Rayhan Ismail walks into the hotel, exhausted after a long day at work. Four security guards, new fixtures of the lobby, cast him a glance as he passes them.
“There’s a lot of security – two on every floor, four in the dining area, on the ground floor… It’s like being in jail,” he says.
The 36-year-old calls me from his room. He and his family are among the 400 Barton House residents displaced when the city council carried out an emergency evacuation of the tower block on 14 November over safety fears.
Most of the tenants, like Rayhan and his family, are being temporarily housed in the Holiday Inn on Bond Street in the city centre, in rooms that have been booked by the local authority until the end of January. Tenants are still expected to pay rent on their council flats.
In a single hotel room, there’s a double bed for Rayhan and his wife and a pullout sofa bed for his two young children, aged three and six. There’s a limescale-coated kettle, a small adjoining bathroom – and not nearly enough space for the kids to run around in.
I can hear the kids playing noisily in the background, occasionally chided by their mother. It’s hard to hear Rayhan sometimes, but his dejected tone rings clear. “It’s a lot having all four of us in just one room with the kids,” he says wearily.
Rayhan worries for his family. “My wife’s been stressed and ill and not able to go to work. She hasn’t gone to her college in two weeks,” he tells me. “But she’s still taking the kids to school and back in Barton Hill on the bus.”
Meanwhile, his son’s asthma has become worse: “There was damp under the rug when we got here, he’s been prescribed antibiotics now. It’s coming up to three weeks now, it’s mentally draining.”
Several weeks on from the evacuation, residents still face an uncertain future, left in the dark about when, or if at all, they’ll be able to return to their flats. For Rayhan, “the state of limbo”, as he puts it, is what’s most mentally taxing.
From bad food and unclean rooms, to that overwhelming feeling of being stuck in a place of uncertainty, the Cable has been hearing about the poor conditions many Barton House residents now face in the Holiday Inn, and the toll it’s taking on their mental health.
Sleeping on empty stomachs
Rayhan and his family first arrived at the Holiday Inn around midnight on the night of the evacuation, which was a chaotic affair involving hundreds of people being decanted from their homes without prior warning or a proper explanation.
“They just threw everyone in, the rooms were not ready for guests – they were rooms that were left over from [being used by] homeless [people] during lockdown,” says Rayhan. “The hotel told us these rooms hadn’t been maintained. It looked like they hadn’t been opened for months.”
The Cable has been unable to verify these claims. The hotel refused to comment on all of our questions about the issues raised in this story, while the council, which is facing criticism for its lack of transparency and accountability, did not respond either.
The cleanliness of the rooms has been a common complaint, however. Speaking at a protest in City Hall on 17 November, Barton House resident Nua Sherrif said: “The rooms are absolutely terrible, messy, wet, the fridge is not working, it’s dirty. No cutlery. No heat.”
Yasmin, another resident, told people gathered at the demo, organised by tenants’ union ACORN: “Our hotel room is damp on the floor, it’s soaking wet and dirty. It is muggy in the room as well, I can’t breathe. It’s getting in my mum’s chest.”
Other people have shown the Cable evidence of stained floors, dirty surfaces and broken appliances in their hotel rooms. Some shared their complaints on a WhatsApp group for ACORN members that we have been added to.
Of complaints about the food, Rayhan said: “It’s just rice and curry everyday. The same thing for lunch and dinner. People are saying they just can’t eat it anymore.”
Yasmin said: “The food for the children in the hotel – nothing. Nothing. How can you expect kids to eat curry with bones in it? My son’s one year old!” She shared a picture of a small sharp bone she’d found in her curry.
Nua added: “I’ve about two kids, five and six years old, and they can’t eat what they provide in our hotel. We try to go back to our flat and cook food there and bring it back in a container. They told us, you’re not allowed to bring food from outside the hotel, and then they threw out the food!
“My kids see, and I think the same as other kids, they go hungry, go to sleep on an empty stomach.”
‘Not treated like the other guests’
Rayhan tells me that on one occasion he was alarmed to learn hotel staff had entered his room without notice.
“So I went to talk to them to say, shouldn’t they let me know before coming in? And they told me, ‘You’re not a paying guest – the council paid for it. You have no say in who comes in and who goes out.’”
He adds: “Holiday Inn staff, they don’t treat us like normal customers.”
Rayhan tells of a woman living by herself who was terrified when a maintenance man entered her room, without warning or knocking, while she was sleeping. “She’s gone back to Barton House now,” he says.
I’d originally wanted to speak to Rayhan because of something he’d said in an impassioned speech at the City Hall demonstration: “The stuff I’ve been through in Barton House, and then now, it’s literally disgraceful.”
I ask Rayhan, who has lived in Barton House for four years, what he was referring to in that statement.
“I know in Barton Hill this has always been the case – the council never do anything for you,” he says. “It wasn’t a good place to live, the majority of people were forced to live there by the council.”
Rayhan claims most people did not bid for their homes but were allocated them as a direct offer. “Once you’re in you’re in,” he says. “The council tell you if you don’t take it, then you’re choosing to be homeless.”
The more than 400 residents of the tower block are council tenants, many of them on the local authority’s overwhelmed social housing waiting list for a more suitable home. About 19,000 people are on the list in the city.
Rayhan begins reeling off examples ways in which he says the council has “neglected” residents, including that the lifts have not been working properly over the past year. “One is never working, I’ve had to take shopping up to the ninth floor,” he says. “I’ve seen mothers with kids and prams having to carry them up all those floors.
Rayhan also says his flat had no functioning central heating. “It was freezing in the winter and everyone would just wear jumpers! I kept asking the council to do something about the damp – the walls and windows are wet and it was affecting my son’s asthma. They didn’t do anything about it so I had to paint the walls with anti-mould paint.”
For Rayhan and some of the other residents I spoke to, it’s clear they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place: sick of the conditions they are faced with in the hotel, wanting to return to a home where the conditions aren’t much better – but at least it was home.
‘Treated like second class citizens’
Rayhan tells me he’s sick of council officers who visit, file your complaint, promise a call back and disappear. “It would be different if they gave you a time limit, or direct information about what is happening, it would make the wait easier, but it’s the not knowing,” he says.
“Initially we were only supposed to be [in the Holiday Inn] for two to three days, we were told. Then two weeks – now almost three – up to seven weeks, that’s mid January! My work is being affected – my mental health – it’s all going to have a domino effect on our lives.”
The agonising wait is compounded by residents’ lack of trust in the council, as yet more flats are being drilled into for further, more intrusive surveys – the findings of which will dictate when and if they will be able to return to the block.
“There’s a pregnant woman, two kids and husband, in one room – they gave their keys to the surveyors,” says Rayhan. He claims some people have surrendered their keys so surveyors can enter their flats, and that the flats have then been stripped bare, including the flooring and kitchen units.
He says council officers ask residents to sign a form that enables them to enter and carry out the survey on their homes, but that because some tenants don’t speak English, it’s not always clear to them what will actually happen.
Many people, like Rayhan, are calling for temporary accommodation to be provided in Barton Hill, near their communities and schools. Other families fed up with life in the Holiday Inn are taking their chances and moving back into Barton House.
Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees last week announced displaced residents must still pay rent and council tax.
“All the council tell us is, ‘We’re trying to get people into temporary accommodation as soon as possible’ – but they never gave any dates,” Rayhan says. “They tell what you wanna hear and they disappear.”
As temperatures drop and patience wears thin, remaining in limbo in the Holiday Inn is adding insult to injury for the residents of Barton House. I ask Wesley Bear, ACORN’s communications officer, who’s in regular contact with the Barton House residents, about the various complaints raised by residents in the hotel.
Damningly, he concludes: “They’re in rooms not fit for paying guests, they have to eat in a small separate area, they get worse food – at the end of the day, they’re being treated like second class citizens.”