Disabled resident ‘failed’ by the system

Housing allocations process called into question

Elisa Perez-Sphar
Credit: Neil Littman

By Luchia Robinson

A man whose partner died whilst waiting to be re-housed says disabled residents are being let down.

Neil Littman, a designer from Winchmore Hill, was both co-carer and next of kin to Tottenham resident, Elisa Perez-Sphar before she passed away from a cardiac arrest, aged 41, in December 2019.

Elisa, who suffered multiple health needs, including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and heart damage was housed in a bedsit in Nicholson Court, High Road Tottenham. Neil says the temporary accommodation, was in disrepair; it had damp, vermin, and limited space.

“There just wasn’t room for Elisa to have a normal life. She didn’t have a separate bedroom or privacy, she had to eat her meals sitting on the bed, she had a kitchen that she couldn’t use because it had no ventilation and no windows, so basically, she was trapped,” said Neil.

“Despite these points, we couldn’t get acknowledgement that the living situation was unsuitable, and in the end, her housing was deemed adequate, which I think is a bit of a misleading term.”

Elisa was unable to walk and used a wheelchair. She was taking multiple medications and was dependent on oxygen to help her breathe.

In November 2018, Neil and Elisa approached the council to change Elisa’s priority status on the housing register from Band C position to Band A, which in part, applies to applicants who: need to move urgently because of a critical medical or welfare need, including emergencies; tenants who are occupying a specially adapted home and are willing to transfer to a home that is more appropriate to their needs; and tenants who require extensive disabled facilities that can be provided more appropriately in alternative accommodation.

Letters sent to Neil last year from property management organisation, Homes for Haringey, reject applications made for reviews of Elisa’s housing status; each concluding that no medical priority applied.

Neil says the last assessment, was conducted at the start of November 2019 by an occupational therapist who visited the flat. Up until then, previous assessments of Elisa’s circumstance had been conducted without anyone seeing the bedsit. He says he and Elisa received phone calls two weeks later (two weeks before Elisa’s passing), from the occupational therapy team, again expressing that a medical priority did not apply.

Following this assessment, Neil said: “I phoned a week later and sent a document with a lot of new photographs that I took of the property, including new equipment that had been put in there by North Middlesex Hospital. It was so obvious that you couldn’t live in the place properly – it was an obstacle course.

“There was actually a machine in the hall that you’d trip over every time you came into the property, and two oxygen cylinders as well as the other equipment. It was a joke really.”

“This is why I feel so angry. I feel the council are operating a system that cannot be penetrated.”

Neil added: “I think the priority of the council has changed; they have become less helpful to people who are disabled.”

Band A status is awarded by the council when there is a critical medical need, including when the applicant’s condition is life threatening and the existing accommodation is a major contributory factor, and when the medical condition is expected to become terminal within a period of 12 months and rehousing is needed to provide a basis for the provision of suitable care.

Neil said: “Elisa’s COPD was life threatening. The fact that she had a London Ambulance emergency procedure guide on the back of her front door was evidence of this. North Middlesex respiratory department had already given her a life expectancy of 4-5 years in 2015.

“There were at least two or three appeal processes, and we failed on each occasion. In every case we weren’t told what the problem was, just that the evidence wasn’t good enough, it’s not compelling enough.”

“We had letters of support from everybody who counted. Elisa also had a respiratory nurse from Whittington Hospital who visited at home, and saw the circumstances that she was living in. There was a hell of a lot of people on Elisa’s side.”

Neil added: “The council ensure that people are put in the position where they have to find out what to do by default. It’s like going into a room, switching the lights off, and trying to find your way with a torch, although not having a torch at all, and not being given any assistance to work out: what the system is; why you would qualify; or what reasonable expectations are.”

“I feel the council failed in the duty of care for a vulnerable adult. Despite the amount of evidence that they were presented with, they chose to ignore it, or judge it on a system which was not really fit for purpose.”

In response to our queries, the council explained its medical assessment process and the role – since 2011/12 – of independent medical advisors, while also outlining the systems they have in place for vulnerable people. They did not respond specifically to any points raised in this case.

A spokesperson said: “Haringey Council extends its deepest condolences to Ms Perez-Sphar’s loved ones.”