Chester’s homeless have had enough!

726 people died on the UK’s streets last year.

Well in excess of 120,000 people applied to their local councils to be recognised as homeless in the hopes of having access to meagre support.

Meanwhile 200,000 houses sit empty. Then there are all the commercial and industrial units lying dormant and decaying.

Chester, like most places during this latest wave of austerity, has seen a sharp rise in homelessness and rough sleeping with a piss poor response from the local council, with services and social support provided in as mild and cost-effective manner possible. During the tail end of last year when the council had an official tally of 17 “street-homeless people”, the local homeless support project “ForFutures”, itself ran on a council contract, would see over a hundred different people request refuge over a couple of months.

Earlier this year,  ForFutures opened up a “Homeless Assessment Centre” on the ground floor of a large, empty, and council-owned office block called Hamilton House. Opened to great fanfare, this centre was going to be a one-stop-shop to help manage and limit the swelling crisis of homelessness Chester was facing. It was supposed to be an accessible 24/7 secure space for the most vulnerable in our community, the contact point for the homeless to a council which like the rest of them across the UK constrains its support behind a register of “unintentionally homeless”.

For six months, ForFutures, like all such services stuck between a minimal council budgets, a narrow remit and, a woeful operational capacity, provided at most space for 5 or 6 people an evening and was subject to inevitable gatekeeping of services behind various barriers. While no doubt a positive step, it was only ever going to be a band-aid as dozens were left out in the cold.

It’s the same story up from London to Aberdeen really. Of the 120,000 who apply to be recognised as homeless in the UK and with any look be viable for support from their local housing authority, around 50% are refused and left in limbo due to having a place to stay for now or, for making themselves “intentionally homeless”; a catch-all term to undermine those with mental health issues, who leave dangerous situations, or refuse to move into mould ridden council hell holes amongst other things.

To the state, homelessness is a problem because it harms business and turns off voters who want easy solutions in someone else’s backyard. If it’s not sticking people in BnB limbos, it’s using the cops to harass people with sections 3 (begging) and 4 (rough sleeping) of the Vagrancy Act 1824 which is still all too common, or as is more fashionable amongst the rozzers, moving people on using Section 35 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which permits them to hide the homeless by ordering people to disperse and leave an area and not return for up to 48 hours as they did during the Champions League final in Cardiff.  If you happen to be both homeless and foreign, you face a serious threat of deportation too.

In Chester, as one local rough sleeper said: “ForFutures are just letting all the homeless people down. They are barring people from the centre when they shouldn’t.”

“They are advertising saying they are open 24 hours a day and every homeless person can get what they need and that’s not true. We’re just standing our ground. It’s been raining for three days and we’ve not even been able to get dry or food or anything.”   

So on Monday night, as the torrential rain beat down on the dozens left out in the cold, Chester’s homeless were done, that was enough. If they didn’t have a roof over their head and a bed in the ForFutures centre, they would get out of the rain and find sanctuary in the vast office space that sat empty above it. And so,  they entered the building via a window left open during the previous night by the bedded up inside, and squatted the top five floors.

The police came in their droves early Tuesday, but finding no crime and only peaceful new residents in an old office block left it as a civil rather than a criminal matter. Come the end of Tuesday some 30 people had made the building their home.

Having had enough of the endless bullshit from the council, the occupation became a protest.

Over the next couple of days, the new residents of Hamilton House would see the council stick up a notice to leave and start proceedings to evict while Cllr Richard Beacham came along for a visit to the now-empty ForFutures centre and talk to the BBC saying ‘We’re trying our best to help people’ before going on give a “sanitation inspection”, or as most squatters would recognise it, “can I summarily evict you for your own safety?” inspection.

Across Wednesday and Thursday, the Hamilton House residents saw the erection and consolidation of a blockade around the building with 24/7 security guards patrolling the perimeter of the legally dubious fence of what the council have called a “welfare area”. This welfare area (ie. a couple of portaloos and some water) keeps the council onside with their obligations to the homeless, while at the same time acting as a stranglehold on the residents who are now trapped inside: if they leave their lawfully occupied home, they will be refused re-entry by the guards at the gate.

These same guards seem to be harassing the residents too, acting in a hostile manner, intimidating the residents, trying to break in via a back entry and refusing to have any dialogue with them. Further to this, they have been constantly harassed over perceived criminal offences and all manner of other intimidation tactics. Independent observers noted as well that the security guards have kept their SIA badges hidden despite this being not allowed and can see the SIA revoke or suspend the existing licence, or can even prosecute the person for contravening licence conditions (a criminal offence under Section 9 of the Private Security Industry Act 2001).

It should be noted here that without a court order, actions and moves to evict are illegal.  However, it is a common tactic when councils and landlords think they can get away with it, which, unfortunately, due to the corrupt nature of our justice system, they often do.

Supplies, support and solidarity has been coming in from a few local activist groups such as “No to Homelessness”, and a solidarity demonstration was called for Sunday, 6th October, at 4:30 pm. They are also requesting donations of supplies be brought to this demo (list at the bottom).

This situation is very similar to that faced by the 16 squatters of a pub in Salford from the Saving People Shelter Project who have occupied a building for two months and face court on the 7th when The Wellington Pub Company intends to seek their eviction.

In both cases homeless people have been pushed to the edge by the horrific conditions they face and sought refuge in unused space and in both instances the powerful have came down hard. For the landlord, there is nothing worse than a squatter, without a shred of compassion in their black capitalist hearts they will go to all lengths to evict people even from properties they have no intention of using. While people are forced to spend their days sitting in tents on the highstreet, kipping down in doorways and all too often dying on our streets and in our parks, this is utterly unacceptable.

The visiting Chester councillor said ‘We’re trying our best to help people’ and sadly, it’s just not true. You are not doing your “best”. If you did, then no one would be on the streets. End of.

Our government and councils are trying their best to help business growth and their own selfish interests. Lip sync solidarity is nothing more than a press opportunity (which you can be sure Cllr Richard Beacham pounced on) while treating the issue of homelessness as merely another box to tick in the campaign for hearts and minds. This while treating the homeless like a burden, their protests to be facilitated by the cold hand of private security. There is no equality or solidarity here.

If you find yourself in a similar situation to the folks who decided to occupy Hamilton House, there is nothing better you can do than find yourself a commercial or industrial property you can access lawfully and build yourself a home. Do some boning up with a good squatting guide and talk to the Advisory Service for Squatters first mind!. You don’t need to have the numbers or even make it a protest. In fact, the vast majority of squats seek to go under the radar in order to stay homes for as long as possible.

Everyone should have a roof over their head and to hell with capitalists and councils who so recklessly cast aside the vulnerable and unfortunate amongst us who need additional support. It should be a core principle of our society that we ensure that everyone has adequate, warm and secure shelter. Any action towards this end should be supported not undermined and throttled to death by “security” put in place to force folk out via attrition.

Mind you, direct action does get the goods and rather suddenly the ForFutures centre has just found (at time of writing) the budget for 20 beds… where was that six months ago? As your man says in the interview below tho, too little, too late. They want a council that actually acts like it cares, they demand housing and support services proper. Until then. Squat the lot seems to be the order of the day and rightly so.

(the rest of the above interview is available here, here, and here)

If you are able to spare some supplies and get down for the solidarity demonstration tomorrow here are some suggestions for donations:

Toiletries (deodorants, toothpaste, toothbrushes, baby wipes in particular)
Clean underwear and socks
Blankets and duvets
Hand warmers and beanie heaters
Hats, scarves and gloves
Unisex jumpers
Feminine hygiene products
Snack foods-crisps, chocolate, individually wrapped cakes
Tinned and long-life packet food-fruit, beans, pasta, rice, pot noodles.
Cereals
Long-life milk

After the solidarity demonstration, the next call out will be ahead of their court appearance on the 9th (details to follow)

~ Peter Ó Máille


Image via No to Homelessness