The angel of Soho
When Marie Froggatt’s tower block home was overrun by drug addicts and prostitutes, she conquered her fears to testify in court against the tenant responsible. Simon Brandon finds out how the 68-year-old’s bravery saved a community from a living hell
‘I haven’t had an easy life,’ says Marie Froggatt, a 68-year-old tenant of Westminster Council’s arm’s-length management organisation CityWest Homes, in a soft Irish voice. ‘I had to fight my way in the world to get where I am today, so I’m not letting anyone walk over me.’
Ms Froggatt has lived with her husband in a tower block in Soho, central London, for 21 years. Two years ago, she and her fellow residents found themselves living alongside the proverbial neighbour from hell and his unsavoury retinue. It was only thanks to her courage that life in the block ever returned to normal.
‘Are you running for mayor now?’ asks Ms Froggatt’s neighbour as she poses for some photos in the tower block foyer. It is a bright, clean, well looked-after space, but a year ago it looked quite different. A tenant had turned one of the flats upstairs into a crack house, and the foyer, along with the stairs, lifts and communal areas, was overrun by drug users and hangers-on.
‘It was like a takeover bid,’ Ms Froggatt remembers - but it was defeated. She was the only resident prepared to testify in court against her neighbour, and it was her testimony that finally ended what had become a living nightmare.
Culture of fear
The tenant at its centre, Peter*, would open the security door to let in his acquaintances every day and night. Residents entering or leaving their own building were forced to negotiate a throng of addicts, prostitutes and their clients. ‘You were frightened to go in, frightened to go out,’ Ms Froggatt says. ‘I don’t know how I came through it all.’
She remembers waiting one day for a lift to take her up to her flat. ‘The lift doors behind me opened - I turned around and there were two people having sex in there,’ she says. ‘It was 3.30pm. She asked if I’d like to join them. I won’t tell you what my reply was.’
Sometimes things turned very ugly indeed. ‘I was threatened by a prostitute in the hall that she would cut my throat,’ Ms Froggatt recalls. ‘And I was threatened by a drug addict that he would strangle me with his belt. He came up to me with the belt wrapped round his hand - I had my phone in my hand and said I’d count to five and he left.’
Wasn’t she frightened? ‘Yes, I was frightened,’ Ms Froggatt says. ‘But I couldn’t show him that.’
There were times Ms Froggatt felt so threatened, she adds, that she had to ask barmen from the pub across the street to escort her through the foyer. She felt so unsafe that she cancelled her seven-year-old granddaughter’s weekly visits.
The experiences of other residents were even worse, Ms Froggatt says. She mentions one of Peter’s immediate neighbours, an 87-year-old Chinese woman who speaks no English, who was often too scared to open her front door.
‘She lived here for years and she had to suffer this… She used to grab me on the street, but what do you say when you don’t speak Chinese? All I could do was give her a cuddle.’
‘It started about two years ago. Nothing was done about it for quite a long time,’ she says, despite 87 complaints from neighbours. An initial court case failed because of lack of evidence. Eventually, however, anger trumped fear. ‘One day I just had enough,’ Ms Froggatt says. ‘Why should I be frightened to come into my own home? It just wasn’t on anymore.’
So when the police begged Ms Froggatt to stand up in court and testify against Peter, she agreed. Her evidence enabled the police and CityWest Homes to obtain a crack house closure order; Peter was evicted and the property was sealed for six months.
Ms Froggatt says the perpetrators knew who had testified against them. Did she feel at risk? ‘Yes. I still do, when I see him outside.’
But crucially she says she received plenty of support from the estate housing team and from CityWest Homes’ management, as well as the police. ‘I’ve got a lot to thank them for,’ Ms Froggatt says.
‘Marie went to the front line with us and was a key witness who gave evidence in court in person,’ says Repa Khan, housing manager of CityWest’s Soho and Covent Garden estate. ‘Marie is a very brave resident who takes action. The tenant was very aggressive but that didn’t stop her standing up in court and being counted. She is a true community angel.’
Ms Froggatt’s good turn for her neighbours has been recognised, too; this year she was crowned most outstanding resident at the National Federation of ALMOs awards.
‘We’ve had no problems since and that’s how I want to keep it,’ Ms Froggatt says. ‘I don’t want to spend the next year sitting in a police station.’
She still sees Peter sometimes, lurking in the streets nearby, but this quietly spoken woman still refuses to be cowed and says she would do it all again in a heartbeat.
‘He’s not supposed to be within 50 yards of the building, but he was out there a few Sundays ago,’ Ms Froggatt says. ‘I said “Wipe that smirk off your face - I’m not frightened of you”.’
*not his real name
Cracking the case
Marie Froggatt is full of praise for her landlord CityWest Homes and for the local police and the support they gave her. That support is in part thanks to an amendment to the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, contained in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.
It relates specifically to what are called, colloquially, crack house closure orders (the law calls them closure notices). When an application is made for a court order to close a crack house, two things must be proved: first, evidence of class-A drug use, and second, persistent anti-social behaviour around the property.
Police take care of the former; landlords the latter. This two-pronged requirement has pushed both groups into better partnership working, says Sharon Nandoo, group anti-social behaviour manager for Southern Housing Group.
‘Joint working means residents see things happening very quickly, and that the landlord is involved in that,’ she says. By publicising successful closure orders and ASB cases, she adds, residents gain more confidence that their complaints will be taken seriously and acted on speedily - and that belief can spread, too.
‘They can share that experience with neighbours, who will feel more confident coming forward,’ Ms Nandoo adds.