London's homeless evicted from makeshift centre as snow returns

Some 200 people used the Sofia Solidarity Centre in capital's West End, which had launched when cold snap first hit.

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    Stush is worried for himself and the 160 people who used the centre in the sub-zero weather [Alex Sturrock/Al Jazeera]
    Stush is worried for himself and the 160 people who used the centre in the sub-zero weather [Alex Sturrock/Al Jazeera]

    London, England - People can be like metal, says Stush, who has been homeless on and off for 18 years. 

    When the body stays cold for a long time, warms up rapidly and becomes cold again, it can break and shatter, he explains in London, where the temperature - after a brief respite - has dropped to sub-zero once again.

    Stush is worried for himself and around 160 other homeless people who have found shelter in a disused building in the English capital.

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    They face life back on the streets by Monday afternoon after the County Court at Central London approved their eviction.

    "It's going to be even more poignant and painful knowing that we've had this, knowing we've got to go back out there," Stush told Al Jazeera.

    "We've just managed to warm up and now, even before we go back to being cold again, there's that trepidation waiting for it to come."

    The makeshift shelter - a four-storey building on Great Portland Street - was opened by activists, including grassroots outreach group Streets Kitchen, when snow and sub-zero temperatures gripped the UK at the beginning of March.

    Activists occupied the building when temperatures plummeted in London [Alex Sturrock/Al Jazeera]

    They gained entry to the building through a fire door which, was left unsecured, without causing damage.

    Renamed the Sofia Solidarity Centre, it quickly became the biggest single shelter in the capital and the only indoor space for people sleeping rough that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

    "Everyone is accepted; you walk in the door and you're safe, you're warm," said Steve Broe, who volunteered at the building.

    "There were five or six people staying here on the first night, then there were 40 within two days. Two days later it was 60, and then it went up to about 120 last week. Now we have more than 160 people every night."

    'I'm disgusted'

    Volunteers say the centre has saved lives, with hot food and drinks served around the clock and donations coming in.

    A free shop was set up, from which people took what they needed, such as clothing, shoes, toiletries and sleeping bags.

    Restaurants in the area delivered free hot food, and some local residents gave donations.

    Alex Hanson lives nearby and noticed a spike in the number of people sleeping rough locally.

    "This place seems to me to be a really positive move," he said while dropping off donations. "I'm disgusted people are not being allowed continued access but more importantly that they're not being offered any ongoing support, especially in this weather.

    "These vulnerable people must be looked after."

    On any given day, some 5,000 people in England sleep rough [Alex Sturrock/Al Jazeera]

    The occupation of the commercial block, which campaigners say had sat empty for 15 years, is legal under UK legislation.

    The law states it is not a crime to use a vacant non-residential space until instructed to leave by the owner, police or council.

    That instruction came on March 14, when a judge at the Royal Courts of Justice backed an eviction order from the private owners of the property.

    Al Jazeera has seen a copy of the eviction notice.

    The date on the notice shows it was initiated when temperatures plummeted below freezing and snow lay thick on the ground.

    William, who volunteered and has experienced homelessness himself, said: "People are distressed. They are asking, 'Where are we going to go?'"

    The move comes as rough sleeping in England has risen for seven consecutive years, with almost 5,000 people sleeping outside on any single night, according to the government.

    There have also been reports of a number of homeless people dying in England in recent weeks, including a man in his forties who lost his life metres away from parliament in February.

    Mayor steps in

    Now, those who have sought shelter at the Sofia Solidarity Centre are forced to confront the snow again.

    "There have been more than 160 people here," Stush said. "That's 160 stories, each coming complete with 160 angles and tangents. 

    "But everyone who's come here has benefitted from being here.

    "We've proved that when things need to be done they can without it being so hectic that it seems like the impossible.

    "For now we'll just have to find that quiet corner out there, wherever there's space to bed down."

    The shelter provided a lifeline to London's homeless, serving food and warmth 24 hours per day [Alex Sturrock/Al Jazeera]


    Sadiq Khan, London mayor, had responded to the news of the centre closing, offering anyone affected shelter. 

    Writing on Twitter on March 14, he said: "I want to thank all Londoners who have contacted me in regards to the well-being of residents at 204 Great Portland Street. My team have spoken to Westminster Council & we have made a direct offer of my 'No Second Night Out' service for those rough sleepers who may be moved on."

    Late on Sunday, the mayor, who says he is working with 18 homelessness and rough sleeping charities in the capital, tweeted: "In this freezing weather, our emergency shelters remain open 24/7."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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