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‘I’m worried where these people will sleep’ says MP after riot police evict homeless shelter in a squat

Riot police evicted 29 people from the east London shelter, which was set up in a former convent

A London MP has raised fears of police exacerbating homelessness in the capital after officers in riot gear removed residents of a homeless shelter set up by squatters in a convent.

Around 100 riot police with helmets and batons descended on the Autonomous Winter Shelter in Shadwell, east London, on Thursday morning, removing 29 occupants of the building, according to police.

However, one resident of the shelter said over 40 people faced homelessness as a result of the raid.

It had previously housed some survivors of a fatal fire in an overcrowded flat in Shadwell after the council stopped providing emergency accommodation.

Amid reports that one occupant was knocked out after police entered the building, the Met Police said in a statement that one man “fell ill”, was taken to hospital and subsequently discharged, and that it would be reviewing any interactions officers had with the man.

Lutfur Rahman, the mayor of Tower Hamlets, previously wrote to the Met quoting advice that police intervention would  “clearly be inappropriate and we would suggest unlawful”, reported Novara Media.

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Those evicted had nowhere to go and were not offered help, said one resident.

“They forced everyone to move a few streets down and just didn’t care for them to be left outside”, the resident told The Big issue, who claimed police “brutalised and terrorised” residents.

Apsana Begum, the Labour MP for Poplar Limehouse, said she had attended the scene of the eviction and was supporting those affected.

“My team and I are doing the best we can in terms of related casework, as I am worried about where these people will be sleeping tonight,” she said on Thursday afternoon.

“The rise in homelessness is heart breaking and horrifying. Yet, we are one of the wealthiest countries in the world – there’s no excuse for people to be homeless in the UK.”

The eviction came after a dispute over the status of the building, owned by the Union of the Sisters of Mercy of Great Britain, a charity with a long history of helping homeless people.

On 30 April, police said they had received an allegation that the squatters were breaking the law, and issued a notice to vacate the premises within 21 days or face arrest.

Residents were told their occupation was “contrary to Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2021”, the offence of squatting in a residential building.

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However, under law, only those squatting in residential properties are committing a crime, whereas those squatting non-residential properties commit a crime if they stay in a property after a court order to leave has been put in place.

The Met said it had received a report from the building’s owner in December 2022, as well as complaints from locals of anti-social behaviour. In a statement, the force said it had previously sent officers to the property “with a view to speaking with the occupants” but that “entry was always refused”.

The Big Issue has contacted the Union of the Sisters of Mercy of Great Britain for comment.

Overcrowding is rife in the capital and wages have largely failed to keep pace with inflation. Letting agents Foxtons said almost 30 applicants were competing for each property in London in September 2022 and official government figures in February showed two-thirds of tenants said they’re rent had increased in the last year, a third by more than 10%. 

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As police moved in to clear the building on Thursday, crowds grew in support of those being removed.

One local told The Big Issue she had got off the train after seeing the police presence, and was outraged at what was happening.

“I don’t know where they are going to go,” the woman, who gave her name as Asfaw, said. “I can’t think of anywhere else that could possibly help them.”

The Big Issue visited the scene of the eviction as multiple police vans slowly drove away from the area. It was quiet, with little trace of what had happened in the hours before. 

The doors of the building were shut with one local resident lingering outside, peering through windows to see what was going on and speaking about how happy she was the squatters were gone. 

Another person arrived, wearing a mask, responding to calls for people to come and show their support. The pair got into a squabble but otherwise it was quiet on the streets of Shadwell, as if nothing had happened that morning.

The shelter was the third iteration of squats operated by the Autonomous Shelter Network, which aims to provide the vulnerable with a place to stay during the cold months.

A previous Autonomous Winter Shelter in Lambeth was shut down in November 2022 after residents were issued with an Interim Possession Order.

The Met’s superintendent for neighbourhoods in central east, Andy Port, said: “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. We did not want it to come to the point where we have had to escort individuals from a premises, but attempts to engage with the group had proved unsuccessful.

“In terms of our attendance [Thursday] morning, because of the lack of engagement from those inside it was difficult to know how many people were present, so we had to prepare accordingly. No one was arrested.

“As police officers, we are here to serve our communities and uphold the law, but I know that this incident has understandably raised questions and concerns from those who may be unaware of the background and context. As such we will continue to be open and transparent with the public in explaining the reasons behind our actions.”

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