In August 2013, residents living in the specialist Focus E15 Foyer hostel in Stratford, east London, were served with eviction notices to move out within three months. Residents were made homeless as a result of being evicted from the hostel that was supposed to protect them from homelessness. Newham Council removed funding from the hostel and suggested to some residents that they should move out of London, to Manchester, Birmingham and Hastings. Twenty-nine mothers who were all hostel residents at the time came together to resist these evictions and formed the campaign group Focus E15 Mothers.
One lead campaigner, Jasmin Stone, says, ‘We’re meeting people every week who are moved out of London. We knew one girl who was 19 and she was moved to Milton Keynes.’ Most of the mothers, though, have now been rehoused in private rented accommodation in the Stratford area.
‘We only got to stay in London because of this campaign,’ Stone tells me. With the support of community organisers, Focus E15 Mothers has grown into an effective campaign. The women talk to people on the busy local high street every Saturday, and by doing so have gathered many similar housing stories. They have created several ‘story boards’, inviting local members of the community to write about their social housing histories. In January, they occupied East Thames Housing Association and Newham Council offices. In February, they arrived in a double decker ‘Fun Bus’ at London City Hall, where they handed over their petition for better social housing.
Despite being rehoused, the women continue to campaign. In June, they demonstrated outside empty homes on Newham’s Carpenters estate, on the edge of the Olympic Park, along with Carpenters Against Regeneration Plans (CARP), UK Uncut and the People’s Assembly. They pasted posters on the boarded-up windows reading ‘This home needs a family/This family needs a home’, hung banners calling for ‘social housing not social cleansing’.
Focus E15 Mothers is now joining forces with CARP in its fight to prevent the Carpenters estate from being demolished. CARP was initially set up to ensure that tenants were returned to the estate after its proposed redevelopment. ‘But then the Olympic Games happened,’ says Tamawanda, a campaigner and resident of Carpenters estate. ‘The Olympics turned this area into prime real estate, and the council are trying to get us out fast.’
She was talking to me in the middle of an estate that is now fortressed by building cranes and new high-rise apartment buildings. This is aggressive property development at the government’s behest and the tenants’ cost. By comparison, the estate is made to look like the last chance saloon, as the council has boarded up the properties from which tenants have been decanted.
Focus E15 Mothers has also linked up with UK Uncut to connect its campaign for social housing with that against corporate tax avoidance. In June, the two groups demonstrated against the tax avoidance strategies of Vodafone and similar corporations. Their banner – ‘Vodahomes’ – highlighted the loss of public funds through corporate tax avoidance while tenants are being evicted due to housing benefit cuts.
Meanwhile, in Liverpool, the grassroots organisation ReClaim, which brings together anti-austerity campaigners who first met through the Mersey Federation of Anti-Bedroom Tax Groups, has set up office in a modest church. From here, four volunteers support people who come to them from across Merseyside. Well versed in housing law and human rights legislation, the volunteers aim to instil more confidence in those seeking help.
They have their work cut out. When a tenant appeals against their housing benefit being cut because of the bedroom tax, they can expect to receive a 60 to 130‑page case file from their local authority. In response, ReClaim volunteers meticulously pull together their own case file to claim exemption. Their arguments draw on the extensive legal knowledge acquired since the group was set up.
One volunteer, Mick Bennett, talks me through a case that involved him referring to 12 separate pieces of legislation. He tells me that, ‘The grassroots movement has gained so much knowledge, it’s become second nature to us to support them in court. There’s no one helping these people in tribunals and we’ve been in situations where we’ve even known more than the lawyers’.
ReClaim also tries to inform people about their rights before their arrears get out of hand. Its members quickly became aware that the people who are most affected by the bedroom tax are also the least well-informed. One volunteer, Jill, says, ‘We set aside one day a week to stand outside the One Stop Shops and Job Centres, informing people how they can appeal. Now we stand inside these places, queuing up to put the appeals in!’
ReClaim’s members feel disenfranchised by local politics. Juliet Edgar asks of the Labour-led local councils: ‘What are Labour councillors doing in Merseyside to prevent this from happening? Nothing, that’s what. They’re doing the bare minimum to support their tenants.’ Currently tenants can only rely on the temporary reprieve of discretionary housing payments (DHP), which are due to end next year anyway.
The Unite Community branch in Merseyside also offers some support and solidarity. Jill Morgan from ReClaim says, ‘Unite have provided us with things like coach fares to go and protest outside the Chartered Institute for Housing and we can use their offices for things like printing and leafleting.’
With trade unions working in solidarity with grassroots movements, housing and homelessness is beginning to be repoliticised. Gone are the days when homelessness was seen only as a personal failure and an apolitical problem. People are being denied their housing rights and grassroots organisations are mobilising to support tenants who find themselves on the brink of eviction – and giving housing officials a run for their money.