In the midst of the recession, the London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP) campaign group looks back in time and across the Atlantic for inspiration from the Great Depression. Then, clusters of impoverished, unemployed workers descended upon relief offices, demanding the means for economic survival – and staying put until they got it.
This is the essence of LCAP’s strategy of ‘direct action casework’, in which direct action is used to pressure an institution to accept the demands, rights and needs of individuals, families or communities. The tactic has proven successful in breaking through the cynical ‘gatekeeping’ ruse employed by London’s Homeless Persons Units (HPUs).
Eran Cohen, a HPU service user and secretary of LCAP’s Tower Hamlets section, explains: ‘Gatekeeping is denying people a service or right they are entitled to. For example, preventing them from submitting a homelessness application, which is a right regardless of whether they turn out to be homeless or not. We do direct action casework around that.
‘If someone comes to us who has been to the council and refused an application, then we’ll go down to the office, stage a sit-in, and demand that they see the application. So far that’s worked in every case.’
Ellenor Hutson helped organise the recent ‘Gatekeeping Roadshow’, which toured ten London boroughs, mobilising people to fight gatekeeping and raise public awareness: ‘Central government gives councils targets for the percentage by which they have to reduce homelessness, but there’s no way to reduce homelessness in London without money or more council houses, except by massaging the figures.’
‘Gatekeeping provides the statistics that allow the government to hide the fact that there’s a huge housing crisis in London,’ Hutson continues. ‘What we’re asking for is many more council houses and a cap on the rent that private landlords are allowed to charge. But of course we’re nowhere near being in a situation where we can demand them until we’ve built up a lot more strength at the grassroots.’
Springing individuals over the gatekeeping hurdle is ‘often a bit of a hollow victory’, Hutson says, ‘because the housing that they’re given in the hostels is so poor and then there’s another fight to be had.’
LCAP has entered this tussle too, with its semi-autonomous hostel residents group.
The ten-storey Alexandra Court hostel may sit directly above Hackney’s temporary accommodation office, but given the council’s snail-paced response to its state of disrepair, seems to exist in some impalpable vortex.
Ellie Schling, who has worked on the campaign for two years, lists bed bugs, mice infestations, broken boilers, out-of-order lifts, cramped living spaces and cut-off drinking water among the appalling conditions that Hackney Council has left residents to cope with, sometimes for months on end. Only when residents marched on the Town Hall in protest did repairs begin to be done.
The most challenging part of LCAP’s work is getting people to the point where they feel able to take action. ‘When people come to us for help they have suffered a lot of knockbacks and they have an expectation that they’re going to be kicked when they’re down and there won’t be anything they can do about it,’ says Ellenor Hutson.
‘It’s about introducing people to the idea of collective action and demonstrating to them it will work. Then things escalate quite quickly because it’s very empowering.’
She recalls the first hostel residents meeting, ‘where people were saying, “Nothing will ever change, we can’t do anything.” About a month later we had a march and managed to very quickly get the council to install new security doors with really very little effort. After they had that taste of power then they were like, “Right, we can have everything!” It was brilliant.’
‘It’s really important for people to organise with each other, partly because they’re much more protected when they’re together,’ says Schling. ‘Recently a family was told verbally that they had two days to leave, which isn’t allowed at all, but because they’re involved in the campaign and had our support they were able to fight it off.
‘The temporary accommodation campaign shows that collective action is possible even when people are in one of the most unstable positions and facing multiple problems. That they’re still able to organise and fight together is really inspiring.’
That’s what makes LCAP so special. As Cohen says, ‘It’s pretty much the only actual campaigning group that works around these issues. Everything else is either just an advisory service or a charity.’
The challenge now is developing collective action for broader as well as individual change. As LCAP recognises, ‘taking on individual problems one by one is in no way sufficient. Collective organising and mobilising for broader change is its necessary complement. In the Great Depression, casework took place as part of a mass movement, which forced Roosevelt to institute the New Deal – a product not of the benevolence of politicians, but of the activity of unemployed and working people.’
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