The occupied house at Sweets Way/Sweets Way Resists
On Wednesday I got a phone call from my friend Liam. He's the kind of person who can usually be found making the tea on the front line of an important struggle somewhere or other in the world. When he gets in touch, it's rarely dull.
24 hours later, I found myself wandering into a cul-de-sac in Barnet. “Wait till you see it”, Liam had said. The Sweets Way estate is a former army barracks, and you can tell: a regiment of brown bricked homes standing to attention, their rectangular windows peering out below tipped beret roofs. The first house on the corner of the estate, though, breaks the uniformity: it's festooned in banners. As I arrived, a tall, skinny man with a hoody and his back to me was photographing the effect: Liam.
Liam gave me a warm hug and led me through the back garden gate, into the sitting room of the occupied house and introduced to Ruth: a young woman who it turned out had been involved in the Focus E15 occupation last year. Moments later, in walked Jasmin, who I recognised as one of the E15 Mums who had come to a UKUncut protest then spoken at the Radical Independence Conference to widespread acclaim.
On the sofa, Liam ran rapidly through the story of the estate: the MoD sold it to a company called Annington in 1996, he told me. Now, everyone's being evicted. He'd found out through Facebook, and rushed there with some friends. When they got there, the people on the estate – also mobilised through Facebook - had come out of their houses and were talking to each other, sometimes for the first time. There were tears and anger at the way they were being treated. As they came together, though, as they discussed their situations with their neighbours and met those who had resisted occupations elsewhere in London, they realised they could do something. They marched round the corner to Barnet Homes, where security guards braced themselves against the revolving doors. It had been half term, Liam told me, and so much of the protest was made up of children. Eventually, a delegation of them got to meet with the agency.
Protest at Barnet Homes/Sweets Way Resists
Barnet Homes confirmed to me that they'd moved one family not just out of the borough, but out of London entirely. One man – an NHS cleaner, whose partner also works in the health service and whose son played the old “shake hand, pull it away” trick on me – says he was told that they wouldn't be rehoused by the council until they had an official court order requiring them to leave their home. The Barnet Homes press office denies this is their policy, but I spoke to more than one person who has somehow been persuaded that it is.
Left in purdah, the family went on the hunt for something else, but they couldn't come close to affording anything in the area on the open market. Last week, when they did finally get a letter telling them to leave their home, they formally requested that the council rehouse them. At this point, the officials informed them that their income was too high, and they wouldn't get any help. Liam redid the sums, and is sure that the council official failed to add up, but for the moment, the family is facing homelessness.
Another woman, Kiraz, had cervical cancer. She's all clear now, but still has certain symptoms which make it hard for her to go up and down stairs. She says she was moved into a house where you have to go upstairs to get to the loo, and was told that if she turned it down, she wouldn't be offered another. Now her husband has stomach cancer, which means he finds steps hard too, but they can't move. Nowhere anywhere near their children's school and their oncologists is affordable.
Barnet Homes confirmed that if someone turns down a home, they won't get help to find one for two years. However, they said that they undertake “a thorough housing assessment of all customers who apply for accommodation. This assessment will identify if an applicant or a member of their household has a disability that affects what kind of property they can be rehoused into. It also informs Barnet Homes as to what is a suitable offer of accommodation and what is unsuitable. If an unsuitable offer of accommodation is made to a customer, it will be withdrawn and the customer made a further offer”. Despite this policy, Liam says stories like Kiraz's are not uncommon.
Walking round the estate, most of the houses were already empty – with metal shutters over the doors and windows to stop any more of them being squatted. But there were still some people around – people who hadn't yet been kicked out. Liam greeted each of them by name, and introduced me to them – one young man had with his parents and three siblings been moved to the estate from another end of North London only three months earlier. Every line of houses had a cluster of bins at the end of it, with people's stuff lying around: the sign of homes evacuated with nowhere to go. In one of those bins, they'd found a passport and family photographs: bailiffs had kicked out a woman who'd just been discharged from hospital with a head injury, and she hadn't been able to gather her stuff. Her son came home from school that day to find it shuttered up.
Residents' property strewn across the estate/Sweets Way Resists
Wandering around, people said the same things. The houses were perfectly good – double glazed, good insulation, no damp, a garden each and plenty of green space. The locals liked living here. Now, people kept saying, the largely empty estate is scary at night.
By the time we got back to the occupied house, kids were home from school, and the activists were running their nightly homework club. Parents were sitting around in the living room and children were playing and studying together. A microcosm of London, their accents implied many, though certainly not all, were first generation immigrants from across the world. But somehow, as their neighbourhood was being torn apart, they'd built a community.
Children in the occupied house in Sweets Way/Sweets Way Resists