Graffiti has appeared on the side of a disused office block in west london. Not entirely surprising in itself, but this graffiti carried a message. Drawing attention to the fact that just a day before it appeared up to 200 rough sleepers who were using the building as a respite from the cold were kicked back out onto the street.
Initially occupied on 1 March, the occupation was a reaction to the recent freezing weather which had hit London and the rest of Europe. The so called ‘beast from the east’ saw temperatures plummet everywhere and 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 and seemingly taken care of by a handyman who it is alleged 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, the organisation behind the whole thing.
The court case centered around the rights and wrongs of the permissions and determined that there was no verbal contract as the handyman had no power to make such a thing. 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. A familiar black and white stencil image from his ‘rude kids’ series where a little girl is shown 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 and there are many people sleeping rough. On the opposite side of the building on the corner of the street, I saw a man 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 and there’s 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 to 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 although 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 though. The fault and the ownership of dealing with such things should be local councils and central government who need to take the issue seriously.
Another piece of graffiti, a bit further down the road towards Warren Street, by the station and 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 and 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.