The Love Activists hit the headlines on 23 December when the Guardian reported that we had occupied a former RBS building in central London. Our plan was to open it up to homeless people on Christmas Day and provide a hot festive lunch for all. We appealed for donations of food and cooking utensils and were overwhelmed by the generous response.
In 2012 squatting in a residential building became illegal: squatting in commercial premises remains a civil offence. Property owners have to seek a court order to remove squatters. We knew that we would not be allowed to remain for long in the former bank building but as the building is currently not in use we hoped the owners would wait until after we had provided the Christmas lunch. It is a very spacious building in good condition with ample cooking facilities to provide food for a large number of people. We tried to negotiate with the owners to leave after Christmas to avoid them and the taxpayer the time and expense of taking us to court but they did not respond.
The company got an emergency injunction from the high court and without warning bailiffs evicted us early on Christmas Eve. I and Danny Freeman, another of the Love Activists staged a 10-hour protest on the balcony of the building. We were informed that a high court judge had varied the injunction allowing us to return to the building to prepare and serve Christmas lunch and agreed to leave the balcony. But police immediately arrested us. Another court order prevented us from returning to the building so we served an uncooked Christmas lunch yesterday on the pavement outside the former bank. We have had so many food donations and have continued handing out free food and clothing to those in need. Our dream is to have somewhere where we can cook and distribute free food to everyone who needs it – an inclusive food bank rather than one like the current model where people have to be referred and are limited to a certain number of visits.
Some people say that anyone who wants to help homeless, hungry people should just make a financial donation to an established charity. That’s fine but a lot of people who have come to see us outside the former bank are keen to do something very immediate and direct where they can see the impact of their donations.
I have been homeless for a while. I have four A levels and wanted to go to university to study environmental science. But I was alarmed at the amount of debt I would get into, so got a job working full time as a waitress. I was earning the minimum wage and all my wages went into paying extortionate rent. I had no money left at all while the landlords were making a fortune. Somebody said to me that the rich are rich because the poor are poor and that’s very true.
There are 1.5 million empty commercial and residential buildings in the UK and 110,000 homeless people – that’s about 10 empty buildings per homeless person which is ridiculous. I have been squatting for a short time but in the last month alone we have been moved on about five times. Before that I was sofa surfing. It is a myth that all squatters just trash the places they move to and then walk away. We look after the places we have been living in and repair broken pipes etc, so that they are in a better state when we leave than when we arrived. I would like to see a law passed where there is an obligation on owners of properties left vacant for a long time to allow homeless people to temporarily move in. Some squatters have negotiated caretaker arrangements with landlords – they live in the empty building, carry out repairs and provide security but do not pay rent. Being homeless is awful. People stereotype us and look down on us as second-class citizens. The laws against residential squatting have increased homelessness. We are campaigning to repeal those laws and get new legislation obliging landlords of long-term empty properties to accommodate homeless people.
In a rich country like this one nobody should have to be homeless. We need to start thinking about practical solutions to end homelessness, bring empty buildings back into use and provide legal protections for landlords so that homeless people move out when they are ready to redevelop their properties. In the meantime we continue to provide free food and clothing outside the former bank in London’s Charing Cross road and will be doing so until after new year. Please come and visit us, donate food and clothing if you are able to or get food and clothing from us if you need it.