These Nuns Helped the Homeless Until They Showed Up On Their Doorstep

Sisters of Mercilessness.

by Rivkah Brown

30 May 2023

A building with a redbrick facade, shuttered ground floor windows and a white stone Mary affixed to it is covered almost entirely with a banner made of old clothes sewn together
The Autonomous Winter Shelter at 88 Hardinge Street, formerly the Convent of Mercy. Rivkah Brown/Novara Media

The white stone Virgin Mary affixed to 88 Hardinge Street in Shadwell, east London, looks embarrassed. Dwarfed by a banner that almost covers the building’s facade, flanked by two black flags, the statue is a visual metaphor for the limits of charity.

The banner, an epic 20ft by 10ft patchwork of old clothes made to look like hanging laundry, proclaims the building the Autonomous Winter Shelter (AWS). “This is ours,” it reads. This puts the banner in something of a dispute with Mary, whose presence is a reminder that the building is, in fact, hers – and that, awkwardly, she wants it back.


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In September, a group of anarchist housing activists discovered the disused convent and decided to open it up as a homeless shelter using squatting law. Unlike most squats, which centre on a relatively small, relatively fixed group of residents, this one would have an open-door policy: anyone could come and, as long as they adhered to an agreed-upon code of conduct, could stay as long as they like.

88 Hardinge Street, which houses up to 40 people in around 25 bedrooms spread across five stories, is the third, largest and longest-standing “autonomous winter shelter”. The AWS project started in Farringdon in the winter of 2021 to house rough sleepers over the coldest months of the year (in England and Wales, two homeless people died every day in 2021, up 53.7% since 2013), lasting around four months before it was evicted.

The second AWS, on Westminster Bridge Road in Lambeth, opened in September last year, and closed just two months later after the Monaco-based real-estate investment firm that owned the building took legal action to repossess it. By this point, however, AWS 3.0 was already up and running.

Bill* has been involved in all three shelters. Among the first things he did after securing the building was pin his details to the front door so that the owners could contact him to discuss the terms and length of their stay. A couple of days later, he got a call: it was Brian Kervick, property surveyor for the Union of the Sisters of Mercy of Great Britain (USMGB). The group was in luck, Bill thought.

Serving the needy.

The Sisters of Mercy was established in Ireland in 1831, its convent on Hardinge Street not long after in 1859. Today, its global network of more than 6,000 nuns focus their work on the alleviation of poverty and in particular, homelessness: the very first Sister of Mercy, Catherine McAuley, used her inheritance to build a women’s homeless shelter.

Historically, the UK branch of the organisation has taken up McAuley’s legacy with enthusiasm: a year after the Hardinge Street convent was founded, in 1860, the Sisters of Mercy supported the establishment about a mile away of Providence Row, a homeless shelter and housing organisation that last year supported over 1,200 people. In their report to the Charity Commission last year, USMGB cited its continued work with Providence Row, as well as its members’ work collecting clothing for the homeless, helping in soup kitchens and volunteering at a homeless day centre.

As well as the more typical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the Sisters of Mercy also takes a fourth, less typical vow: service to those in need. The group certainly has the resources to serve the needy: the UK branch of the organisation had over £74m in reserves at the end of 2022, as well as almost £62m in assets.

“I was happy when [Kervick] called,” says Bill. “We have a bunch of homeless people, it’s just before Christmas … we were expecting support.”

“I told him everything about our project,” says Bill – the 40 people they were housing (including six survivors of the Shadwell fire), the pay-what-you-can cafe and free shop, the food kitchens and daily workshops. At first, Kervick sounded sympathetic. But the conversation soured quickly.

Landlord tricks.

“He tried to pull off some typical landlord tricks,” says Bill. “He was like, ‘Oh, homeless, I like what you’re doing – but we’re going to take out the windows, because they’re very old.’” Kervick then said there was a gas leak, which Bill is sure there wasn’t (they had switched off the gas, in any case), and that there was lead in the pipes. “Then he got angry and told me not to contact him ever again.”

A couple of months after Kervick called, the police paid a visit to AWS, saying they’d had information from the owners that the building was residential (UK squatting law permits the squatting only of non-residential buildings). After Bill explained that the building was in fact a mixed-use commercial building, the officers left, seemingly satisfied. The AWS organisers were therefore confused when, in late April, they got a letter from the Met, threatening them with arrest if they didn’t leave within 21 days. When I contacted Kervick for comment, he told me that this was a police matter and hung up.

M*, 28, was on the verge of returning to her home country before she came across AWS; she’d never squatted before. In a text to Novara Media, she says that the police letter left her an emotional wreck: “I feel like crying constantly. I don’t know why we can’t be here.”

“They want to erase us, the police, the bailiffs, just to protect this empty building,” she adds. “God knows for what.”

A letter from the Metropolitan police
The letter from the Metropolitan Police to the residents of the Autonomous Winter Shelter. Photo: Autonomous Winter Shelter

After absorbing the shock of the letter, the shelter dealt with it in the way anarchists do best: by throwing a party. Last week, AWS hosted a packed schedule of events, from queer bash back (self-defence and de-escalation techniques) to parkour, culminating in a street party last Saturday. They toured locals around the building, dispelling myths about squatters and sharing the work they’d been doing; they put on a massive spread whipped up in the building’s industrial kitchen. When I visited the squat in late May, the mood was bright, the residents still buzzing after the previous week’s festivities.

Scribbles, 25, came to the shelter a couple of weeks ago, when he became homeless after breaking up with his girlfriend. He’d never squatted before. “I thought squats were filled with nasty people, people who want to take, take, take and don’t want to pay for anything,” he tells me, “but it’s actually filled with people who want to give, give, give.”

He says he was shocked by the generosity of people with so little: “People have always got space, will always feed you, will always try to support you,” he says. Since living in the squat, Scribbles says he’s kicked an addiction to methamphetamines and GBH; got back in touch with friends from whom his addiction isolated him; and reconnected with his creative side: he recently started Tattoo Tuesday, offering pay-what-you-can tattoos to anyone who wants them.

“Living as a marginalised person … you internalise being invisible,” says M. To learn through living at AWS “that we can take up space and that we’re allowed to exist” has been therapeutic, she says: “We have to keep reminding ourselves the first month that we can unpack … I can hang things … I can be a person and exist in this space, and it’s okay.”

A stained glass window with a sign in front of it that says 'Acab'
One of the windows at the Autonomous Winter Shelter (AWS), formerly a Catholic convent. In a call with AWS organiser Bill, the landlord’s property surveyor Brian Kervick threatened to remove these windows, citing their value. Rivkah Brown/Novara Media

The threat of eviction seems to have subsided for now: after a meeting with AWS organisers, Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman wrote to the police telling them to back off, endorsing a previous email to the Met from the Advisory Service For Squatters (ASS) that said: “In the circumstances … police intervention … would clearly be inappropriate and we would suggest unlawful.” The Sisters could still evict the shelter through the civil courts, however; Sister Geraldine, the head of the congregation, did not respond to Novara Media’s multiple requests for comment.

If the Sisters do let AWS stay, “I have loads of plans for the place,” Bill tells me. “I’m a gardener, landscaper and construction worker. I want to build a garden on the roof and plant some edible flowers.”

A church spire overlooks a wall covered in Ivy
The walled garden of the Autonomous Winter Shelter, overlooked by the chapel of the former convent. Rivkah Brown/Novara Media

It’s almost summer. As its name suggests, the Autonomous Winter Shelter has significantly outlived its own life expectancy. As residents brace for a court battle, the shelter is training them to be – as its name also suggests – autonomous: to scout and open squats of their own.

“The Autonomous Winter Shelter was designed to be part of an autonomous network of shelters,” says A*, another AWS organiser. “It’s introducing people to squatting, and referring them to ASS, who have so many resources to teach people how to legally and practically squat.”

In this sense, the fate of AWS is not in the Sister of Mercy’s hands. Relying on neither the church nor the state’s help, this group of anarchists is doing it for themselves; “we take care of us,” says M. In fact, suggests Scribbles, “I think the government should look at us as a model for how stuff should be done.”

*Names have been changed.

Additional reporting from Charlotte England.

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.

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