London Road in Brighton is a clear example of the austerity crisis in Britain. The road is lined with closed businesses and people in every doorway. On Christmas Eve, a group of community activists opened the doors to a squatted night shelter with a sign that read “Room at the Inn”, inviting rough sleepers to get warm over the Christmas week. The DIY Kodak Collective, named after the photography shop that used to be there, is still holding the shelter weeks later – as well as space for people to sleep, there are daily communal meals, a place to create art and a free shop. The building has become somewhere safe, warm and creative for homeless people to escape the winter weather, socialise and sleep, and, as it is a DIY shelter, people are able to exercise their own autonomy when it comes to using the space.
There is a real need for night shelters in Brighton. Outside of London, the city has the worst homeless statistics in the UK, yet Brighton & Hove City Council has failed to invest in effective shelters. Even winter provisions like SWEP (the severe weather emergency protocol shelter) are open just a handful of nights across the winter period, and only on a very minimal bed provision, leaving hundreds of people on the streets at risk of cold-related illnesses and injuries – or even death. This crisis shows no sign of stopping. With austerity and the rise of poverty over the last decade, homelessness has been increasing at the fastest rate since before the World Wars, services are being cut and people are finding it harder to pay rent. It is not that there is no space for people. More than 4,000 houses are sitting empty in Brighton, despite the ongoing housing crisis, and, in the wake of austerity, independent and chain businesses alike have closed, leaving thousands more empty buildings behind. Rather than investing in social housing, councils and property developers have left these buildings to rot and employed private security forces to guard the dilapidated sites until their disrepair could only result in demolition. Why should there be so many buildings left empty, and people sleeping on the streets just outside them?
But the situation is worse than just neglect. Brighton & Hove City Council actively discriminates against homeless people. Like many other councils across the country, they introduced a PSPO (Public Space Protection Order), which criminalised homelessness by outlawing the behaviours of homelessness, such as sleeping in a tent, drinking and lighting a fire. These powers have used it to harass the NFA (no fixed abode) community for the last three years, allowing the Council to target visible rough sleepers, discriminate against traveller communities and aid in the illegal deportations of homeless migrants. Over 5,000 residents of Brighton and Hove signed a petition against the bylaw, yet the Council continued to ignore the wishes of their constituents and abuse the enforcement powers of the PSPO. As of 31 December 2019, the PSPO in Brighton has legally finished, but, despite the lapse in legislation, it is clear that the Brighton & Hove City Council’s position towards the NFA community continues to be hostile – in fact, they have said that they intend to extend their powers.
In response to the failures of the state, projects like The DIY Kodak Collective offer alternatives which recognise that more vulnerable people in our communities need to be supported, not persecuted. In the words of someone from the Autonomous Homeless Shelter, a previous Brighton squat, “in a society where the state refuses to accept responsibility for providing services for people with no homes, we are left with no other option than to take direct action.” The AHS was set up as in response to the closure of St Patrick’s Night Shelter in January 2012, with the aim to show that the community was prepared to act if the Council continued to fail the homeless community. Since then, Brighton has had other similarly political squats, including the Radical Bank, which was occupied in 2015 on the back of an anti-austerity march to highlight the presence of homelessness and empty buildings in Brighton, and Circus Street, an old university building occupied to highlight the abuse of the PSPO enforcement. These projects have gone beyond meeting people’s immediate material needs and have brought people together to share skills, knowledge and a sense of community.
The homelessness crisis in Brighton is impossible to ignore. Everyone knows about it, and people want to do something. The community response to the Kodak shelter opening was instant and incredible. Hundreds of people have supported the project, donating food, clothing, furniture, time and labour, and spreading the word. They have come together to do DIY work, discuss the impact of political and social issues, play music, create art, cook and eat together, and make collective decisions. People have a safe place to sleep and are also being supported to engage with the local homeless doctors and recovery services when they need them. Those using the shelter say that it is a “welcoming, warm space for those in need” and that “friendships are being made here.” As the building has been sitting empty for months, with no immediate plans for demolition, it is hard to imagine a better use of the space than the community project that it has become. It really is needed – by people using the space and the wider community too.
Sadly, the shelter is now under threat of eviction with a court date on Thursday 16 January. The people staying there want to challenge the eviction and hope to get more time to continue the work they are doing. No matter the outcome, the DIY Kodak Collective will not end any time soon. The connections made, community built and experiences shared have already gone beyond just the one building, and people will keep on resisting the state’s violence towards the most vulnerable in our communities.
DIY Kodak Collective
All pics DIY Kodak Collective
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