Eviction threat for squatters who set up their own winter homeless shelter

Friday, 28th January — By Isabelle Stanley

pics2022jan27 Image 2022-01-27 at 08.13.01 (10)

The founders of the Autonomous Winter Shelter. Photos: Guy Smallman_Instagram @guy.smallman

A HOMELESS shelter set up in a building that has been left empty since 2019 is facing eviction, despite bringing more than 25 rough sleepers in off the streets.

The Autonomous Winter Shelter was created by a group of squatters in a disused building in Gray’s Inn Road, Clerkenwell, in December.

They took refuge when temperatures plunged to highlight council and government inaction on homelessness.

The building, which is owned by housing association One Housing Group, is a former mental health-supported housing scheme run by charity St Mungo’s.

One of the founders of the shelter, Kai, who was made homeless when she was 18, said: “We’re doing something about the fact that no one else is doing anything. The fact that a housing association owns this building and isn’t using it for housing is disgusting when there are people freezing to death on the streets.”

She added: “They’ve had two years to do something with this place and there’s still no planning permission.”

The group has furnished it with donations from the public.

Another founder, Alex, who was homeless from the age of 16 to 19, said: “The pure reason we’re doing this is to help people – we know how many people die on the streets. We’re a group without money and we managed to do this, but those who have all the money don’t do anything. We’re highlighting all the problems with society.”

Currently, squatting in a commercial property is not a criminal offence, but squatters can still be sued in the civil courts. In January, the shelter was taken to court by One Housing Group, and is now facing eviction.

Alex said: “We always knew we were going to be evicted, but I thought they would give us more time, maybe until the winter ends, given the nature of what we’re doing. To be a housing group evicting a load of homeless people without giving them any options is insane.”

Sunday, another member of Resisting Anti-Trespass, attended the hearing. She said: “They said they couldn’t ensure the health and safety of people inside the squat, and so they had to close us down. They didn’t see the irony of the fact they would be sending people back onto the streets, where it’s definitely not safe. They don’t see ‘but people are dying on the streets’ as an argument, they just say it’s not ours and we can’t stay.”

Now, the group are looking for another bigger building to move into. They want to expand, help more people and continue to protest against what they see as the broken housing market.

Martin D’Mello, One Housing’s group director for health care and support, said: “One of our priorities at One Housing is helping to address London’s growing problem with rough sleep­ing. We’ve seen how the type of care and support available at our Arlington homeless hostel in Camden Town gets people off the streets and helps them restart their lives.”

He added: “We are working to redevelop the site on Gray’s Inn Road to support people with mental health needs. Occupying this building is illegal, potentially dangerous and risks delaying the redevelopment of the site, and therefore preventing the creation of a vital mental health service.”

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