Latin American London: Ya No Está Oculto

The Latin American population is one of the fastest growing migrant populations in the United Kingdom. The most recent figures show that there were around 250,000 Latin Americans in the UK in 2013, of which around 145,000 were in London.

Southwark is home to the one of largest Latin American populations in the capital (9 % of the entire population) which tends to reflect historical patterns of settlement and commercial and cultural activity in London. This is perhaps best illustrated by the long-standing commercial areas dominated by Latin Americans around Elephant and Castle Shopping centre.

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(photo taken at the annual Plaza Latina festival)

Latin Americans based in the UK are ten times more likely to work in jobs in which they get paid less than the minimum wage – this is despite the fact that the majority are vastly over-qualified for such jobs. Coupled with this, over a quarter of Latin Americans living in Southwark do not speak English, or do not speak it very well.

These issues, combined with a steadily growing population, has seen the emergence of several community groups and charities over the past few decades whose remit is to offer help and support to the Latin American community.

One such organisation is the Latin American Disabled People’s Project (an organisation in need of an acronym if there ever was one). I sat down with Jhon Marulanda, Director of LADPP, in order to shine a light on the work that they do to and discuss some of the difficulties that the organisation, and the wider community, are currently facing.

Our conversation is joined at the offices of LADPP as Jhon describes recent efforts to mop up the effects of heavy rainfall the previous weekend.

“Although it has started drying a little bit it has damaged the floor” Jhon explains as he points to area in question.

The building, which LADPP has inhabited for over two decades now, is pretty beaten up and run down. Situated on a small industrial estate off Braganza Road, the project itself has been going for 31 years, although for the first 4 years it had yet to receive its registered status as a charity.

Jhon explains: “It started as very much a community-led project and then, in 1989, the organisation was registered as a charity.”

LADPP are technically a pan-London organisation but they mainly work in Southwark, Lambeth and Lewisham. Jhon states that this reflects the demographic makeup of the three boroughs; it is where the largest Latin American and Spanish populations are based in London.

There used to be around 12-15 groups working with the Latin American Community

So why did the organisation form initially?

“The organisation basically came about as a response to the needs of the growing Latin American community, who started establishing themselves in the UK around thirty or forty years ago.

“These people were economically active and they moved with their families to live here.

“There used to be around 12-15 groups working with the Latin American community. The charity sector used to be completely different and there was money to support community integration.”

London saw an influx of refugees from Latin American countries in the 1970s and 80s, fleeing the likes of Pinochet’s brutal regime in Chile. Some 2,500 exiles from Chile were the first large group of Latin American migrants to the UK when they settled in London in the early 1970s; they consisted of businessmen, professors, and students who had fled their home country due to the ongoing political instability.

In the 1980s, the flows comprised mainly Colombians and Ecuadorians - many of whom claimed asylum supplemented by family reunion.

During the 1990s and 2000s, Latin Americans continued to settle as students, as refugees and as economic migrants, again with many working in the low-paid, low-status sectors of the labour market.

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Jhon details how LADPP have tried to match the burgeoning community’s needs.

 “After these people arrived in the UK they didn’t have any access to the community and I think LADPP grew stronger as a result of trying to meet the needs of the new communities.”

“Nowadays conditions in the (charity) sector have changed completely. Now we are just surviving. I think at the moment there are only 5 organisations working for the Latin American community and I think all of us are just surviving due to all of the funding cuts.

“There is so little money from the local councils now.”

LADPP have been in receipt of Southwark Council’s Community Capacity grant. The last time they were funded in this way they had their funding cut by 25% - in line with other organisations.

Jhon is somewhat understanding of the situation that Local Authorities find themselves in.

“They have been very supportive but you know that everything is about cutting these days.”

Originally LADPP’s focus was very much on the needs of members of the Latin Community who were disabled. Due to increase in demand in line with a burgeoning population, the organisation has been forced to expand the type of support and help that it offers.

“I think that the Latin American organisations have been specialising in different areas of needs of the communities. LAWRS have been focused on domestic violence, IRMO were working with immigration, Latin American House were working with the Brazilian Community.

“When I first joined this organisation we worked with disabled people. But due to other organisations closing down we started seeing more people coming to us with different needs.

“Our clients started bringing their friends and their families – ‘please help my brother or my sister’ - you know? But they were not disabled so we had to change the service and make our offer available to all of the community, whilst maintain our specialist support for those with disabilities.”

You have to adjust your organisation to the demand of the people

These days LADPP offers a range of services that go far beyond its original remit, which they provide through workshops, appointments, and 1:1 sessions:

“We are now providing training to help people get into work, we focusing on mental health, advice and representation, community advice, English classes, workshops and other cultural activities.”

“You have to adjust your organisation to the demand of the people.

“I think that the last couple of years we have been more highly competitive because we have to deliver different projects to be able to meet the growing needs.”

Jhon states that employment support and benefits advice has become a huge part of what they offer:

“You have to support a lot of families who are becoming homeless. There is a big mafia in housing. You know that and everybody knows that but nobody does anything.

“A lot of the benefits decisions are now going against the people we support with the changes to PIPs. A lot of people are losing their disability benefits which has had a huge impact on their health – especially with people with mobility issues.

“There’s also a lot of people on low pay and zero hour contracts, problems with National Insurance and taxes, and a lot of employer issues where people are treated very unfairly.”

The latter statement is particularly telling when the economic contribution of the community is considered. Whilst Employment rates among Latin Americans are high at almost 70%, which is higher than the London average of 61%, the population is subjected to serious victimisation, with 40% of Latin American workers experiencing workplace abuse and exploitation.

It doesn’t take long speaking with Jhon to see how the demand for basic and vital support is on the rise.

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Jhon (right) and some of his colleagues

So how do you balance seeing an increase in demand of your services whilst having your funding reduced?

“You just have to keep going. You look to other trusts and foundations, who more and more play an important role in supporting marginalised communities.

“You have to work with other groups in the community and seek users involvement. We try to survive as best we can.

“This organisation was supposed to have been closing down six years ago. But we keep going.”

LADPP have a grand total of five paid staff members – of which only one is full time. They rely on their workforce of dedicated and active volunteers which currently stands at 67. Without them they simply wouldn’t be able to deliver the services that they do.

Jhon paints a somewhat bleak picture of what he perceives is a lack of help and support provided by central government.

“Their actions suggest that they simply don’t want us to keep running which is the complete opposite to what they say. Language support and ESOL classes have been scrapped, the majority of colleges have stopped doing free English classes, there’s no more translation services in job centres, and everything is being cut cut cut.

“The government says one thing but the reality faced by the community is completely different. I can’t speak on behalf of other projects but I’m pretty sure that if you speak to them they will tell you the same thing.”

LADPP used to operate on an income of £225,000 a year. This now stands at £70,000 – or a third of what they used to work with. Ironically, when they were operating on a more substantial budget the amount of people that used their services was nowhere near what it is currently.

In recent years Britain has also become one of the favourite European destinations for some of Spain's hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans who have acquired Spanish citizenship, seeking to escape their adopted country's prolonged economic crisis. This influx has meant that users of LADPP have tripled.

In 2014 they supported around 2500 people. The following year this increased to over 3000. Last year, 6250 people benefitted from the services provided by LADPP.

Look at what is happening at the Elephant. Look at what is happening at the Aylesbury

Slashed budgets and increased demand aren’t the only challenges faced by Jhon and his team. The thorny issue of premises has been rearing its ugly head for years now, as many voluntary and community sector groups will be able to attest to (check out the stories of the Feminist Library and Divine Rescue to name but two organisations).

Southwark council has identified the home of LADPP as a location for redevelopment as part of their ‘Southwark Regeneration in Partnership Programme.’

According to this document the council is preparing to submit a planning application for the site ‘by March 17’ with the hope that work will begin in the site in early 2018 and be completed by 2019. The eagle-eyed among you will realise that we are currently in March.

The document (which almost requires a degree in planning to understand) states that 33 new homes are set to be built on the site. None will be social rented.

Jhon is convinced that the council’s policy on community premises is pretty heavy handed and goes as far as to say that they are looking to financially capitalise on existing space used by community groups.

“They are just eliminating all community halls and community centres throughout the borough.

“A lot of these buildings are being sold for development, and the creation of ‘affordable homes.’ But affordable for who? Look at what is happening at the Elephant. Look at what is happening at the Aylesbury.”

LADPP used to have an open lease to use the premises but this was changed six years ago. The new lease dictates that the council only have to provide three months’ notice in order to evict the organisation.

Someone of a cynical nature might state that the council were allowing the building to fall into disrepair. Jhon states that the properties team neglect their duty to carry out essential maintenance on the building that houses the project. He has even had to hire someone privately to get repairs done.

“I can understand the pressures that the council are facing. What I do not agree with is that they are letting the place become rundown.

“We are paying rent here and we don’t even have central heating. Every time it rains the roof leaks. It’s always a fight for them to come out and fix anything.

“They don’t want to invest money into a building that they are going to demolish.”

LADPP sought legal advice and Southwark have offered them first refusal on any new workshop space included in the new development (without stating whether current rental rates will remain the same). They have committed to rehousing them somewhere else in the borough. Where exactly remains to be seen, but Jhon is expecting that they will remain at Braganza street until the end of the year.

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A busy day at the offices of LADPP

It depends on the big people who make the decisions

So what does the future hold in a climate of such uncertaintly? Jhon is certainy bullish. He has to be.

“I don’t want to think about finishing or closing down because if I do I will lose the motivation to keep going. I can’t allow myself to.

“I am the kind of person who always feels really good when I’m able to help other people. I think everybody who works for a charity doesn’t do it for the salary.

“Having the opportunity to improve the quality of life for so many people is hugely satisfying.”

There is a but…

“At the end of the day the future doesn’t depend on you, it depends on the big people who make the decisions.”

It is clear that without organisations such as the LADPP there will be no one left to fight for the rights of some of the UK’s hidden communities.

If you want to find out more about the organisation, or wish to offer your support, you can visit their website here.

Quite a lot of the statistics quoted in this article are from a report by the Trust for London and Queen Mary University. Click here if you want to learn more. It is well worth a read!

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