Homelessness campaigners threatened with eviction after converting derelict office block into shelter

‘We’re doing no harm. We’re saving people’s lives’

Tackling homelessness in London's four-storey West End squat

Homelessness campaigners who converted a derelict office block into a shelter for rough sleepers in London are facing eviction today as the property owners take them to court.

Volunteers from grassroots group Streets Kitchen occupied the building on Great Portland Street two weeks ago when freezing temperatures blighted the capital. It has since become London’s largest emergency shelter, currently home to more than 100 homeless people.

The four-storey space, which is privately owned but is not currently used as a residential building – meaning the group is squatting but not committing a crime – is being used to provide rough sleepers with a safe place to sleep and eat, as well as being a hub of support for finding employment and reconnecting with family.

The shelter was set up days after a homeless man died in his tent near a church amid freezing temperatures, weeks after being discharged from hospital with pneumonia. Another man died just yards from Parliament weeks before.

But the Streets Kitchen volunteers were served court documents earlier this week stating that they must appear before the Royal Courts of Justice on Wednesday, after the absent owners of the property initiated legal action to remove them.

Dubbed Sofia Solidarity Centre, the shelter has been described as a “harmonious” environment that is “saving lives”. The legal action has prompted fury from campaigners who claim empty commercial buildings in the capital should be opened to house rough sleepers.

Jon Glackin, founder of Streets Kitchen, told The Independent: “Nothing on this scale has happened before. It’s the largest emergency shelter in London at the moment. We’re doing no harm. We’re saving people’s lives.

“We’ve already connected three people to their parents and their homes. We’re trying to seek employment for people. We’re trying to support people in any way we can.

The shelter has been described as a ‘harmonious’ environment that is ‘saving lives’

“People are waking up in the morning and saying it’s the best night’s sleep they’ve had in ages. They’re not in a doorway and someone isn’t going to urinate on them. They’re eating, there’s a community here and people can relax. It’s a safe place for them.”

He said the shelter had “evolved” since it opened, with the general public providing donations and local restaurants delivering meals, as well as homeless outreach services coming to the centre to offer support for rough sleepers.

Little is known about the property developer that owns the building, W1 Developments. But an analysis by the Canary suggests its majority shareholder is registered in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands and that there is a lack of transparency about who owns what is in its property portfolio.

“The owners must be very heartless because the snow would’ve still been on the ground when they initiated proceedings. They tried to put shutters up to hide us,” Mr Glackin continued.

“So many beautiful things are happening here. We’re got everything except for permanency. The amount of empty buildings there are in London… We’ve just housed over 100 people in one. The solution is there.”

Mr Glackin and other volunteers from Streets Kitchen will appear before the County Court at the Royal Courts of Justice, central London, on Wednesday 14 March at 2pm.

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