Wednesday, June 09, 2004

St Agnes Place

i transcribed this from last week's Time Out for another purpose, so i thought i should blog it for posterity's sake. a saddening account of the struggle against eviction by the folk of St Agnes Place, provided by an anonymous member of that community:

St Agnes place is the oldest and largest multi-ethnic community of its kind, created as a radical solution to the housing crisis in the 1970s when a group of activists rescued, defended and renovated a street of derelict and condemned properties.

Home to people passing through and to permanent families alike, as well as being the Rastafarian International Headquarters, St Agnes Place has flourished for the past 29 years as a dissident community and is now seriously under threat of being destroyed. Both my parents squatted when I was a kid, and we came here at the end of 1976 when the occupation against a threatened demolition of the houses had begun. I was three years old: for almost all my life, St Agnes Place has been a home for me. Lambeth Council had compulsorily purchased all the houses on the street with the intention of knocking them down to create parkland. They demolished six houses and a listed Georgian building before the squatters could stop them. They also sent in council workers to damage the remaining homes and make them uninhabitable. They smashed up bathrooms and toilets, removed water and gas pipes, took out floorboards and roof tiles and filled drains with cement.

Squatters defended these houses with their lives by climbing on to the rooftops, where buildings were hit with a ball and chain. They eventually managed to get an injunction against the council to bring the demolition to a halt. The community then set about fixing the damage that had been done, and rebuilt the houses, using their own money and skills. The aim of this activism was very simple: to provide housing for ordinary people. And let’s not forget that the council, which now wants to sell off the properties for an enormous profit, would not be able to do so had they not been saved by the squatters.

It was amazing what they achieved in creating an autonomous community where people had a real sense of self-determination. For me, growing up in St Agnes, it was always a vibrant and happy place. I learnt so much from growing up here. The fact that we weren’t from the same background or culture did not matter – we were all in it together. And no matter how mad or different you felt the other people in the street were, it wasn’t a problem; you just got on with it, and in fact it was better because of it.

Things aren’t so different now. People have come and gone, but the community is just as interesting and diverse as it was then. The Rasta community has flourished and created a positive and supportive environment for black people to maintain their culture. They organise a whole range of local activities including a music studio, a café, their own football association, drumming workshops, yoga classes, discussion groups and talks on Rastafarian history and culture.

Around two years ago Lambeth started legal proceedings against 12 of the houses. By the middle of last summer, they had gained repossession orders on them. Nine of those did not even make it to court to argue the cases, but were simply bullied out by Lambeth with the threat of huge legal costs. The three that did pursue their cases all lost and were left legal fees each exceeding £100,000 – one amounted to nearly £350,00. One man suffered a heart attack.

On October 24 2003, the 12 houses were set to be evicted. Most of the residents left, even though they did not get rehoused. Only a few were offered temporary accommodation due to the ages of their children. The rest were told to report to the Homeless Persons Unit. The rest of the community, with the support of activist groups, then defended the houses and maintained a continuous occupation that is still going on. None of the houses has been taken back by the council yet. As far as we know, Lambeth’s intention is to sell off the properties in private auctions as it did with Oval Mansions – another squatted community of 167 families which went for £5.6 million and is now being privately developed.

The extraordinary street has been doing the job of the council for the last three decades. Providing homes for thousands of people over the years, with no cost to the taxpayer and no reliance on housing benefit. But squatting is rarely seen like that. The tabloid press usually presents it as a world of freeloading, but St Agnes Place has always been about making proper use of houses that would otherwise be left derelict and wasted. While all the good housing stock is being sold off privately, people on waiting lists get shoved into crowded estates or hostels. For the council, it all seems a matter of making money, not helping a community. It has done nothing to help this neighbourhood. Lambeth likes to project a multi-cultural image, and yet it is threatening a place that is considered sacred to Rastafarian people.

Squatting has changed from being an ancient civil right to a modern criminal offence. Dissident lifestyles are being eradicated and people who don’t fit in can be criminalised. Alternative living hardly exists anymore and free thinking is on the way out. It’s a trap. They want you in a box, stamped and tagged and chipped. But even in that box, if you start to go under watch out because you could be criminalised too.

The housing system makes people a lot of money. I worked with the homeless in hostel and day centres for six years so I know what it’s about. At management level, you can make a good career for yourself in this sector without ever changing a thing. The average rent in a hostel is more than you would pay for a furnished 2-bedroom flat in zone 2. Some hostels are dirtier and more dangerous than the streets, but people don’t have the choice because they can be nicked for sleeping rough. Recent years have seen a massive property boom at the same time as a rise in homelessness. It seems obvious to me that the former has fed greedily off the latter.

At St Agnes Place we have tried to protest against this. Lambeth will come again to try to evict us, this time with more force. If they succeed, it will mark the end of an era. This neighbourhood is one of the last stands of an alternative lifestyle in Britain. It is also our home. I do not intend to go without a fight.

there's a benefit/celebration Okkupational Hazard Party on Saturday June 12th:

i'm going to see Sparks in the evening, but i'll be there in the day. go show some support.....

posted by dubversion at 8:34 pm

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