Only two people attended the funeral of Sheila Seleoane in April: her estranged brother and a representative from Peabody, the housing association responsible for the block of flats where she had lived, who arrived very late.
Two months earlier, Sheila’s skeletal remains had been found on the sofa in her third-floor south London flat, where they had lain undetected for an estimated two-and-a-half years, despite repeated attempts by neighbours to persuade the police to break down her door and check on her welfare.
“The priest said she was loved by her friends and family and neighbours – but, when you looked at the audience, there was just one person there,” says Christine, an events manager who lived opposite her (and asked for her real name not to be printed). She had asked Peabody if she could attend the service, but no one sent her the details. Instead, she was later emailed a link to watch a recording of the event. Sheila, who was 61 when she died, was given a traditional Christian service; pallbearers had placed an arrangement of white flowers on her wooden casket. “It was very sad,” Christine says.
It is now five months since police finally broke down the doors to Sheila’s flat in a modern redbrick block in Peckham. Among her former neighbours, there is rising anger over the way they say that the police and the housing association ignored them when they tried to raise the alarm. A much delayed independent report is due to be published later this week, to coincide with the inquest. Whatever that report concludes, the case already raises questions about whether or not the concerns of social-housing tenants are still routinely ignored, in ways that echo the events that preceded the Grenfell catastrophe. And it has left many wondering about modern isolation, and how a resident of a busy city of 9 million can die and not be missed for years.
Despite enormous media interest in Sheila’s story, very little has emerged about her identity. Before her death, none of her neighbours even knew the name of the woman in flat 16. “I’d hear her keys jiggling in the door; I think she had a typical nine-to-five schedule, but I barely saw her,” says Christine. “I probably knew her better than anyone else in the block, but we never really spoke – just hello and that was it. Christine never went inside, but occasionally glimpsed a tidy and well-looked-after interior when she knocked to collect deliveries that Sheila had signed for. It was only after her neighbour’s death that she discovered she worked as a medical receptionist, employed through a temping agency. “It was an admin type of job; she was always dressed in black trousers, court shoes, a white shirt. I was surprised when I found out she was 61 – she looked much younger.”
She doesn’t remember ever seeing visitors. “It’s so hard to understand why none of her friends or colleagues or her boss missed her. No one came to look for her.”
Another neighbour on Sheila’s corridor, Donatus Okeke, who works in construction and is originally from Nigeria, says he had politely distant relations with the woman he lived metres from for several years. “She would always greet my children, but I didn’t know her name and I never went inside her flat. In this country, you don’t communicate with your neighbours.”
Sheila’s body might still remain undiscovered had it not been for Storm Eunice, which swept through Britain on 18 February, triggering transport chaos and power cuts – and blowing open Sheila’s balcony door. Her downstairs neighbour was disturbed by the noise of the glass door banging in the wind and called the police, requesting that they check on the occupant’s welfare. That evening, police officers broke down the front door with a battering ram and found her body. A neighbour leaned out of their window to film men, presumably undertakers, wheeling a body bag out from the building and packing it into the back of a car.
Police have said Sheila’s death was unexplained rather than suspicious, but tenants remain confused by events since they first became worried about their neighbour. Tired of waiting for the results of the independent report, tenants have been doing their own detective work with the help of Peckham’s Labour MP, Harriet Harman. Their research reveals a mystifying contradiction between what the housing association says happened and the reported actions of the police.
There is a quiet irony in the way Sheila’s death has brought her neighbours together. Their building is a 20-flat block, with thin walls and flimsy doors, where cooking smells and half-heard voices mingle in the communal corridors. For years, its tenants have lived cheek by jowl with other families that they rarely spoke to. Now, as they try to unpick the truth about Sheila’s fate, they have been forced to get to know one another.
Their investigations reveal that the last certain evidence that Sheila was alive was in August 2019, when she paid her rent by debit card to Peabody for the last time. A month later neighbours began calling the housing association, reporting an unpleasant smell in the hallways of the building.
“Flies began coming through my windows, and there were maggots on the windowsill,” says Sheila’s downstairs neighbour, a woman who has lived in the block for 17 years (she also asked not to be named). “In August or September 2019, I rang Peabody to report it, but they said they didn’t deal with flies and I needed to ring a pest control company. I found maggots crawling on the furniture, and had to buy bleach to clean everything.” Some time later, she says, she rang them again to ask: “Are you sure no one has died in the block?” She can’t remember precisely how they responded, but knows her concerns were brushed off.
Donatus’s wife, Evelyn Okeke, remembers having to hold her nose every time she left the flat to take her three children to school. She began spraying air freshener and deodorant all over her home to disguise the smell. According to her diary, Okeke first called Peabody on 10 October 2019. Her husband was so disturbed by the smell that he went to the doctor. “I told the GP I thought someone had died in the flat and the smell was making me sick,” he says. “It was a very harmful smell; we couldn’t cope with it. We wanted to move out.”
In flat 17, which shares a wall with flat 16, an Iraqi-Kurdish family of six, who moved in a decade ago, were also concerned. They started laying old clothes at the base of their front door to stop the smell from the corridor seeping through. The eldest son, now 21, then a university student working towards a degree in construction project management, was worried about what might have happened to his neighbour, who he had often bumped into at the bus stop in the morning. “I think she used to look happy; we’d say hi and bye,” he says. He struggles to remember much else about her. “I think that she walked quite slowly – maybe she had asthma or something.”
With hindsight, he remembers that some time in late 2019 he stopped seeing her. “We used to hear her through the walls; then that stopped.” After multiple fruitless calls to Peabody, he walked two miles to the Peabody management offices, some time in late 2019, he thinks, to register his concerns. “I sat inside an office with a woman who wrote things down on a computer,” he says. A member of staff came to the block and opened some corridor windows. Some residents were told that the problem was poor rubbish disposal by tenants, or possibly damp, or outside drainpipes.
It was obvious to the other tenants in the block that the occupant of flat 16 was not living there or was no longer alive. Communal cleaners moved her doormat to wash the floor, and left it leaning against the wall, where it stayed for months. Her letterbox in the entrance hall became so full that post started overflowing on to the doormat. Children played with the letters, and some of them ended up in a heap on the bottom of the lift. In early 2020, Christine picked up one of the letters and opened it.
“I know you’re not meant to open other people’s letters,” she says, “but I was worried. It was a letter from Peabody saying she hadn’t been paying her rent since September 2019.” She called the landlords to say that she was concerned; by this point she was buying scented candles and laying towels under her front door. “Sometimes I wanted to gag.” She called the police twice. “I told them my neighbour was missing and there was a bad smell. They came and stood outside the door and said they couldn’t smell anything. They said perhaps she had gone away and left a pet behind, or perhaps some food had gone off and was rotting. I knew she didn’t have a pet; you’re not allowed them in this building. I wanted them to break the door down, but they said they couldn’t without a warrant. They said the landlord needed to deal with it.” The second time she called the police – she can’t remember precisely when – she found their response even less helpful. “They seemed quite annoyed – like we were just a bunch of nosy neighbours. They said they couldn’t do anything.”
It was clear that no one was entering or leaving the flat. In March 2020, engineers came three times to try to do an annual gas safety check, and finally stuck a letter on Sheila’s door, noting that they had been unable to gain access and promising to return to make a forced entry in April 2020. But the Covid lockdown began and the forced entry never happened; the letter stayed up for more than a year until decorators came to repaint the internal corridors and doors; they moved the notice and painted Sheila’s door while it was locked. Someone carried a Santander bike up to the third-floor landing and abandoned it, blocking her entrance for weeks. By now, Sheila’s rent and council tax were heavily in arrears.
Neighbours’ memories of this time are blurred in a Covid-related haze, but they have constructed a timeline of their calls and WhatsApp messages, revealing that by July 2020, they were asking one another why the landlords and the police were not investigating the “missing or supposed dead person”. Peabody has told Harman that the block’s neighbourhood manager tried to contact the tenant “many times”, but was unable to get a response. It also says that it does not have the right to force entry without police support. The organisation only contacted the police in October 2020, when a tenant’s social worker told the housing association there was “a strong smell like a dead body”. Peabody told Harman that, according to its records: “The police reported back that they had ‘spoken to the resident and that she is safe and well.’” As a result, the request to carry out a welfare check on the resident was closed.
The police confirm that they went twice to the flat in October 2020 “but found no grounds for forcing entry”; their involvement was referred to the Directorate of Professional Standards in March, which ruled that it did not reach the threshold for getting the Independent Office for Police Conduct involved, “due to the likelihood that the resident was deceased before the calls to police”.
“It’s odd – they seem to be saying it doesn’t matter they didn’t do their job properly because she was already dead,” Harman says. She has attempted to get an explanation from the police and Peabody about how officers could conclude that they had spoken to Sheila, when she was almost certainly long dead.
Sheila’s neighbours feel some remorse that their busy lives prevented them from making friends with her, particularly once it emerged that she had no support network of friends or family. Some see it as symptomatic of Britain’s excessive reserve, which they now regret. “In Iraq, people don’t live by themselves like that – they’re less isolated, people check up on each other more,” Sheila’s Kurdish Iraqi neighbour said. “People here don’t invite each other into their flats.”
Sheila left almost no digital footprint. Her Facebook account is empty except for a single entry from 2012, which hints at a deep-rooted loneliness: “I am looking for Jackie Douglas, who I went to school with. I can’t remember your address and made the mistake of not writing it down.” Only two classmates on the Facebook page for Woodberry Down secondary school, in north London, which Sheila attended in the 1960s, were able to recall vague half-memories of a friend they had forgotten about decades earlier. Valerie Hussey wrote: “We hung out and visited each other for a while but then we lost touch. I hope she is now resting in peace.” Another ex-pupil, Christine Naylor, wrote: “What times we live in that nobody missed her.”
Just one passport sized photo has emerged of Sheila, who was born in London in 1961, to a mother who had arrived from South Africa a few years earlier. Sheila’s closest relative, from whom she was estranged, was her 64-year-old brother. Police traced an older half-sister, Julia Bella Brooms, in South Africa. She never met Sheila, but held a memorial service for her some weeks after the London funeral.
Sheila’s undiscovered death is not unique. Joyce Carol Vincent, whose story was told in the film Dreams of a Life, died in her north London bedsit in 2003 and was also undiscovered for almost three years. Other housing association tenants have told the Guardian about neighbours who were left for weeks before their bodies were found.
But Peabody will face harsh criticism this week, because of its failure to respond to tenants’ concerns. The Peabody trust was founded in 1862 to “ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy of this great metropolis, and to promote their comfort and happiness”, but it has struggled in recent years with a rapid expansion. The housing association took over running the Peckham block, where several tenants are classified as vulnerable, when it merged with the smaller organisation Family Mosaic in 2017; residents say that before the merger they had close personal relations with a block manager who was often present. Peabody has since merged with another organisation and has grown into a vast organisation responsible for 104,000 homes (about a quarter of a million people); tenants who want to register complaints find themselves confronted with a faceless call-centre system.
“The issue of landlords not listening to their tenants is the big takeout from this. Either Peabody didn’t have proper systems or their staff weren’t sufficiently caring and attentive,” Harman says.
A Peabody spokesperson says the findings of the investigation will be shared with tenants after the inquest. “As an organisation and as individuals, we are deeply sorry about the length of time it took us to realise Sheila had passed away at home. The report shows that, although processes were followed and we tried to contact Sheila many times, there were several missed opportunities to raise the alarm. Since February, we have been supporting Sheila’s family, and we are keen to work with residents and others to decide on an appropriate way to commemorate Sheila in the future.”
This may not be enough to placate the tenants. All the third-floor residents have requested to move. “We had someone lying dead in our building for over two years,” one says. “No one cared. When we complained about it, all they did was add a splash of paint.”
July 18, 2022 at 02:58PM Amelia Gentleman