Since the election, many people on the left have been thinking and talking about how we can respond effectively and meaningfully to five more years of deepening austerity. As police violence and smoke bombs erupted outside Downing Street in the first anti-austerity protest of the new government, the #wecantmarch hashtag was started by disabled people, people of colour, and queer people to highlight ways beyond mass street mobilisations that we can organise resistance that is inclusive, diverse and empowering.
For two years, Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) has been organising around housing, benefits and other poverty issues. Over these two years we have explored ways to make our organising accessible to, and addressing, our diverse needs. People in our group may not have English as a first language, are the sole carers of their children, have mental or physical disabilities, and struggle with all the other difficulties that living in poverty subjects us to.
As part of the London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP), when starting up we found their booklet ‘Building mutual support and organising in our communities’ to be a vital guide. We recommend reading this and hope that some of the insights from our early years are also helpful. LCAP was formed in 2007 as a response to the mass mobilisations around the G8 summits, as a way to do politics in a way that is relevant to our daily lived experiences and for us to begin to take control over our lives.
We’re certainly not the only ones doing mutual support and collective action to meet our basic needs. The last couple of years of the coalition government have seen new groups form using community-organising approaches including London Campaign Against Police and State Violence, Anti-Raids Network, United Voices of the World, and lots of localised housing action groups, including Focus E15 mums and Sweets Way Resists. We’re building our links between our groups and are inspired by their work.
With renewed energy for exploring ways we can provide practical support, action and solidarity for survival and flourishing we hope these points can contribute to the discussion.
1. Direct action.
Like many of the other successful housing campaigns and action groups that have emerged in the last year – Focus E15 mums, Our West Hendon, Guinness Trust Tenants – we know that collective direct action is often the only way to get the housing and benefits that we need and deserve. When LCAP started out, it described its approach to direct action casework: “acting together, disruptively if necessary, is the only effective way to win improvements”. Hearing tales in south London of Hackney housing office pulling down the shutters when they saw Hackney Housing Group (made up mostly of women of colour) descend upon them yet again was one of the inspirations for setting up HASL.
When approaching the housing office, council, landlords, or any other institution with our reasonable demands doesn’t work, we discuss a variety of direct action tactics that we can use to put pressure on them to get our basic needs met. Our direct action tactics have included buddying at the housing office, town hall occupations, eviction resistances and communications blockades.
We make sure that our actions are as accessible as possible to our members’ different needs. Our actions are usually local (so not involving travel costs or tiring long distances), finish before school ends or are in half-term holidays to involve children as well, with activities for them and people taking on childcare. The actions don’t require any specific skill, simply being there as part of the group is enough to make a difference.
And they get results! Whether occupying the town hall to demand someone is housed that day or stopping an eviction, we can see the direct impact of our collective action.
One of our members described our group to her sister: “I call the group the danbang group. In my language – Hindi street language – that means ‘solid’, you are ‘the solid group’. It also means a daring person, who can do everything. If they are evicting people, they resist it, they make a group and stand outside and talk to [the bailiffs and council] so they are not evicted onto the streets.”
Another member describes the direct action we took together: “The group saved my family from another embarrassment of eviction from the bed and breakfast provided by social services. They stood by us, very early in the morning they were in the hotel, pressing all buttons they know that will be useful. Even to the extent of escalating it to Southwark town hall to see the big boss.”
2. Collective support and organising.
We meet twice a month to provide support, information and advice, and to plan action. In these meetings we also plan the running of the group, local campaigns we’re organising that have come from the issues we’re facing in the housing office, and our participation in London or national events and actions.
Organising our mutual support and action together is absolutely key to how we work, and has been affirmed through our experiences of the last two years. Sometimes action can drift away from the collective, leading to problems: an individual might become like a caseworker, resulting in stress and pressure being put onto one person, leading in turn to inferior advice. By contrast, we can see how much more effective and powerful it is when we provide collective support and advice in our meetings.
For example, someone will come to a meeting with an issue and together we will work out what some possible options could be; explain the processes of these; refer to previous similar cases and how these went; and share anger, frustration, outrage and empathy. Doing this as a group allows us to check the courses of action we’ve discussed. We can draw from and build the collective knowledge and experience of ourselves and the group, and the problem itself becomes a problem that we can deal with as a group rather than unsustainable, stressful and alienating one-to-one (unpaid) casework.
As well as taking collective ownership of our issues, discussing them in the group allows people to see directly that they are not alone, that others are going through similar problems and that the issue is systemic.
We wanted to make time together where housing wasn’t the main subject that we discussed as it is in meetings. We celebrated our birthdays and Christmas, and in the last couple of months we’ve just about had the capacity to organise almost monthly community meals or supper/lunch clubs. Through collecting donations from local businesses, we have cooked up large meals to eat together.
We want to make and eat delicious, nutritious food together. As well as struggling for good housing, we know that low incomes mean we can struggle to afford and make good quality food, or have the energy left at the end of the day to make it. We want to politicise and challenge (food) poverty, but we also just want to hang out together. We also want to create a welcoming space for people interested in the group to meet us.
4. Training sessions.
We have regular training sessions so that we can learn and develop as a group. As well as empowering ourselves through learning housing law or skill-sharing how to be a buddy at the housing office, the more people learning means that the group’s capacity grows as more people can volunteer for particular tasks. Our recent ‘how to be a buddy’ skill share was organised to encourage more people to learn about and feel confident to volunteer for this vital role – having a buddy with you at the housing office can be the difference between being turned away with nowhere to go that evening and getting access to the housing you need.
LCAP has supportive lawyers who have run housing law training sessions, and LCAP members have designed and run training sessions looking at homelessness law and role playing how to implement this at housing offices. These workshops have been vital for people to learn the few rights we have, better understand our personal situations and build confidence. Our recent eviction process legal workshop was a great example of radical education, with many people currently going through this process getting an understanding of the legal aspects, and having quite complicated housing law being demystified.
5. Going out and talking with people.
Whilst we’re not as organised as Focus E15 and Sweets Way Resists who have regular stalls every Saturday afternoon to talk with people about housing and share information about their campaigns, we do hold information stalls regularly outside housing offices and job centres. This way we can talk to people about their situations, hand out ‘know your rights’ leaflets and invite them to come to a meeting.
We’ve also organised workshops to talk about HASL and basic housing rights with local community groups including the Skills Network and English for Action. These workshops help to strengthen our links and talk about how we can support each others’ work.
6. Don’t give up!
At the very beginning and even later on, you might have a meeting with yourself and two other people who wanted to set up the group. Or maybe you haven’t had a concrete win in a while. It can always be demoralising and dispiriting if you’re ignored when handing out leaflets, but if you keep on leafleting and speaking with people about their housing issues, leaving posters and leaflets about, people will come along to meetings and want to be involved.
There is a huge housing crisis, and things are getting worse. Doing what you’re doing makes sense; even if it’s tiny, you’re still building important knowledge and infrastructure for when more people get involved.
7. It’s not easy – learn from struggle.
Setting out some of the lessons we’ve learnt probably makes it all look and sound easier than it is. Of course, all these lessons and suggestions have been learnt after failures, frustrations and difficulties which still continue. Organising a local group, even with a decent amount of people involved, still leads to common problems, including: high stress when urgent situations arise, feeling personal responsibility for people’s situations and the urge to try and solve it, and people using the group as a service and not returning to the group once their situation is resolved. Furthermore, social cleansing affects our group too – whilst we have helped secure housing for people, sometimes this has been far away from the group meaning it is difficult for people to continue to be involved, especially if they already have very little time and other pressures.
Homelessness law means that councils only have a duty to provide temporary accommodation for people who meet a narrow set of criteria, so sometimes there isn’t an immediate answer or concrete action that we can do to deal with a situation. And sometimes our direct action does not get the results we wanted; sometimes our occupations are ignored.
Discussing what to do as a group about these issues can help resolve and lessen their impact. LCAP groups meet every three months or so to share experiences between us, and often hearing how other groups have dealt with these issues is helpful and comforting.
Housing action groups are starting and growing across London and beyond, linked together through the Radical Housing Network and LCAP. Other grassroots groups are providing mutual support and fighting against the vicious and serious attacks we face. We’re starting to build tighter links between our groups – with our issues overlapping and interweaving, as many members of HASL have experienced and as the recent Reclaim Brixton day and targets (town hall, Foxtons, job centre, Barnardos – for their links in child detention – and the police station) show. Join your local group!