Street art has appeared on the side of a disused office block in West London. Not entirely surprising in itself, but this graffiti carried a message. It drew attention to the fact that just a day before up to 200 rough sleepers were kicked out in the cold. They had been using an empty building in the area, Sofia House, as a respite.
Initially Sofia House has been occupied on 1 March 2018. The occupation was a reaction to the recent freezing weather. This had hit London as well as the rest of Europe. The so called ‘beast from the east’ saw temperatures plummet everywhere. Of course the people who would feel it most would be those living on the streets. You might remember it, snow covered streets and sub-zero temperatures. We posted about it here, the city looked and no doubt felt quite different.
Clearly the whole thing is a desperate situation. The office block was empty for the past 15 years. Just sitting there doing nothing. Seemingly taken care of by a handyman. It is alleged he may have given a verbal agreement for the initial occupation given the bitter cold conditions. “We occupied this building solely to keep Londoners from freezing to death on our streets” said Streets Kitchen. This was the organisation behind the whole thing.
A court case had centered around the rights and wrongs of the permission granted. It determined that there was no verbal contract as the handyman had no power to give such an undertaking. As such the judge ruled that the people staying there, supposedly up to 200, would have to move.
Visiting the site the day after, workmen had moved quickly to board up the downstairs windows and entrances. It was the street artist Dotmasters who then moved in to add his own mark to those hoardings. He added a familiar black and white stencil image from his ‘rude kids’ series. He shows a little girl standing on tiptoes and scrawling on the boards. The message ‘you can’t hide the homeless’.
Indeed you can’t. In fact look around this area there are many people sleeping rough. On the opposite side of the building on the corner of the street a man was huddled in a green sleeping bag. It’s uncertain whether he had been, until the day previous, inside the building itself. A few more metres down Great Portland Street there was a tent pitched on the pavement. Another temporary home in the middle of the street.
The bitter temperatures of recent weeks had really focused attention to the plight of rough sleepers. Even Susan Sarandon had managed to visit the makeshift centre during the period. The irony is huge. London has a large population of people sleeping rough yet it also has a great deal of unused office space. Space which, in some cases, has been gathering dust for years.
The answer is uncertain of course as to what to do. The courts are there to uphold the law as they see it. However you would hope that compassion would be applied to any decision made. It certainly shouldn’t need to take a group of activists to feel that their only option is to take over a building. The fault and the ownership of dealing with such things should be local councils. Central government too who need to take the issue seriously.
Tents in the Streets
Another piece of graffiti. A bit further down the road towards Warren Street. Scrawled on an overpass bridge probably summed up the situation best. “Tents in the streets… £1,000,000 apartments left empty”. Crudely scrawled but accurate in its statement. There are indeed tents in the streets and yet all around there is shelter.
Sofia House was visited on 20 March 2018 the day after the deadline was given for vacating the premises. The court order was made on 14 March 2018. The occupation of the building was arranged by Streets Kitchen. You can read more about the work of Dotmasters here. Thanks to Tanya from Notice What you Notice for drawing our attention to this one.
For more Inspiring City articles on art activism have a look at: