After Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth’s first birthday in April we thought it would be a good chance to reflect on our year of organising in our boroughs around housing and welfare. We hope to reflect on our challenges and successes, share what we’ve learnt with others, encourage people to get involved or start their own group, and document our activities. At the tender age of 1, our experiences will obviously be somewhat limited, but throughout we have been keen to learn from more established groups in London Coalition Against Poverty and beyond. We hope there are some valuable insights you can take away from this.
We had our 1st birthday social 2 months ago; lots of people came, both old and new, and filled up our small meeting room. There was a table of good food and cake, and a great atmosphere as people ate and talked together. The event encapsulated what we have achieved over the year – the creation of a sizeable group of people from across Lambeth and Southwark meeting together and socialising, brought together by shared concerns and experiences, and a desire to do something about these.
A small group of people began to meet in a Camberwell Chinese takeaway with in-door seating last April to form a local housing group in our home boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. People in the group had direct experience of job centre bullshit and rip off private renting, we were also acutely aware of the new cuts to welfare and housing benefit, soaring rents, and gentrification that would make everything a whole lot worse in our communities. Some of us had experience in workfare campaigning and were keen to be involved in more direct support and solidarity with benefit and housing issues locally. We were inspired by London Coalition Against Poverty groups such as Hackney Housing Group – we’d heard stories about groups of mostly Women of Colour descending upon the housing office and having their demands met. We wanted to do something like this in south London and used the brilliant pamphlet made by LCAP to guide us.
How we work as a group
In these first meetings we discussed how LCAP groups work using their pamphlet (as well as reflecting on some critiques we’d heard of LCAP and reflections from people in LCAP) and how we wanted to work. Following LCAP groups’ principles our group works on a basis of mutual support and collective direct action. We meet twice a month as a group to discuss the issues we are facing and collectively decide what to do. We stress that we are not a service – where there is a hierarchy between ‘expert’ and ‘client’, a privileging of ‘expert’ knowledge, and the individualising of the issue – we hope that people will be actively involved in taking action on their issue with the wider collective support of others, and in turn will return this support for others in the group. We value the direct experience and knowledge people have (for example, of dealing with the benefits system and housing office) as well as doing our own research and trainings into our rights, processes etc. The importance of this approach was emphasised in a recent meeting when people began discussing their experiences of welfare advice centres.
“he was a very posh white man, and he didn’t help me at all”
“we went to that place as well, he was very very posh”
“do you think they’re the same person?”
“But they’re all posh white men”
“it must have been the same person”
“I felt belittled”
The regular meetings are the main space for the group to provide support for each other and plan actions around our individual cases, and other actions about issues that we care about, and also to organise the running of the group. Other activities that we organise outside of these meetings include social events, an anti-eviction/emergency phone network, and more recently, Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth bike bread runs. The group is open to all who are angry at poor housing, welfare cuts, the destruction and impoverishment of our communities and want to organise together. People are invited to get involved as much or as little as they’d like, from regularly attending meetings to responding to the occasional text call out for action, creating a network of people in our boroughs organising support and action around housing.
Talking housing and beyond
In our meetings we make space for people to discuss any immediate issues they are facing with the group. A significant number of people who have attended meetings have been affected by the bedroom tax meaning that they face even more stress trying to make ends meet and the very real fear of losing their homes. Other housing issues that have been raised include homelessness, inappropriate housing, rising rents, short life contracts, housing benefit mistakes, bullying housing co-op management committees and ‘temporary’ housing that is in an appalling state and has turned out to be not so temporary. Although we have housing in our name, it is not just poor housing that many of us are struggling with but a whole load of related issues; people have raised struggling to afford food and prioritising their children over themselves, of bare cupboards, and subsisting on a diet of lentils. High fuel bills, council tax arrears, job centre threats of workfare and the dreaded ATOS have also been discussed in meetings.
As a group we discuss what we can do about the issues we face. Sometimes it has been as simple as figuring out a mistake made by the housing benefit office, setting out the correct housing benefit rate and an explanation for this, with other issues like the bedroom tax, there is not such an easy resolution. Over the year though, we have developed our capacity as a group, for example our collective knowledge of housing rights has grown massively, and are beginning to find ways to build our own infrastructures of support/social reproduction.
Reflecting the impact of poor housing and welfare cuts, women and Black and Minority Ethnic people are strongly represented in the group.
Mutual support and solidarity
Early on in HASL someone who had been made homeless got involved in the group. At this point we knew nothing about homelessness law so we were trying to learn things as we went, looking on the Shelter website and emailing the LCAP list. We were not a great deal of help in asserting his rights at the housing office as they fobbed us off time and again, but during the whole ordeal there was often someone there with him at the housing office. We were able to offer support and solidarity – concern, effort, attention, shared anger and frustration, even the odd joke. Through LCAP we were able to find an organisation which found him housing in the private sector. He told us, “Without your help, I don’t know how I would have coped…you have been a very helpful support network and better than a lot of the established services.”
Direct support for each other has continued to be central to HASL. The support people provide for each other in meetings is inspiring to watch. Some of our best meetings have been mostly made up of people showing empathy and providing reassurance and rage for each others situations – with a very real understanding, as many of the people there have gone through similar situations and struggles.
As well as this direct support, support is also taken from the meetings through listening to each others issues and seeing the commonalities between our issues, allowing people to understand these problems as collective and structural rather than an individual failing as it is often framed. In one meeting as we were listening to a member talk about their homelessness, another person for whom this was their first meeting, sat quietly nodding throughout. In the group we also explicitly stress the systemic causes of our issues.
Feeling part of the group and knowing that there is a group behind you who have got your back is also an important function of the group which gives confidence to people. People have mentioned that they have informed the various authorities they are confronting that they are a part of HASL and are getting support from us.
As well as this support based around well being the group also provides practical support for each other – although these two types of support are not necessarily separate of course. This practical support can involve writing a letter as the group on behalf of someone to try and get an issue resolved, attending appointments with someone, providing discretionary housing payment forms and other forms and helping to fill them in. Often these are the first steps and lead on to more collective action if the issue is not resolved. Again, this support is mutual. People will receive support from the group and hopefully stick about and return this support and share what they have learnt, with other members. As Djina said when we were discussing an action in support of someone we had recently met at Djina’s bedroom tax action, “She came to support me, so I want to support her”.
There is a strong feeling, from direct experience of dealing with these institutions and examples of people engaged in grassroots social change, that collective direct action is central to ensuring our basic needs are met (through access to quality, secure, social housing and a liveable income) and to bringing about wider social change and justice (so that so much of our energy and organising is not just about surviving!). London Coalition Against Poverty’s direct action case work model works by group action at a particular institution with a demand or set of demands. Visiting a housing office or Job Centre in a group and being intransigent can completely alter the power dynamic that once ruled, giving confidence to the people involved, raising awareness about the group, and often resulting in success. We had heard about many small victories being won by LCAP groups in this way and were keen to practice this.
However, initially in our first year, up until recently, we didn’t do a great deal of collective action. This may have been due to several reasons; as a new group, energy was going into establishing and running the group so that there wasn’t extra energy to organise actions. In a chicken and egg scenario we didn’t feel we had the numbers, confidence or experience to pull off an action. We couldn’t say to people who came to the group ‘well, last time, we did this, and got this’. This changed more recently, to the point where we now have almost weekly visits to various housing offices or town hall.
On a leafletting session outside the housing office we met Esther who had been made homeless by her housing association and had just been told by the housing office that she and her family would have temporary accommodation in Hackney. She was obviously distressed and angry about being sent across the other side of London where she would struggle to take her daughter to school, make it on time for work, and look after her own well being and that of her unborn child. We offered to go back into the housing office to make a complaint about this as a group and demand appropriate housing and she was up for this. Our group of 5 went into the housing office together and went to speak with the advisor who had placed her in Hackney to highlight the problems with this. This small action in which our small group asserted firmly that this was not appropriate housing showed Esther that she had real support from a group of people she had just met outside, it showed solidarity with the other people sitting and waiting in the housing office, and it surprised the housing officers who had not come across collective resistance to their actions and policies. As a group too, it helped us start to practice direct action case work.
Although we did not manage to have our demands met on this occasion, we spoke with Esther about doing another action soon. With the support of Lambeth Housing Activists we organised an action at Metropolitan Housing association which had evicted Esther and her family, who were on a short-life tenancy, as part of the ‘regeneration’ of the estate. The group of 30 invaded the small housing office and demanded Esther be rehoused. After a meeting between some of the group and Metropolitan housing staff which lasted several hours, Metropolitan agreed to rehouse Esther and her family by the end of the week. This was a resounding victory for everyone and increased our confidence in taking action, having achieved such an immediate and significant outcome.
Shortly after this action we organised another action in support of Djina around the bedroom tax. Lambeth council had been charging her the bedroom tax for her living room for a year, even though she had informed them it was a living room and invited them to come and see for themselves. We had been supporting Djina in visiting Lambeth Law Centre and pursuing it through legal means but we also wanted to do a more public action to shame Lambeth council for the appalling way in which she was being treated (threatened with debt and the mental distress that comes with this and the fear of losing your home), to show wide support for Djina, and our anger at all housing and welfare cuts that are causing hunger and evictions. We’d planned for it to be a quick stunt action as initially Djina had had some hesitations about doing an action. We weren’t sure how many people were going to turn up and were very nervous about numbers. Waiting at our meeting point in the rain, more and more folk appeared and texts came through about people running late but on their way. A very respectable rain coat clad group formed made up of lots of faces we hadn’t seen before but who had heard about the action through the other housing groups and our blog. This was pretty exciting that a network is developing where we can reach new people and come out in support of each other. People seemed full of energy. We set off together towards our target, with banners and blankets and teddy bears poking out of bags.
Our quick stunt turned into a 2 hour long occupation. We had made ourselves at home in the lobby and people seemed happy to stick about until someone from the council came to address the issue. We insisted time and again on seeing someone to resolve the issue. We made sure we weren’t ignored by bursting into chanting sporadically. The atmosphere was relaxed, a short visit by the police not attracting much attention. Eventually two Lambeth officials came to have a chat with us. Caught slightly by surprise, Djina and one other person went to speak in another room with them. Immediately it was apparent that we should have insisted that a group of us went in with them rather than allowing them to restrict us to two as our ‘negotiating’ power felt depleted. The two did their best, but both sides simply reiterated their arguments. Despite this, the action was a big success, it was fun and it gave confidence to people who had never been part of an occupation before. A couple of weeks later, an ecstatic Djina told us that the court had ruled in her favour. She hosted a party in her living room, full of amazing food and music, for us all to celebrate.
We also have an anti-eviction/emergency phone – modelled on squatters’ anti-eviction phone networks – that people can text and ask for support. People are encouraged to sign up to the phone and will receive text call outs about our actions and eviction resistances. We use the phone regularly to communicate our actions, but have not received a request for eviction resistance support. In a way, this is a good thing as we want to meet people before the final stages of an eviction to make interventions earlier – hopefully the eviction resistance phone will encourage people facing housing issues to get in contact with us, as well as it being a way to raise the issue of evictions in our communities.
Although the first year lacked in direct action casework, for the reasons discussed above, we did have one big action when we occupied Britain’s most expensive council house in protest at the sell-off of social housing. This got us national and international (a news piece in Malta) coverage, and saw the front page of the Evening Standard emblazoned with our ‘Homes For All!’ banner. The two week occupation of the Southwark council house being sold off for £3 million was organised with the support of our squatter friends. As well as protesting about the sell-off of social housing it was also a test of the residential squatting ban. Section 144 of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offences Act makes it a criminal offence to occupy a residential building with the intention of living there. As our action was a protest occupation, with no one intending to live there, we wanted to show that it was still possible to occupy residential buildings. When the cops arrived, after a couple of attempts to scare us out, threatening us with aggravated trespass, they conceded that there was nothing they could do. Joining up with squatters and linking together our housing struggles as precariously housed people fighting for homes for all is important to us; our relationship and mutual support with squatters has been vital for our group – more on this below.
Our organising around housing and welfare is not just about making demands off the state to try and get the money, services, and homes we need to survive. The things we want can never be provided by the state. The group is a tentative go at our collective social reproduction – trying to meet our needs together. As discussed above, the group meetings and the group itself provide a space of support for people, a safer space where they can talk about what they are going through and be listened to with respect and understanding. The group watches out for each others well-being. People have mentioned to us how they were happy to have found the group and that this sort of space is really important and rare to find.
People have mentioned struggling to afford food and having to visit food banks. The group were interested in running a regular People’s Kitchen – cooking up our own food together and eating together so that we can make delicious, nutritious food and socialise together. This has yet to come to fruition as finding a space with a kitchen that we could afford to hire proved difficult and we didn’t feel we had the capacity as a group to run this (if you want to get involved in making this happen, get in touch!). Perhaps with summer time, we can organise picnics though.
We also have an occasional bread run where a member of the group collects leftover (real luxury) bread from a local farmers market and distributes it to HASL people’s homes. This relationship was again established through our squatter friends who had made friends with the local bread stall and offered to collect the leftovers and share these with us. It goes a tiny way to meeting people’s food needs and is a nice way to catch up with people in between meetings and other events. Our birthday social was also important in creating a fun and relaxed space to hang out together, as was Djina’s victory party.
Running the group
The group meets twice a month, one time in the week day daytime and one time in the evening, to hopefully make the meetings accessible to different people e.g. people with children may find daytime meetings more convenient when their kids are at school, people who are busy during the day time can make the evening meetings. The meetings are often split into two halves, one half to discuss our immediate issues and what we can do, the other half to organise the running of the group. In between our meetings we have recently been having fairly regular actions. We also try to organise outreach sessions to let people know about us. The best form of outreach has been going the housing office and handing leaflets to people there whilst they face their long wait, until we get asked to leave by the manager. We run a regular stall at Brixton library. People in the group also spread the word to their friends and neighbours. We also use our Twitter, facebook and blog to rage. And have an announcements email list and our phone network to stay in contact with people.
As part of the London Coalition Against Poverty we attend LCAP general meetings where the groups come together and share what they have been doing and share tactics, victories, and advice – providing mutual support between the groups. Some of the groups in the coalition have been running since 2007 and so they have a great deal of experience that it has been really helpful for younger groups to learn from. Meeting up together and hearing what people have been up to in other parts of London is really inspiring. It’s also reassuring and helpful to talk over the issues we’re struggling with, for example, the last meeting we had an interesting discussion on ‘how not to be seen/treated as a service’. The general meetings also allow us to plan activities, events, and actions that we all participate in together as a coalition. The local groups also run training sessions for the coalition. HASL have attended two sessions on homelessness law and how to enforce your rights. Again, our squatter friends also helped us out, inviting us to two of their housing law training sessions run at the Advisory Service for Squatters. These trainings, as well as working our way through our cases, have been really important in helping to build up the collective knowledge of the group.
The problems we face running the group are similar to those that most other grassroots groups encounter – issues of capacity (having enough people and energy to do all the things we want to do, one example is that we’re yet to make good links with similar groups – South London Anti-Fascists, Fuel Poverty Action etc.), the struggle to find safe (a place we can feel ownership for rather than feeling like we are tolerated or at the mercy of the person who runs it), affordable space in which to hold meetings and social events. There are also issues more related to mutual support groups such as people treating it like a service and being unwilling to contribute back to the group in however small a way, and the emotional draining and distress you can feel about the issues we are faced with. As a group we try to be reflective and discuss and address these issues.
Recently we have had a number of concrete wins for people in the group showing that our collective support and action really does make a difference. And our name is getting out there! We have a growing network of people who come along to our actions and contribute to the group in various ways. If you’re in south London and angry at rip off rents and social cleansing, we’d love you to get involved. And if you’re from elsewhere, we’d love to hear what you’re up to.