The atmosphere is muggy and there’s a sour smell in the flat, caused by the mice behind the cupboards and in the walls and by the rotting carpet. The windows are sealed shut and haven’t been washed in years. Two fans, placed as strategically as possible given the absence of plug points and with the dodgy wiring in mind, move the dense air around sluggishly.
Outside, the temperature is 32°C. My energy, already low because of chronic ill health, is reserved for the most minimal activity – swopping an empty water bottle for a full one, eating a small snack every few hours, intermittently soaking the t-shirt I’m wearing and sponging down the dog. Sleep is restless and sweaty, interrupted by thirst or worry or feverish dreams. We’re in survival mode.
We go out several times a day for the pooch to relieve himself, carefully calculating whether the hot pavement is bearable for his paws. I carry our biggest bottle and, in strict rotation, offer the parched street trees a drink. In the early morning, we walk to the corner shop to buy a bag of ice which keeps our drinking water chilled for a short while.
The Met Office has issued another Amber Alert warning of extreme heat for at least the next four days and the Mayor of London has activated the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol, for the second time this summer. This means all citizens should be on high alert for the effects of this unusual heat and that additional support measures should be in place for vulnerable people, including those who have disabilities or health conditions, and those who are very old or very young.
There are endless headlines in the news, offering advice on how to stay cool, recipes for hot days and lurid human interest stories of people suffering in unusual ways. The tabloids suggest putting frozen peas down your top while the broadsheets suddenly feature articles on the most temperate regions of France to buy a second home. It all feels incredibly unreal and unhelpful – I have no freezer to stock up on ice lollies, no curtains to close against the worse heat of the day and no hope of a holiday in France.
Living in temporary council accommodation is incredibly lonely for lots of reasons but more so in a crisis. We are not the visible homeless, the rough sleepers, who are visited by council and charity outreach teams to check on our welfare. The only official who has visited our temporary accommodation building this summer is the anti-social behaviour officer. Nobody has called to see if I’m alright, even though I have a team of social workers, support workers and housing advocates working with me. My council landlords tweet about supporting “vulnerable residents” but their website offers nothing except a few tips on staying cool and a link to the NHS.
I am one of thousands of Londoners living in a flat that is inadequate for extremes of weather. The private owner of our building will not invest in energy efficiency so there is no insulation or double glazing and the ancient central heating system coughs out hot air all year round. During the last heat wave, our water was cut off for half a day with no warning.
As you move up the floors in this six-story, Victorian block the temperature palpably rises. Many of the flats have windows that don’t open properly and none have cross-ventilation. There is no common or outdoor green space for tenants to catch a breath of cool air – indeed, the only nearby gardens are locked to people like us.
We do have a beautiful big park ten minutes’ walk away but many my neighbours cannot make it that far. This is a building almost entirely inhabited by people with disabilities and complex needs.
I have my own troubles but I also worry about the alcohol-dependent guy in my corridor; he has epileptic fits and hurts himself regularly in falls. And what about the wheelchair-using diabetic whose feet are in plaster and who sleeps on the stairs because he’s afraid of a hex in his flat?
Then there’s the basement family with the teenage daughter who has a severe learning disability. She doesn’t leave the flat unless it’s to go to school and school is over for the summer. They get no natural light in their flat and there’s a rat decomposing outside the window which looks onto the building’s central well. All of these people are vulnerable and largely invisible and have few material resources to withstand this extreme weather.
I worry that there will be deaths in my building this summer and they will go uncounted as casualties of the structural neglect that means there is so little adequate, affordable housing and that the services tasked to look after our most difficult and needy citizens are threadbare. There’s little I can do, except to keep an eye out for people in trouble and send messages to the Council, trying to get their attention. It’s nowhere near enough.