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Squatters make home in the heart of inequality

United Kingdom

Neo, resident of Iffley Road Open House, with community donated clothes on wooden palettes. The building was formerly a VW garage. by Vanessa Baird

Vanessa Baird reports on how a disused garage near her Oxford home has become a beacon of hope.

There's a sign reading 'solidarity'. On the opposite side of the disused garage, an elderly homeless man is painting a portrait on a vast canvass.

Donated clothes have been arranged in neat piles on pallets. A stack of shelves hold donated food. A gender-free bathroom boasts a shower, towels and toilet paper. A dog sleeps circled up on a cushion while residents go about their activities.

A couple of people are cooking in a cosy kitchen has been rigged up, complete with microwave, table and fairy lights. Someone is watching a donated TV in the impromptu hardboard living room, thrown up buy a local carpenter.

Suddenly the empty two-storey former VW garage – that for years I've walked past thinking 'this is obscene in a city with an acute housing shortage' – looks like home. A shelter for homeless people on an evening that weather forecasters are predicting 'snow thunder'.

Photo by Chris Spannos

In the past year the number of people sleeping rough in Oxford has risen by 50 per cent, the local council forced by government cuts to slash homeless support by 38 per cent.

Neo, who is helping to organize the squat on East Oxford's Iffley Road says: 'We're not here to be a thorn in anyone's side. It's a humanitarian issue. We just want to get people a place to stay during the winter. Then we will leave. '

The squatters have said as much in a meeting with Oxford University's Wadham College, which owns the site. (Henry McGarth, the homeless painter, is hoping to sell the college a magnificent cityscape he has completed.) But, it turns out that it is the Midcounties Co-operative – which has a convenience store just yards away – that has a lease on the site and has started legal action to evict the squatters.

'The only real crime is keeping a building empty in a city where more than 100 people have to sleep rough every night'

Maxine, one of the volunteers says: 'We were a bit thrown. We thought we were dealing with Wadham and then this legal notice came from the Co-op.' A hearing is scheduled for Oxford Magistrates Court on Friday. The squatters are trying to get a postponement in order to develop their legal case for staying put.

Wadham College is apparently concerned about 'health and safety' issues relating to the ground floor former garage, though the squatters have had it safety checked by an electrician. They have also contacted the electricity provider to arrange to pay for the power they use.

Photo by Vanessa Baird

'The ground floor is not ideal as living quarters,' concedes Maxine, 'but it's a lot better better than sleeping out in this weather.' The 11 flats above, meanwhile, are fine.

At present, about 15 homeless people are living in the building, and there is a rota of volunteers. Basic 'guidelines' are in place – Neo baulks at the word 'rules'. Residents need to respect each other and it's a 'dry house' – no drugs, no alcohol. Priority has been given to single women and older people.

A musician and rough sleeper who has worked with homelessness charities for years, Neo was alerted by activists who secured the building on New Year's Eve. 'I'm thinking we could accommodate about 25 people here,' he says.

Donated food. Photo by Vanessa Baird

One of the most encouraging aspects of the squat has been the overwhelming support that has come from local residents. Donations of food and clothing have been flooding in. 'It's been amazing. People have been really generous. And our petition has attracted over 4,000 signatures,' says Maxine.

'But now is a critical time,' she adds. 'We are in limbo. We need the Co-op to drop their legal action.'

Wadham has a reputation for being one of the more politically progressive Oxford colleges, while the Co-operative presents itself as an ethical retailer that helps communities.

Let's see how each lives up to their image.

The site is due for demolition in March, after which it will be redeveloped by Wadham College as student accommodation. 'The timing is good,' says Neo.

Maybe both Wadham College and Midcounties Co-operative will draw inspiration from Oxford residents and others who are supporting the squat. When it comes to housing the only real crime is keeping a building empty in a city where more than 100 people have to sleep rough every night.

And maybe, maybe, in spite of draconian laws to prevent it, we are seeing a re-emergence of squatting as an effective grassroots, self-help way of tackling the profound inequality that is homelessness.

Take action:

You can sign the petition to support Iffley Open House.

Urge Midcounties Co-operative to act according to their principles and drop their legal action to evict homeless people from Iffley Road Open House/former VW garage.

Look out for a special issue of the New Internationalist on Homelessness in the near future.

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