Squatters vs nuns: The raid on the Shadwell homeless shelter
Homelessness activists took over a former convent, and then police closed in
Morning — squatting has become a lost art in London. The idea of something like Frestonia — a community of squatters in Notting Hill declaring themselves an independent republic in the 1970s — happening today is unthinkable, given the city’s housing shortage. But this week that Frestonian spirit re-emerged in east London, when squatters who had taken over a former convent to house the homeless were raided by police. That’s after your Sunday briefing below.
Plus: false claims about the capital’s hospitals, while hype builds for London’s answer to the Met Gala.
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What we’ve spied
🏥 Slim pickings for London as the Conservatives’ pledge for 40 new hospitals in England unravels. Last week health secretary Steve Barclay announced the government was shelving eight projects planned under the 2019 manifesto pledge, including the rebuilding of St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, parts of which date back to 1845. The hospital is in a sorry state — over the last year ceilings have collapsed in two wards and sewage has leaked into its pharmacy. But Barclay tried to offer some consolation by claiming two London hospitals were already getting a refurb thanks to the pledge: more temporary wards in Charing Cross and a cardiac recovery hub at Hammersmith. It now turns out that’s not entirely true — the trust that manages those hospitals, Imperial College Healthcare, has told the BBC no work has started at either site. Whoops.
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🛏️ A central London hotel has offered asylum seekers more space after they protested against their cramped living conditions. On Friday about 20 people could be seen on the pavement outside the Comfort Inn in Pimlico, using suitcases to block the entrance. They had been transferred to the hotel from Essex, but when they arrived they were told their new accommodation would mean four people sharing a single room with two bunk beds. One of the protestors, a 27-year-old Iranian, told reporters outside: “Two square metres is not enough for sleeping four people. And when you go to the toilet, the smell damages you”. The hotel has now agreed only a maximum of two will share.
👯🏼♀️ Look away if you can’t bear London’s socialite scene — the capital is getting its very own answer to New York’s Met Gala this autumn. Well, kind of. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour is billing the upcoming ‘Vogue World’ event as essentially a London Met Gala — an annual fundraising event for art museums in New York that’s known as “fashion’s biggest night”. London’s version will have quite a few differences though. For one, you don’t have to be a celebrity to attend, but you do have to pay £150. It's also being held at a theatre, rather than a museum. Still, it’ll be stuffed full of stars, with Stormzy, Sir Ian McKellen, Victoria Beckham and Naomi Campbell all set to be there. Sadiq Khan has also managed to bag himself a "pivotal role" in the proceedings, and even features in the TikTok teaser video.
🚇 TfL has confirmed it’s moving forward with plans for an eastward extension of the DLR. The extension would link Gallions Reach to Thamesmead and create two brand new stations: Beckton Riverside and Thamesmead Town Centre. Confirmation of the move came in an update to the mayor’s transport strategy, which said that TfL will now be formally submitting its proposals to the government. Assuming it gets the green light from the government, TfL now estimates that services could be operating by the early 2030s.
💸 Thumbs are twiddling over in Croydon, as the borough nervously waits to hear if it’s getting its humongous debt written off. The council has now told the government it needs to know by autumn if it’s getting a bailout for a third of its £1.6bn debt, which was racked up by dodgy housing investments and now costs £47m a year to repay — at the expense of local services. It’s also why councillors were given special permission for a 15% rise in council tax this year, the biggest hike in England. “This is not something we will be able to fix alone,” Croydon mayor Joe Perry wrote to the minister for local government, Lee Rowley.
🏊♀️ The re-opening of Tooting Bec lido has been delayed after ‘buried asbestos’ was found at the site. The lido is currently undergoing a £4m revamp, which will see it kitted out with a new UV water filtration system, new pumphouses and a new electrical substation. The renovation was supposed to finish this summer, but will now drag on to later this year.
Squatters evicted from convent in Shadwell
Through a window, we see around 30 police officers equipped with riot masks and shields, walking in single file. A neighbour is filming them as they line up outside 88 Hardinge Street in Shadwell, where they’d shortly be evicting 29 squatters using the former convent as a homeless shelter.
On the morning of Thursday, June 1, the Met Police closed down the Autonomous Winter Shelter (AWS) in east London. Described as a shelter “run by homeless people for homeless people”, AWS had been occupying 88 Hardinge Street since November last year. Across the building’s five floors, they had created 25 bedrooms for up to 40 rough sleepers to use during the coldest months of winter. The activists fed them with a pay-what-you-can cafe and a free shop. They put on educational workshops, on topics like sewing or self-defence. They had even created a library.
What they didn’t have was permission. From 1859 until recently, 88 Hardinge Street had been the home of a group of Catholic nuns known as the Sisters of Mercy. It’s now a global network of 6,000 nuns, but the Sisters of Mercy were originally formed in Ireland in 1831 to serve those in need. One of their most well-known projects in London was established not too far from their convent in 1860 — Providence Row, a homeless shelter and housing organisation that last year supported around 1,200 people.
But at some point, the Sisters of Mercy decided to leave 88 Hardinge Street, and the building was left empty while it was put on the market. For exactly how long isn’t clear — the Sisters of Mercy did not respond to the Spy’s requests for comment. But by September of last year, the AWS had discovered the convent was in disuse. The group was already squatting at a building on Westminster Bridge Road in Lambeth, but when that owner took legal action against them in November, they were ready to make the move to Shadwell.
In December 2022, a month into AWS’s squat, the Sisters of Mercy filed a report with the Met. For the next few months, officers would attempt to visit the building and speak with the occupants, but the force says it was denied entry. Eventually, on April 30, the Met delivered a letter, which warned: “If you do not vacate the building within 21 days of the date of this letter then the Metropolitan Police Service will take further action and you may be subject to arrest.”
The legality of squatting in England depends on what you’re squatting in. As of 2012, it’s a criminal offence to squat in a residential building, under Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment Offenders Act. It can lead to six months in prison, a £5,000 fine, or both. But squatting in a non-residential building or land is not in itself a crime. Police can still take action if a squatter commits a crime when in the building, like damaging the property or stealing from it, and the owner can use the courts to get their property back. But just squatting isn’t itself illegal.
That’s why AWS believed it had the law on their side — they didn’t see the Convent of Mercy as a residential building. They pointed to commercial spaces downstairs and its industrial-sized kitchen. Unfortunately for them, the Met disagreed.
The alarm went up at around 10am on the day of the eviction. “URGENT CALL-OUT FOR OBSERVERS: Riot police have entered 88 Hardinge Street and we need supporters down here ASAP!”, the shelter tweeted from its Twitter account, attaching photos of the police outside. Soon various activist groups were spreading the message on social media, and a crowd was on its way to protest the eviction.
There’s no footage from inside the raid, so all we have to go off are witness accounts and the Met’s statement. The main accusation against the force is that it was too heavy-handed as it removed the 29 people found in the building. One rough sleeper, Zion, 21, from the West Midlands, had been staying at AWS for the past few weeks. She told MyLondon: “They were knocking on the door and said they were here with a form that somebody needs to sign. I said 'what form, who needs to sign it?' They kicked the door in so I ran off and sounded the alarm.
“I went to get my friend's stuff. I was coming down the stairs. They said you can't come out, we need to go through the rooms. I said I'm ready to come out so they brought me down the stairs. They dragged me out but I said I can walk. They would not even let me put clothes on. They dragged me out in my underwear.”
Another allegation against the Met is that it knocked one person inside the building unconscious. The force has so far only said the person “fell ill”, but that it will also be reviewing the incident. “We are aware that one of the occupants fell ill while police were in attendance,” it said in a statement.
“He was given first aid at the scene by officers prior to the arrival of the London Ambulance Service who took him to hospital. We understand he has since been discharged. As is routine in such circumstances, we will review any interaction police had with the man prior to him becoming ill.”
There was one interaction caught on film though, outside the building. A man can be seen attempting to get away from police, but a scuffle ensues and protestors shout for officers to “get off him”. When he makes a run for it he’s tackled to the ground, with witnesses later reporting he was bruised.
In the end, the Met made no arrests at the eviction. The force’s superintendent for neighbourhoods in central east, Andy Port, went on to say: “We are aware of concerns raised both via social and mainstream media, particularly around the fact the address was being used as a homeless shelter and that police attendance appeared to be “heavy-handed”.
“Whilst we have sympathy for those who were using the premises, ultimately they have been acting outside the law in occupying the venue. As well as acting on the wishes of the owner, more importantly, we have taken this action in response to a growing number of complaints and concerns reported to us by local residents.”
That last point — about reports of antisocial behaviour from some local residents — has also drawn some controversy. Some of those who lived nearby who went to watch the raid disagree, with one telling Sky News: “I feel like they’re fabricating that. [The Met] came to knock on my door yesterday asking questions about them. And I said I’d not heard anything from the residents.”
She went on to say: “Another empty building in London that could be used for something good and now no one’s in there. It’s sickening.”
As we mentioned, the Sisters of Mercy did not respond to the Spy’s request for comment. But if you fancy figuring out a legal use of the convent yourself, you can see its online property listing here. You’ll just have to make sure you’ve got at least £2,500,000 spare first.
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