Shameful Southwark Council response to Sisters Uncut occupation
Friday, July 1, 2016
The South East London Sisters Uncut occupation of 285 Rye Lane is in full swing. We have opened our doors to hundreds of people to attend workshops about the current state of domestic violence services, take classes like yoga or crafting and use our crèche. The occupation has provided a space for Peckham residents to come together in the fight for our right to safe housing, and Southwark Council have been forced to sit up and take notice. We have been met with nothing but good will and support from local residents, who have come and eaten with us and passed on messages of support.
Southwark Council’s record on providing safe housing to survivors of domestic violence is a scandal. In Southwark there are 1,270 empty council homes, yet the Council turns away 47% of homeless survivors of domestic violence. Sisters Uncut is occupying the empty space at 285 Rye Lane to demand that the local council provides safe, secure housing and support to all survivors of domestic violence in the borough.
Councillor Stephanie Cryan – Southwark Council cabinet member for housing – has responded to our occupation, stating “statistics don’t tell the whole story”. We agree. This week, we have heard the stories behind the statistics; of people fleeing abusive relationships only to be told that they should return to their violent partners, and of women who went to the police for help but were offered no more than a bench in the police station to sleep on. Women are sharing stories of the years of neglect, disrespect and gatekeeping, all from a local authority that keeps people in unsafe homes.
Southwark Council’s ‘specific strategy’ to address domestic violence entails a patronising communications campaign with the hashtag ‘it’s OK to talk’. We agree: it’s essential for survivors to talk about their experiences. One of the most powerful things about our occupation is that many people have come forward to talk about the ways their lives have been affected by violence. But talking is not enough, we need safe housing: how can she leave if there is nowhere to go? We need dedicated, funded services that can provide safe spaces, homes and support for survivors, and time and time again Southwark Council is failing us all. They claim to provide ‘bespoke’ solutions to women trying to flee, yet have cut all funding for BME specialist domestic violence support. These services are absolutely essential to ensure that black and minority women can access support.
Cllr. Cryan claims that Southwark Council supports victims by ‘providing sanctuary and security measures which allow them to stay in their own homes.’ But what about the thousands of women who don’t have their own homes? Southwark Council’s record on housing is abysmal. Where are the homes that women can access for safety? They are not in the Heygate Estate, where our community lost 1214 homes, of which 1,194 were social-rented, and they are not in the Aylesbury Estate where we stand to lose 2,704.
Cllr. Cryan says that Southwark Council help women into temporary accommodation, but she fails to explain that Southwark’s housing allocations policy gives no priority to women who have been made homeless due to domestic violence, Even if their housing need is accepted, they will be trapped in temporary accommodation for months or even years.
Southwark Council is keen to stress that they work with the police, yet Sisters Uncut’s dealings with the police have shown that they are totally unprepared to protect women fleeing domestic violence. When police officers came to the occupation, they asked if they could direct vulnerable women to us, showing their complete lack of understanding of what a domestic violence survivor might need. If Southwark Council are confident that their domestic violence strategy can ‘reduce the risk of harm to a person in a wide-ranging, varied and bespoke way’, why are the police sending women to a direct action feminist group, rather than the services that the borough claims to provide?
Southwark Council knows they cannot ignore survivors of domestic violence any more. Sisters are powerful and dangerous. We are getting organised and fighting back.
The occupation is the first event in our Summer of Action. Watch out Southwark. This is only the beginning.