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The Autonomous Winter Shelter and London’s Household Insecurity Issue

Staff writer Sean Harvey examines the situation of housing insecurity in London and asks what more needs to be done.

Food and household insecurity has increased the need for autonomous spaces such as the Autonomous Winter Shelter (AWS), which provides a safe shelter for those most struggling by providing food, warmth and clothing. The organisation runs a series of (illegal) ‘squatting shelters’ on unoccupied land. They aim to share experience and knowledge as well as materials to those in need – this is done through their open ‘pay-what-you-can’ café and bookshop, as well as the numerous workshops they host during the week. With household and food insecurity high and increasing in London, this is becoming ever more important.

The AWS was previously located in Westminster Bridge House in Lambeth, but have since moved after the real-estate investment firm Picasso Investments LtD took legal action to repossess the site the shelter was occupying. Picasso Investments ceased operation and dissolved as a UK registered company in January of 2021 and now operate with a headquarters in Monaco. The AWS organised demonstrations to protest the eviction, with gatherings outside the Royal Courts of Justice and their occupied site.

Now the shelter and their Autonomous Café and Bookshop (ACAB) operate from a site near Shadwell, again providing affordable hot drinks and food for anyone – there are also beds for those in need of shelter. Additionally, the space has workshops teaching sewing, bike repair and self-defence, as well as providing education on making herbal remedies to cope with the cold, especially for when prescribed medication is unavailable. An open mic is run every Wednesday from 6pm. They aim to give these spaces, otherwise unoccupied, a positive purpose by promoting well-being to anyone who is struggling.

The current space is occupied by workers, artists and activists who face the constant threat of eviction or persecution as other squats have faced across London. Shelters are predominantly established in buildings with no planned future use or have been empty for extended periods of time prior to occupation. Obtaining a permeant residence in London is increasingly difficult, with limited accessible or affordable housing available. Last year 29,000 social homes were demolished and replaced with only 9,000 new constructs, all the while with over a 1 million households waiting for social housing.

The Wider Issue in London

Homelessness is an inescapable fact in London. There are an estimated 8,329 rough sleepers in London, with a quarter in the main city of Westminster. These figures are only approximations, as exact data is obviously difficult for charities to obtain and verify. This number is down on the two previous years of Covid-19, but remains higher than the rest of the 2010s. Temperatures in London over winter have been consistently under 10°C. Exposure to these temperatures can lead to hypothermia – there were an estimated 198 deaths of rough sleepers in 2021.

With the post-Covid cost-of-living crisis making life difficult for everyone, initiatives sharing knowledge to and protecting those most struggling are even more important. The number of people using food banks in London doubled in the years of the pandemic and reached a high of over 400,000 people between 2020 and 2021.

Food insecurity, where a household or individual are unable to access adequate food, is a growing problem in the UK. In London there are 1.5 million adults and 1 in 6 children living in food insecurity. This issue disproportionality affects households with low incomes as well as people of colour. It is important to remember that the UK is the fifth largest economy in the world.

Coming out of winter is unlikely to bring much hope to those most affected by the cost-of-living crisis, with inflation still at over 9%. Autonomous spaces can provide important shelter for those struggling, especially as housing and food insecurity increases – with little intervention from the government. Sharing knowledge, materials and solidarity will continue to be as important as ever. Providing the most vulnerable with safe and secure shelter is a moral imperative for us all.

Second year International Development

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