington Close, Little Hulton, for nine years.
"I only put the heating on this morning because you were coming, that's how I'm living, it's terrible" he adds "I don't have heating on until night time and have to cut down on my food bills. They're putting us into hardship, it's disgraceful. And there's a lot more like me..."
Ernie is one of over 750 people who live in sheltered accommodation within City West Housing Trust schemes who have seen charges rise recently for what the company calls Independent Living Scheme Based Support, which includes wardens, pull cords and wellbeing phone calls.
Basically, the Tory Government has cut the Supporting People funding to local government, and Salford Council has, in turn, cut this grant to social housing companies like City West and Salix Homes – which are both passing the costs on to elderly and disabled people in their care.
Over in Salix land in Central and East Salford, last week residents protested and stopped a ballot which could have led to £20 a week increases in charges (see previous Salford Star article – click here); but in the West of the city, City West has imposed charge increases, without a ballot, despite promising that residents would be consulted on four options.
Three of the options were deemed by the company as "not viable", and new charges and reduced support came into force at the beginning of November. For Pennington Close this has meant a change in its warden system, while Ernie has to fork out around £27 a month from his pension to pay City West..."It's difficult to find" he explains.
For residents it's not just about the rise in charges, it's also about reduced support which has led to long standing wardens, who knew the needs of the people in their care, having their job titles changed, being moved to different schemes and, in some cases, being made redundant.
When Ernie complained to City West about the way in which the charges were imposed without proper consultation and about the change in the warden system, he received an incredibly curt five page letter from the company's Director of Customer Operations which he was asked to share with other disgruntled customers.
He was told in the letter that the warden "role had become obsolete compared with the industry standard and more modern delivery models...[the new system] promotes positive professional boundaries, it deters customers from becoming dependent on individual members of staff...the traditional warden...is out dated and not viable for us as a business."
Finally, he was told that "If customers feel they wish to opt out of the service and avoid the charge, that can be arranged and support will be provided to assist with finding more suitable accommodation"...
The letter concludes... "Our position isn't ultimately going to change in respect of the new service or individuals affected by the recent changes..." City West's official mantra? "Our aim is to help you live as independently and happily as possible..."
For many City West customers living in sheltered housing schemes this has become a very, very sad joke...
Helen Cunningham Patterson, is registered blind and physically disabled, lives in the sheltered Queen's Close scheme in Walkden and will have to find around £30 a month extra from her Disability Living Allowance to pay City West, having already coped with increases in council tax...
"My whole life feels like it's been turned upside down because of what's happened" she explains "The money that's given to me to help with the disabilities I have, to be able to live independently, is being eaten away just so that I can survive in the property. But it's not just the increases, it's about the care that I had and the stability I had within the scheme before this happened. I felt very confident and safe whereas now I don't.
"When you are in a sheltered property you are here for a reason, because we are vulnerable" she adds "We don't want to go into nursing homes, we don't want to be taken care of; we want to live as we can but we need that extra assistance. And now we're paying for something and we're not even getting what we originally had. We've lost our security."
Helen explains that the warden used to make sure that any letters were sent to her in large print, helped her when she got out of hospital, phoned to make sure she was okay and was basically around as a caring friend...
"She knew all my physical disabilities, she knew how it was difficult for me to ask for help" Helen adds "The new ones don't seem to have the time. He's on two sites but there's no structure; we don't even know if he is on site, we don't know how anything works any more. How can he support me when he doesn't know anything about me?"
Helen says that all she gets now is a short phone call once a day to make sure she's still alive. Meanwhile, when she goes out she has to pull a chord or phone the company to let them know. If the support workers don't hear they are supposed to come around to check. For three days Helen didn't notify the company when she left the house but never got a call to make sure she was okay nor were there any letters put under her door saying that someone had called round.
"I put a complaint in, I could have been on the floor since Tuesday" she says "All I got back was that the man said that he'd popped in but didn't know there was any necessity to leave a note, and he didn't have any contact details for me if I wasn't in. How appalling is that? It's a total lack of care."
Over the last few months residents in sheltered housing, angry at their treatment by City West, have been getting organised, taking petitions round to schemes in Walkden and Little Hulton. Every single person they managed to visit signed the petition and told their stories...
"It was horrifying" says Helen "People were leaving front doors open because they were waiting for carers, there were people worried to death where they were going to get the money from to pay for these bills, and there were people mentally incapable of understanding what is going on, what is happening to them. It broke my heart. It's just wrong.
"I can just about manage because, ironically, my disabilities give me financial stability so I can pay my bills but everyone's not in that position" she adds "People are going hungry, people are worrying themselves to death and that's just a small part of what's happening here. Yet we are the most vulnerable people out there..."
Over at Tyne Court in Walkden, Steven Stubbs says his charges had gone up from £30 a month to £60 a month... "We're paying double and we're getting nothing" he says "I was paying £30 and we had a full time warden when I first came here, then we had a part time one...and now we're paying for a warden we haven't even got. But I need help, that's the whole idea of me being here because I can't handle stress and I can't do it on my own."
Steven tells of the horrendous background that led to him being in sheltered housing ... "City West helped me a lot but then they left me because I've got depression and you can't see it" he explains "Part of my illness is not being able to cope on my own but I'm stuck in my flat getting no help at all. It's affected me a lot and I'm trying to keep my head straight."
Paul Schofield has lived in Tyne Court for five years and originally saw his bill for charges rise by £50 a month, before involving local MP Barbara Keeley and councillors, and holding meetings with City West to get it reduced.
"We're in social housing, and the principle of social housing is that it was housing for people who were poor and vulnerable, particularly those in sheltered housing" he explains "The vast majority of people in sheltered accommodation want a nice quiet life without any aggravation, they want to be left to live.
"We're all dispossessed of our previous life" he adds "This is our new life, and to have them rattle our cage with such a huge increase has spoken to me of a complete lack of understanding of who they are dealing with and what their job is."
It's a point echoed by Helen Patterson Cunningham... "Social housing organisations like Hanover and Great Places go in and they have individual agreements with each scheme" she says "The people in the schemes are involved with everything, from deciding who does their repairs and who looks after their homes, and they don't pay any more than we do...
"So the system can work and it can be done differently" she insists "But City West just seems like it's a private company making money, keeping the turnover, give as cheap as you can get and that's it. Maybe in some areas of housing you can do that but not in sheltered schemes where there's people like me in their fifties right up to people in their nineties who are terrified they're going to lose their homes.
"The worst part about all this" says Helen "is that in any meetings with City West, or any letters or phone calls, we've been told `If you can't afford it or don't like it, move'..."
In the letter to Ernie Spencer, the Director of Customer Operations states that there were three `key aims' that City West `needed to satisfy' as a result of its loss of Supporting People funding... `service delivery and quality; affordability to the customer and viability for the organisation'...
According to its latest draft set of accounts, City West Housing Trust made a surplus of £14.7million in 2014-15, up by almost £1.4million on the previous year. City West Group, which includes its building company City West Works, made a surplus of £15.7million, up by almost £4million on the previous year. The Group's operating profit was £20.3million, up £4.6million on the previous year.
Meanwhile, six people in the company earned over £100,000 per year, and the highest paid director received £168,259 (excluding pension benefits) – a pay rise of £15,288 on the previous year.
Five Salford city councillors shared £22,010 from being on the board of City West, and all saw hefty percentage rises in remuneration on the previous year, including Councillor Robin Garrido, who saw his City West pay jump from £3,409 to £6,201.
While councillors have stood up at public council meetings to put City West's case in relation to housing investment following a 1% cut in rents imposed by the Tory Government, not one councillor has brought the plight of sheltered housing residents to the public's notice.