Camden Homeless Solidarity need a new space
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A few short weeks ago, we decided to open up a long empty former carpet shop in Kentish Town as a solidarity space to help the homeless, and as a social centre for the wider community to use. We have been more successful than any of us could have imagined. In the month or so since we opened the doors to the wider community hundreds of local residents have passed through. Some have come only to talk, to meet other people, to share ideas, worries and dreams. Some have come because of physical need, because they lack the resources to purchase clothing or household goods. We have housed and continue to house the homeless, and some of those who have stayed with us have found the mental and physical strength to begin rebuilding their lives. We have taken in refugees, fellow squatters who have been forced to close down their own community projects because of the will of property developers. We have helped immigrants to access language and maths tuition. Meals have been cooked here to be distributed to people who need them. Many people have felt empowered here to take control of and shape their own lives and community. Many people have found comfort or respite here. Many people call this place home, even if they spend only a few minutes a week here.
Kentish Town is a real community, and it is an immensely strong and important one because of the compassion and resourcefulness of its residents. But there is little space here for those residents to meet, to exchange ideas, to get to know each other and build lasting social networks. Due to government funding cuts, community centres and social resources are struggling to meet the needs of local people. Meanwhile, a rise in business rates has meant that independent traders are being forced to close at an alarming rate, leaving the high street open to exploitation by corporations (the only ones who can afford to pay the new rates) not based in the community, and therefore with little concern for the wishes and requirements of those who are. Many people I have spoken to in the last few weeks have expressed concern over the future of their high street.
Sports Direct, the owners of the building we occupied in order to carry forward this project, would now like to evict us. Last week we were taken to court, and, predictably, we lost. The buildings owners plan to demolish the existing structure and build a block of 8 flats in its place. But flats for who? For low-income families in desperate need of sufficient housing? Given the housing trend in north London, which seems biased in favour of those earning a high wage and able to pay exorbitant rents, one can only assume that upper middle class incomers, not local residents, will benefit. And, of course, the pockets of the managers at Sports Direct will grow slightly fatter. But how does any of this benefit local people?
There is a clear need for the existence of places like the Kentish Town Solidarity Space. Places like this cut down social isolation, build community resilience, provide a forum for locals to gather and plan for their community, to learn new skills, to exercise their creativity – all things conducive to good mental and physical health, and therefore community health. We would not have such an issue with our impending eviction if a similar grassroots, community-led, independent initiative existed nearby, but it simply doesn’t. And so, once again, the interests of big business are placed before those of human beings. Sports Direct should be ashamed – not just for the people who slept on the doorstep of their empty property for many months, but for evicting an entire community from a building they are putting to far, far better use than Sports Direct ever did.
We at Camden Homeless Solidarity would like to continue to do what we are doing. We would like to continue to work closely with residents of Kentish Town to improve this neighbourhood for everyone. We would like to continue to help, in whatever small way, those who have found themselves without a roof over their heads. We would like to continue to promote creativity, unity and solidarity, but this is difficult without a base from which to operate. And so we call on Camden council, on local businesses, on individuals, to help us. We, as Kentish Towners, need a space. With so many empty properties in the Borough, so much unused, poorly-maintained retail and office space, we feel it is only fair that the community is given something to replace what they stand to lose when we are evicted.
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