The home front

Izzy Koksal reports on the London Coalition Against Poverty, which is at the forefront of direct action-based community organising

December 1, 2014 · 5 min read

The London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP) was formed in March 2007, before the global financial crisis, austerity and massive welfare cuts, and before the housing crisis began to command attention from the mainstream press. Its first meeting included individuals and groups inspired by the work of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).

Ellie from Hackney Housing Group (HHG) had met someone involved in OCAP and later visited Canada to see how it worked: ‘What attracted me to the idea was that political movements in the UK had been organising around abstract things that didn’t directly affect people’s lives. I felt people who were experiencing the sharp end of capitalism weren’t able to get involved because they had to worry about things like not having enough money. I thought it would be great to do activism around people’s actual everyday problems that would improve their situations.’

Initially based mostly in Hackney, LCAP spent a month leafleting outside the housing office and collecting the phone numbers of people who said they would turn up to actions. After a month, they were able to organise mobilisations around particular cases. This approach is called direct action casework – where collective action in support of an individual, family or group targets government institutions, such as the housing office or job centre, to try to resolve particular cases and put pressure on that institution for wider change. Izzy, who was involved in the beginnings of HHG, describes how ‘on almost all occasions when we visited the housing office, we got a positive result. Our actions meant that people were treated better by the staff.’

Having supported people past ‘gatekeeping’ tactics used by local authorities to deny people the help and support to which they are entitled and into housing, the group realised that the housing itself was not adequate and began organising in hostels. LCAP also organised the ‘Gatekeeping Road Show’, whereby LCAP visited a dozen or so housing offices across London to raise awareness about gatekeeping and encourage people to take action. At the same time other groups, inspired by what LCAP was doing in Hackney and with their support, began to form across London.

LCAP changed from a group based mostly in Hackney to a coalition of local groups – one of which launched Boycott Workfare – that meet regularly across London. In these meetings there is time for people to raise the housing or welfare issues they are facing and for the group to discuss together what they can do about it. The practical support can include helping someone to fill out a form, finding someone to accompany them to the housing office, organising an occupation, or even sitting in someone’s tiny temporary accommodation to resist eviction. LCAP also runs training sessions on housing law and how to do direct action casework and hosts social events. Additionally, the groups provide a space in which people can gain the confidence to speak up for themselves and for others.

The local groups meet up with each other every two to three months in a general meeting at which they share the issues they have been dealing with and learn from each other’s tactics and experiences. These meetings allow groups to co-ordinate on issues that affect them all.

The groups have had many successes, sometimes making an authority reverse a negative decision and even achieving victories outside set rules. One such success occurred when HHG organised a series of well-attended actions to demand that Hackney Council rehouse the occupants of a HMO (house under multiple occupancy) that was being closed due to its poor condition. The campaign led to the council rehousing everyone, including one family for whom they didn’t have a statutory responsibility duty. ‘We got them to totally disregard the criteria, which was even more than I thought we could achieve,’ says Ellie. ‘The group grew substantially because of this and many are still involved now.’

Whereas previously a handful of people were running LCAP, attempting to provide high-quality advocacy, the groups now organise together based on mutual aid and self-organisation and try to be self-sustaining. Another major shift is that more people directly affected by the issues have become involved in LCAP, whereas the people originally involved in its creation would have considered themselves activists.

Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth are the most recent group to form, joining the coalition last year. LCAP also works with other groups that share its aims and tactics, such as the Lewisham Homeless Persons’ Union (LHPU), which was recently formed by Jaime, who along with her small child has experienced homelessness.

She was inspired to organise after visiting the Focus E15 women’s occupation of empty council flats near the Olympic Park in east London: ‘I’ve been affected by homelessness and the housing system in Lewisham and I want to improve it. I tried writing letters and writing to MPs but nothing came of it, so I thought I’d take something that was a success [the Focus E15 campaign] and give it a go. We’re trying to build a community defence and support network, defending doorways, doing sit-ins.’ The LHPU is just the latest group to take up the LCAP style of direct action-based community organising and join the coalition and help LCAP grow.

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