At midday on Thursday two young woman stood on the steps of Bow County Court in East London and declared
"This is the beginning of the end of the housing crisis." (1 - references below)
The huge cheer they received in response came from over a hundred people that had been gathered on the pavement for hours, chanting, shouting, exchanging stories, giving passionate speeches about housing and injustice, waving banners, and smiling for the cameras.
The kerfuffle on the streets of Newham that morning marked an important stage in a year long campaign by a group of young, homeless, single mothers calling for "social housing not social cleansing". In case you have missed the media frenzy that has been following the campaign for the last two weeks, let me bring you up to date...
In August 2013 a group of young mothers aged between 19 and 25 were handed eviction orders by Newham Council, telling them that they had until the 20th of October to leave the hostel for young vulnerable people where they had been living.
"We have been told we will not be offered council housing but that we will be offered private rented accommodation from accredited landlords outside of London in places like Hastings, Birmingham and Manchester. If we refuse this offer, we will be classed as making ourselves intentionally homeless and face temporary accommodation with little protection from eviction and no guarantee of a long-term solution from the council. Also if we chose to rent privately we are not entitled to get sufficient help with deposits which we cannot afford ourselves." (2)
This depressingly familiar story of vulnerable young people being displaced and pushed out of the city due to funding cuts, housing shortages and rising prices took an unfamiliar twist when the women decided to band together and start fighting back.
They started collecting signatures for a petition, writing to the council, holding a stall on Stratford Broadway every Saturday, occupying the local housing association and council offices, and making every attempt to talk to local councillors and to Newham's mayor Robin Wales about their situation.
In November 2013 this campaign video appeared on YouTube:
As their protest developed, the women won their first victory. All 29 young mothers were rehoused in Newham, albeit in temporary private accommodation. Winning this battle however, did not diminish their appetite for the ongoing war. By this time they were no longer campaigning only for their own right to housing, but for decent, secure, social housing for all. They also continued to attempt to talk to Mr Wales (3)
When I went to visit their stall this Summer they were collecting stories from passers by about their own housing issues and the slogan of their campaign had become 'Social housing, not social cleansing'.
Two weeks ago, on September 21st the women celebrated the 1 year anniversary of their campaign by opening up a block of four empty flats on the Carpenters estate round the corner from their old hostel and in the shadow of a £22 million Olympic sculpture. (4)
This council estate is about 80% empty as Newham council has been gradually clearing out the residents in advance of selling the site off. You may recognise the estate's distinctive tower blocks from the fantastic 2011 movie Attack the Block (5)
The local residents have been fighting to save the estate and to stop the council from clearing them out and selling off their land since 2012. (6)
When the mothers opened the block they discovered four perfect apartments - clean, empty, with water, electricity and heating connected (7). These council owned properties have been standing empty for several years while the council moves it's vulnerable homeless people out of the city, stating that there is nowhere to house them in the borough. The mothers opened the newly occupied flats to the public, creating a social hub and inviting people to drop by, hang out and discuss housing issues and solutions.
With this beautiful, simple gesture, the E15 mothers laid bare the hollowness of London's housing crisis and sparked massive media interest.
Accepting the underlying laws of narrative structure, and recognising that these heroic young women deserved a worthy opponent as they stepped blinking into the glare of national media attention, Newham council embraced the role of cartoon-super-villain with a panache worthy of any west end pantomime. First they dismissed the action as the work of "agitators and hangers on" (8)
Then they turned of the water supply to the flat, though as they are housing officers rather than plumbers and as they were denied access to the interior of the house "they just mashed up the pipes" outside, doing "permanent damage" according to Thames Water (9)
Warming to their role, Newham Council then issued the women with a possession order at midday on Friday September 26th, demanding that they turn up in court at 2pm that day.
For some reason, the public took the side of the homeless mothers and hundreds of bottles of water were donated to the house. While hastily assembled supporters waved banners outside, the mothers went to court where a judge ruled that the council's actions had been 'unjust and unlawful' in giving only two hours notice and that the women deserved more time to prepare a defense. The court action was adjourned until Thursday morning (October 2nd).
So on Thursday morning the women were back in court, this time with a much larger crowd outside. There they agreed to leave the flats voluntarily by October 7th stating that the political occupation had successfully raised the twin issues of homelessness and empty properties in the city. They then led their supporters in a proud and noisy march around the neighbourhood, finishing off with a party back at the flat.
If they leave the property on October 7th as they have promised, it will be a beautiful rebuke to Newham council who had complained:
“Now it looks as though we will have to spend more money to get protesters off the estate. It is clear that on the Carpenters Estate, the needs of the wider people of Newham are being ignored for the sake of petty, expensive stunts.” (10)
The only damage will have been from the council's own actions in vandalising the flat's water supply and the Focus E15 mother's inspirational struggle for a secure home in their own city will continue, their profiles raised, with the support of hundreds behind them.
Across the UK and in London in particular, the suffering caused by ever increasing housing costs is compounded by local and national austerity cuts and wrapped up with a chronic shortage in council housing. In the last two years I have been confused by the lack of street protest and rage coming from the capital. Each time I visit the city I've been asking myself "Where is the fight?"
Well here it is.
The Focus E15 mother's facebook page promises us "This is just the beginning" (11).
Watch This Space.
1 - Video 'the beginning of the end': http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/video/2014/oct/02/focus-e15-mothers-newham-russell-brand-video
2 - quote and video from YouTube page: http://youtu.be/6GuCTb8XARI
3 - visiting Robin Wales: http://youtu.be/gsPxancNiqk
4 - Olympic Sculpture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ArcelorMittal_Orbit
5 - Attack The Block: http://youtu.be/cD0gm7dHKKc
6 - Save Carpenters Estate Campaign: http://savecarpenters.wordpress.com/
7 - Kate Belgrave's blog about the occupation: http://www.katebelgrave.com/2014/09/video-pics-and-report-from-today-focuse15-mothers-reopen-boarded-up-flats-on-the-carpenters-estate/
8 - Agitators and hangers on: http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/empty-council-estate-occupation-by-young-mothers-made-homeless-after-hostel-closure-slammed-by-newham-councillors-9752281.html?origin=internalSearch
9 - Mashing the pipes: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/sep/26/housing-east-london-estate-viability-affordability
10 - Petty stunts - http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/e15-occupation-we-shall-not-be-moved-say-stratford-single-parents-fighting-eviction-after-occupying-empty-homes-9761186.html
11 - Focus E15 mothers on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Focus-E15-Mothers/602860129757343