Thursday 26 March 2015

There is hope for the homeless of London...just not in Parliament

A brief overview of some of the positive things happening in London recently.

It has been an inspiring sight to see such an upsurge of activity around the issues of housing and homelessness in the UK over the last few months. For the time being, most of this work has been happening entirely at a grassroots level, and (so far) only in London. This makes sense, as London is by far the most expensive place to live in the country, and is rapidly undergoing a process of being transformed into little more than a playground for the super rich, a process our elected representatives seem all too happy to facilitate. It is worth noting that even high ranking members of the Labour party have spoken repeatedly, not about achieving meaningful and sustainable economic justice, but about being “intensely relaxed” about the idea of people becoming filthy rich. No wonder voter turnout is so low!).
To a certain extent this is an inevitable by-product of leaving basic human needs like shelter to the whim of unregulated market forces, something that all of the mainstream parties still accept without question. Naturally most people who own even the smallest bit of property in London don't mind anything that contributes to the hyper-inflation of the property market as long as it makes them “feel richer”, but for a growing number of people on medium-to-low incomes (those who do most of the real jobs) or on little to no income at all (the unemployed, sick, under-employed, especially those trapped in zero hours contracts) this evolution is turning London into a city increasingly difficult for ordinary people to live in.
It was a pleasing surprise therefore when the residents of estates like the New Era Estate in London's east end fought back (and won) against the council's decision to sell off their homes to a private developer. These examples of self-organised working class action have lit a fuse which has sent sparks flying through other communities in the city, inspiring others to get organised and preserve working class homes against the threat of creeping gentrification of poor, ethnically-diverse, working and lower middle class areas.
As I touched upon above, local councils in London, no doubt driven by the prospect of being able to charge higher rates of council tax, have been entirely complicit in this process, happily arranging the sell-off of publicly-owned land to private developers whilst completely ignoring the thousands who languish on council waiting lists. They make small, token concessions to what remains an urgent and growing need by merely requiring that developers provide a handful of 'affordable' homes in any new development of over-priced luxury flats.
We can see how this approach tends to work out in practice if we consider the case of 1 Commercial Street in Aldgate. In a throwback to the old, two-tiered Victorian 'Poor Doors', the developers have created a separate entrance for social housing tenants to an alley around the side of the building near the bins. The wealthier, private tenants and owner occupiers get to use the more luxurious front entrance, complete with chandeliers and a concierge service, without having to suffer the indignity of rubbing shoulders with the proles.
The Aldgate/Whitechapel area has always been a predominantly working class area, with a large, ever-shifting immigrant community and has always had a very vocal and well organised community of libertarian socialists who have formed the backbone of resistance to this particular luxury housing development, organising weekly protests every Thursday night since last summer, in which they block the posh doors with their banners. Sometimes the police turn up to protect the wealthy inhabitants and find themselves forced into the position of having to form a cordone which serves to block the doors anyway.
The problem with pricing ordinary people out of the market is that if you can't afford to pay private rents or to commute from the outskirts of town everyday there is a very real risk, with benefits cuts, that you will simply be forced onto the streets. This is why the parallel upsurge of activity by and for the homeless, which occurred around the holiday season, is so desperately needed. This activity was mostly centred around the actions of grassroots groups formed of primarily homeless people (and some Occupy people too) like the Love Activists, who occupied the empty, former HSBC building in Charing Cross to highlight how many buildings there are in the city sitting empty while homeless people freeze on the streets, subject to increasingly harsh measures like the notorious anti-homeless spikes, designed to discourage rough sleepers (and fortunately removed after a large public outcry).
Following their eviction from the former HSBC building some members of the Love Activists created the Homeless Kitchen London, a form of DIY self help/political action which operated throughout much of January, culminating in the March for the Homeless, and an ongoing occupation of the derelict Aylesbury Estate in south London. Another March for the homeless will be taking place in London on April 15th, whilst occupations by threatened residents like the one at Sweets Way estate in Barnet continue.
With related campaigns to protect the musical culture of Soho from a kind of cultural cleansing, there is clearly a great deal of popular energy among Londoners to fight for our immediate housing needs and protect the unique cultural heritage that has made this city so much more interesting and vibrant a place to live in than deserts of steel and glass like Dubai.
Unfortunately, it remains a depressing fact that, despite there being so much grassroots activity going on against the transformation of London into a vapid and soul-less yuppie playground, and even with a General Election on the horizon, the pressing issues of housing and homelessness in London are nowhere on the party political agenda. This clearly demonstrates how divorced the majority of politicians are from the needs of the people they are supposed to represent, but perhaps also how desperately we need to build new, more genuinely democratic and representative institutions that can protect the interests of ordinary Londoners more than the old trade unions and political parties ever did.
When it comes, it will come from those very people who are beginning to prove that when we organise together we can win important victories for ourselves and our communities, with or without political representation.