A Denmark Hill woman who lived in “terribly overcrowded” conditions after moving to London as a child as part of the Windrush generation has been given an MBE for her work supporting social housing residents.
Monica Barnes was given the award by Princess Anne at a ceremony at Windsor Castle in February for her work as chair of the resident strategy group at the housing association Optivo, where her job for ten years was to tell company bosses about problems residents were facing.
Ms Barnes said it was “a real pleasure” to get the MBE, but she didn’t do the work to be given an honour. “I do it to help people and make sure their voices are heard,” she said.
Ms Barnes came to London from Jamaica at the age of ten and lived with her aunt, after her mother passed away. “Housing was an issue back then, as is well catalogued. You’ve heard the phrase ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’. We encountered all of that.”
They lived in various places in Brixton that were overcrowded, with several people living in each room. Finally she got a flat in a new development called Porchester Court in Denmark Hill, run by the housing association that would become Optivo.
Ms Barnes said the new flat, which had a garden, made a real difference to her young family. “The environment you grow up in is totally important, and housing is a huge part of that.”
She set up a residents’ association to foster more of a community in the new development. “Keeping an eye out for each other was a good thing,” Ms Barnes said.
Asked how she thought housing for black people had changed since she first moved to London, she said: “It’s gotten better but there is still a long way to go. You read some of the horror stories…
“I still say that there’s much work to do. I wouldn’t want to get complacent.”
Ms Barnes added that she would encourage anyone living in a housing association or council property to get involved in the management if they have the opportunity.
“We pay the salaries with our rent. If you get the opportunity to hold officers to account, I would encourage people to grab it with both hands.”