On a blistering, wintry night at the end of November last year, Bill*, Robin*, and around 18 others entered the disused Sisters of Mercy convent building in London’s inner East End. The building, which is still owned by the Sisters, is steeped in charitable, resistive history. Formerly serving as a Catholic convent the building was used to shelter the area’s homeless, and set just a stone’s throw away from Cable Street – where in 1936 antifascist activists, trade unionists and communists fought off Oswald Mosley’s fascists and the police, protecting them in solidarity with the area’s Jewish community.
Inside the building Bill and Robin found tens of empty rooms, space for communal activities and a large kitchen fit for serving a crowd. “We needed somewhere suitable for housing and it was perfect,” says Bill. “There’s showers, a fully equipped kitchen and a place for our free coffee shop.” After a long night of moving their possessions from their previous home, they crashed out on the floor together.
“When we first got in, there was nothing but the carpet – it was freezing, barren,” Robin says, before pointing to a corner of the large communal area, functioning as a café while he speaks. “The first 20 of us were all sleeping over there in sleeping bags, we didn’t have money for heaters – we didn’t have any money full stop.”
Bill and Robin are part of the Autonomous Winter Shelter (AWS) network – a mutual aid group consisting of radical anarchists who squat empty buildings in London, taking in homeless people and providing food and a roof over their heads.
It was a bright Wednesday afternoon in May, six months after the group first cracked the space, when Huck visits. Bill and Robin, along with several other residents, were making the final preparations for the evening’s activities – an open mic night. Through an arched, gothic doorway watched over by a praying stone statue of the Virgin Mary, was the communal café area. It was situated just past a number of bedrooms filled with mattresses, sleeping bags and loose clothing – lit up by the sun filtering through stained-glass windows, and up a spacious flight of stairs. Within it, sitting on a variety of mismatched, part-broken chairs and sofas were a diverse set of people ranging from squatter housemates to young activist guests, and older plus-65s who were being sheltered in the building.
Among the roughly 35 to 40 people who were living within the convent’s confines – most with few options of elsewhere they could go – were survivors of a March fire in a nearby Shadwell council-run flat, often referred to as ‘The Shadwell Seven’. Their need for somewhere to stay came after Tower Hamlets Council ceased supporting them with temporary accommodation, with a council spokesperson citing the cost of providing shelter in an statement (released in April when their support ended) seen by Huck. “Since March 5, we have provided emergency hotel accommodation to 17 survivors, a weekly allowance totalling £1,250 per person, and welfare support and housing advice,” it read. “Around £100,000 has been spent by the Council cumulatively.”
“It cost us fuck all,” says Robin. “It cost us nothing to open our doors and open our fridges and say: ‘Why should you be displaced? Why should you be living under a bridge?”
For the evening’s show, laid out at the head of the room was a drum kit, guitars and an amped up microphone laid out at the front of the room. Downstairs, a free dinner was prepared courtesy of chefs from Food Not Bombs, where on the menu were freshly-cut potato wedges, beans with chilli sauce, roasted vegetables, and couscous. Open to the public, the open mic night was a weekly Wednesday tradition in the building, this edition, however, was particularly important to the housemates.
Following an eviction notice served by the Metropolitan Police on April 30, the housemates were given 21 days to vacate the property. For the last week of this period the housemates held a ‘Week of Resistance’ with a packed schedule of activities. Alongside the open mic night, it featured queer self-defence classes, life drawing, a parkour workshop, and more – topped off with a vibrant street party.
Their resistance to the eviction, and potential arrests, stemmed from a dispute over the understanding of the building’s status. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Offenders Act 2012 made squatting in a residential building illegal. The Metropolitan Police argued that the convent was exactly this but Robin and the AWS believed that they could prove the building’s status was ‘mixed-use’. At the very least, they contested, any eviction should only be allowed to take place after a hearing in court. “It’s unprecedented, this stuff should be put in front of a judge,” alleged Robin. “It’s not been heard in any meaningful sense.”
On June 1, a month after the eviction notice was served, the police arrived. With the sun shining down on the first day of summer, dozens of officers fitted with riot shields, body armour, helmets and batons lined up on the street in tactical formation, forced entry into the convent and evicted those living inside.
The process was far from smooth, or peaceful. “Threatened with violence and arrest, we endured scuffles with armed riot police while the building was being brutally evicted,” the AWS alleges in a statement to Huck. “Residents were dragged out of their rooms, afforded little time to gather up belongings, and escorted or forcibly carried out, with zero dignity or respect for wellbeing. Additional cops were called in as witnesses contested the heavy-handed police action. Batons were raised against our comrades in response. At least two people were forced to seek medical attention from the delicate embrace of [the] police force.”
Responding to Huck’s request for comment, the Metropolitan Police’s Superintendent for Neighbourhoods in Central East, Andy Port, said in a statement: “We are aware of concerns raised both via social and mainstream media, particularly around the fact the address was being used as a homeless shelter and that police attendance appeared to be ‘heavy-handed’. Whilst we have sympathy for those who were using the premises, ultimately they have been acting outside the law in occupying the venue. As well as acting on the wishes of the owner, more importantly we have taken this action in response to a growing number of complaints and concerns reported to us by local residents. We did not want it to come to the point where we have had to escort individuals from [the] premises, but attempts to engage with the group had proved unsuccessful.
“Because of the lack of engagement from those inside it was difficult to know how many people were present, so we had to prepare accordingly,” he continued. “No one was arrested.”
While the AWS claim that they had support from their neighbours, questions remain over whether the police had the right to evict the AWS and its residents. But another perhaps more pertinent question is should they? “It is actually repugnant that the police would be evicting people who are taking care of homeless people in the middle of a crisis,” says Jessica Turtle, co-founder the Museum of Homelessness (MoH), a gallery sharing histories of homelessness in the UK, which also acts as a mutual aid action group. “And even if they had legal basis, there’s no moral basis.
“If I was the Local Authority Homelessness Commissioner, I’d be thinking about how I can find ways to productively work with groups like this, because they’re actually doing the job of the council,” Turtle continues. “I’d be thinking about ways to actually support these groups who are committed to actually helping people who are homeless off the streets in a way that the system is failing to do so."
Although winter is now over, the timing of the eviction comes at a critical point. A recent MoH investigation found that more people experiencing homelessness die in summer than in winter. The findings come as the UK’s economy continues to flounder. Inflation in the country has remained stubbornly high for the past two years, with annual prices up 15.4% according to the latest figures from the British Retail Consortium. Last month Huck reported on the way the cost of living crisis has been playing out across the country, particularly affecting those who were already struggling.
Homelessness is up, with the latest statistics from homelessness charity Shelter estimating that at least 271,000 people – including 123,000 children – are homeless in the UK today. In May this year, figures emerged showing that the number of families in temporary accommodation exceeded 100,000 for the first time in just under two decades. Meanwhile data from the UK Government’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities found that rough sleeping was up by 26% in autumn 2022 compared to the year before.
“I think it’s a horrific milestone,” says Turtle defiantly through the phone line. “We’re finding that people are in much more distress and struggling – it’s a very difficult time for the community and for people living in poverty, and people who are homeless right now are at the sharp end of that.”
There exists in Britain right now, a perfect storm. Extortionate rises in the cost of living, eating and heating have come as market rental prices have soared since the pandemic and rising interest rates look set to push mortgage repayment costs and rents even higher. To compound the situation, financial support runs particularly thin on the ground, with housing benefits frozen since 2020 (and will remain so through 2023/2024), as well as being capped at a lower level for those under 25.
“Because of that freeze in housing benefit and the increase in food costs and energy costs, people are seeing larger gaps between the amount they were receiving from benefits and their rents,” says Jasmine Basran, the Head of Policy and Campaigns at Crisis – a UK-wide charity for people experiencing homelessness. “We conducted some research and over a million households were saying that they were really worried about their rent situation, fearing eviction or worried about how they are going to get through the winter.
“For decades now we’ve had underinvestment in social housing – consecutive governments haven’t prioritised it,” Basran continues. “So for people who are homeless or at risk, the only option is privately renting, so these soaring rents over the past year have put private renting more and more out of reach.
While Basran and other campaigners have consistently called for an increase in social housing investment and an end to the housing benefits freeze, their calls, it seems, have fallen on deaf ears. It’s no surprise then that activists and anarchists like the AWS are taking matters – and the many empty buildings that litter this land – into their own hands.
The AWS aren’t the only action group fighting back. Around half an hour from the convent, just off of Dalston’s perennially busy Kingsland Road is the recently opened Friendly Society. Situated in a building formerly used as a gym, a handful of squatters have opened a free shop with an array of clothes and books that anyone can take without paying a penny, while also serving ‘Dahl Without Dollar’ every Sunday.
“I was involved in a couple of other similar projects where we gave away free pizza every day,” says Avery* the person mainly responsible for organising the shop’s stock and food. They offer a cup of tea and gesture towards a sofa. “I wanted to do something similar but with more of a focus of trying to build community and create a space for people, where you can come and sit and it just be free and you can stay warm in the cold.”
While The Friendly Society doesn’t provide housing in the same way that the AWS does, they’ve taken on both the role of a food bank – which have been used at record levels over the past year, with the Trussell Trust distributing nearly three million emergency food parcels over the past year – and a warm bank. “We serve hot food once a week, which saves people not only their time, but also their gas or electric bill and the food itself,” Avery explains how important a space like the Friendly Society is. “It’s a squat building and a mutual aid space, so when people interact with it and come to know that this is something that can exist, the hope is they’ll be inspired to start one themselves, help out in other places, or to form mutual aid networks within their community.”
Although the AWS no longer occupy the Sisters of Mercy convent, they remain defiant. A solidarity fund has been set up to provide those who were evicted important necessities for survival including sleeping bags, clothing and toiletries. “Ultimately, while the Autonomous Winter Shelter in Shadwell is no more, the Autonomous Shelter Network will continue to live on as it always has when faced with eviction,” the AWS says in its statement to Huck. “We will continue to take a stand against the cost of living crisis and the authoritarian police whose priority lies within protecting the capital of those in power.”
With more of a need for people to support each other than ever during the current cost of living crisis, the fact that more of these mutual aid spaces are appearing around the country is encouraging to the MoH’s Turtle. “I think from a historian’s perspective – because we do look at the history of homelessness and social action as part of our work – we find it really heartening that there is a bit of a movement now of mutual aid, of collective action, and people fighting back,” she says. “It reminds us a little bit of the Great Squatting Movement in the 70s, where really phenomenal things happened with leaders like Olive Morris doing some significant organising and changing the social fabric [of Britain].”
“It gives us hope to be a part of [the movement],” she continues. “But also to be documenting it and seeing it not only save lives in the moment – it’s also given us all an example of a better way to be together.”
Follow Isaac on Twitter.