Summer of Action: Why we reclaimed an empty council flat
Friday, July 15, 2016
East End Sisters Uncut have reclaimed an empty council home in Hackney to highlight the need for access to social housing for survivors of domestic violence. We are following in the footsteps of our sisters in the refuge movement, who squatted empty buildings in order to use them to provide sanctuary for women and children fleeing violence, with nowhere else to go.
‘He went into court Monday morning. He stood there, he cried, told them how sorry he was, that he’d had too much to drink and lost his temper. And so they let him out. On the following day, I got the biggest hiding I’d ever had.
‘It wasn’t until I had the fourth one that I tried to get somewhere. But I couldn’t get any help. I was told they would put the children in care, and me in a hostel, but that was no good. I wanted the children with me.’
In 1970, this was the reality for women living with violent men, trapped in relationships and circumstances that they could not leave. The issue of domestic violence was simply not discussed. Survivors had no one to talk to, and nowhere to go. Those few who felt able to seek help were either sent back to the men who abused them, or resettled in inappropriate accommodation, often separated from their children and isolated in B&Bs and hostels. This situation was untenable. Traumatised and vulnerable, these women would often return to their abusers – some eventually to be killed.
It was in this context that the first women’s refuge was set up in Chiswick in 1971 at 2 Belmont Terrace. It was a four bedroom, short-life property leased by Hounslow Council to a group of women for community use as a space where women could congregate and talk about their problems. One day, early on in the project, a woman turned up at the house with her children, desperate and looking for somewhere safe to stay.
‘When she said ‘no one would help me’ I knew what she meant, and I knew she had to stay.’
Word spread and women flocked to the refuge. Despite the size of the house, it managed to accommodate around 40 women and their children. All they had to begin with was a number of boxes and one table, and a house in disrepair. Over the coming months, the women worked together to make the house liveable; decorating, fixing and gardening.
This was the first time that abused women had a space to gather together and form a community, breaking the cycle of violence and preventing isolated women from returning to their abusers. The establishment of a daily routine was important, providing constancy and stability. After the children left for playgroup, a house meeting was held to discuss matters relating to the women’s aid. Women would then support each other in running errands and attending important appointments with solicitors and the law courts.
‘The power of the early refuge movement was in the vision of sisterhood that it created – one that displaced the patriarchal family as the legitimate protector of women.’
Eighteen months after its founding, the house was earmarked for demolition, and the refuge relocated to larger premises which had been donated privately. But an open door policy and the ever increasing demand for the type of safe housing that the refuge provided meant that there was a continual need for more space.
As a result of the ‘no woman turned away’ policy, the refuge’s government grant was withdrawn due to overcrowding. Rather than alleviate the problem by providing more space, the council withdrew vital support. And so, in 1975, in what was described as a ‘terrific exercise in planning which involved the whole community,’ the women’s refuge squatted the empty Palm Court Hotel in Richmond – a building with 46 private suites.
‘We are demanding, we feel quite reasonably, rational changes in thinking, in policy, in attitudes, and we will go on demanding them even if it means breaking the law. Although the community regrets the need to squat, until more funds and houses are made available, they will continue to do so for the undiminished, and if anything increasing number of women and children who turn up at their door.’
When asked about the dereliction of the property that the women had taken over, the reply was simple and powerful:
‘This place will grow around the people who live in it.’
Out of a four bed terrace grew a national movement, which met the needs of survivors for the first time, mobilised public opinion, and made the first demands for specialised government funding for domestic violence services.
In 1973, the first Women’s Aid refuge opened in Hackney, and by 1974 there were a total of 35 refuges across England and Wales, which came together to form the National Women’s Aid Federation. Many more refuges continued to be set up throughout the decade and squatting was a key means of establishing safe spaces. This galvanized local authorities to find dedicated spaces for women’s services in Manchester, Nottingham, Grimsby, Canterbury, Birmingham and Solihull. Refuges spread to Northern Ireland and as far as Australia. As a direct result of these actions, the services that we have today were established.
Forty years later, domestic violence is still an epidemic within our society. Two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner. But the services created to protect us are now in the process of being violently dismantled by the state; at least 34 specialist refuges have closed since 2010.
These spaces were not given to us. We seized them, we built them, we made demands and we made communities, and this set a precedent which extended across the world.
The government is trying to tear away the communities and sanctuaries we built for ourselves, but we refuse to let them. We have a right to homes free from violence, it’s time to fight for them.
East End Sisters Uncut
NB Quotes, unless otherwise specified, are taken from ‘Memories’, a documentary on the Chiswick Refuge Centre.
 Janice Haaken, ‘Hard Knocks: Domestic Violence and the Psychology of Storytelling’, 2010.